Well, I had to do it. Hitchcock pick lists saturate the web, but I always find the rankings either too predictable or, when they show thinking for themselves, off-base. So here’s the true definitive Hitchcock pick list. I’m ready to be crucified for it.
1. Vertigo. 1958. Most scholars consider this the crown jewel, and on this point they’re right. The other “#1 masterpieces” — Psycho, Rear Window, or Notorious, depending who you ask — don’t conquer impossible territory like Vertigo, and they certainly don’t match its pristine aesthetic. There are days I honestly think Vertigo is the best film of all time; it’s that transcendent. In a sentence, it’s about a man who wants to bang a woman who’s dead. “He’s indulging,” said Hitchcock in an interview, “in a form of necrophilia.” You could spend tomes unpacking this, and of course critics have; sex and death are the two most humanly obsessive subjects, and in Vertigo they mesh like magic. Jimmy Stewart plays brilliantly against type, self-absorbed and neurotic, molding a woman in the image of his lost love — only to lose her again in the exact same way. He stole this woman, moreover, from the husband who hired him, and the fact that she was really a decoy does nothing to exonerate him since he didn’t know this when he began the affair. That few people liked Vertigo when it was released in the ’50s is unsurprising. David Lynch is an acquired taste too.
2. Rope. 1948. If the top slot were determined by the number of times I’ve seen it, Rope would be there. I’ve honestly lost count over the years; by now it’s something like 14 or 15. Everything about this film is tailored to my tastes: it’s dialogue-driven, occurring in real time; it builds tension at a slow pace, in the claustrophobic setting of a rich apartment; the characters are demented, or at least off-kilter; the subject is morbid. Two college students have killed a classmate just for killing sake, as they consider themselves morally superior and above the law. They then host a dinner party to celebrate their act, and to make it stimulating hide the corpse in an antique chest which they serve food on. The corpse is never caught on camera again, but we feel its crushing presence every moment as it’s right under everyone’s nose. Jimmy Stewart thrills as the professor who espouses Nietzsche’s “superman” concept — until at last so appalled he could have ever thought this way when he discovers what his students have done in his name. His final thundering indictment is directed at himself as much as the killers, one of my favorite climaxes in any film.
3. Rear Window. 1954. In which endless suspense is wrung out of a spying busybody. The key to Rear Window’s success is that we’re in the dark as much as the main character; we see what he sees and no more. Most of this is banal — loneliness, bickering, pointless existence — but our peeping hero isn’t any better, and the film amusingly indicts voyeurism through the accusations of the nurse. Some of my favorite scenes involve the early sparring between Stewart and his nurse, and then Stewart and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly), as they razz each other over their relationship. Stewart’s acting is effortless as always, and he gets not one but two terrific “shut up” lines, whilst Kelly railroads him for his diseased behavior until finally convinced there’s something truly nasty going on across the street. When the murder plot finally revs up, it’s nail-biting in the extreme, and the final sequence — Kelly invading the killer’s apartment, the killer invading Stewart’s — still makes me sweat. Some days I could almost go with Rear Window as Hitchcock’s finest work for sheer perspective.
4. The Birds. 1963. This one is never high enough on pick lists. More than just a special effects film, it’s nihilistic to the core and unapologetic about nature’s savagery. And like the great horror films rarely seen anymore, it has the patience to let its characters breathe and become people we care about before unleashing the terror. And what a terror. The only man-vs.-nature film that shattered me as thoroughly was last year’s The Grey. The wolves in that thriller were fantasy predators like the killer birds on display here, but it doesn’t matter. Wolves, birds, whatever, serve as metaphors for unstoppable biological forces — beasts who suddenly behave in ways we don’t and can’t grasp — and for that reason alone convince. There isn’t a score to speak of, just clever sound effects, and aside from Hard Candy, I can’t think of a modern horror-thriller that’s leaned on such wisdom. The coastal setting is gorgeous. By ’60s standards the bird attack sequences are bloody terrifying. When nature comes after us, says Hitchcock, things aren’t going to turn out okay. I think he’s right, and The Birds is my favorite apocalyptic film.
5. Rebecca. 1940. Du Maurier’s novel may be a Jane Eyre facsimile, but you won’t find me complaining. I love the theme of simple women marrying unpleasant aristocrats who did nasty things to their first wife, whose presence (living or dead) haunts the castle like an invisible predator. The set pieces here are stunning — the west-wing chamber is one of my all-time favorites. The characters are gems too, especially the servant Mrs. Danvers, who could terrify a bull. Joan Fontaine positively cringes under her glare, even paralyzed to tears, and at one point is nearly compelled to kill herself by sheer force of Danvers’ will. There’s a sexual subtext to Danvers’ worship of the late Rebecca, which has been lost on plenty, but then this was the 40s when the theme couldn’t be blatant (just as the novel’s climax had to be lamely adjusted to fit the Hollywood code, so Rebecca’s death at the hands of her spouse was less murder and more accidental). There is some melodrama too, but it works in context, and even the somewhat cliche legal resolution holds up well for delivering the pleasing twists about Rebecca’s character that don’t grow old no matter how many times I see it.
6. Psycho. 1960. If I’d written this list a decade ago, Psycho would have placed in the top five, but these days I notice things that kick it down a notch. First is the baggage owing to its iconic status. I’m usually good at ignoring such baggage when assessing a film, but I wonder if I can really do that for Psycho. The slasher genre looms so absolutely that no matter how we remind ourselves that “Hitchcock did it first and best”, it will always feel a bit B-grade. The other problem is the denouement. The pop-psychology infodump at the police station is not only a completely unnecessary epilogue, but undercuts the terror we should be feeling as the curtain closes; the final act should have been at the motel, period. All the same, Psycho is a mighty achievement and personal favorite for many reasons — the lead character getting slashed so soon in the story, the creepy house overlooking the motel which seems almost supernaturally possessed, and its convincing portrayal of a man with dissociative identity disorder. The casting of Vera Miles for Janet Leigh’s sister is brilliant, as they look so similar and remind of the Kim Novak look-alikes in Vertigo which in that case really were the same person.
7. Dial M for Murder. 1954. As in Rope, the single-apartment setting shows Hitchcock obsessing “the perfect murder”, which in this case would be the title of the ’90s remake (more a spin-off) with Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s dialogue driven with strong rewatch value, because every word counts, and there are so many clues impossible to absorb on first viewing. Somewhat alarmingly, Dial M for Murder isn’t so much about a criminal mastermind as it is plain human nature: the stream of lies and deceptions on Wendice’s part are something we’re all capable of (if not the murder itself), and this is demonstrated rather hilariously by the way the novelist (who’s been engaged in his own deceptions by having an affair with Wendice’s wife) pieces everything together a bit too easily. Special compliments go to the detective-inspector, one of the most entertaining characters in any Hitchcock film; his scolding of the officer about to carry a woman’s handbag out in public is so funny I nearly wet myself every time.
8. Strangers on a Train. 1951. This one takes seriously what scientists know as biologically true, that everyone is a potential murderer, even if few act on their urges. Thus the difference between Bruno and Guy. As in Rope, Farley Granger plays the weaker of a pair involved in a murder-pact, suffused with homoerotic overtones. There are so many famous scenes from this film, like the swiveling heads at the tennis match save the one staring at Guy, the menacing dog at the top of the stairs (which turns out to be a bait-and-switch for what’s really waiting), the kid sister’s cheerfully demented lines (“Oh, Daddy doesn’t mind a little scandal”; “Now that your wife is dead, you’re free of her”; “I think it would be wonderful to have a man love you so much he’d kill for you”) — she basically says what everyone thinks but is appalled to hear voiced. Best of all is the double climax: the nerve-wracking tennis match and killer merry-go-round; the latter ratchets up to an insane speed which was unfaked and could have easily killed the actors, including the kids. Some of whom, incidentally, look like they’re having the thrill ride of their lives, a mockery of everyone else being terrorized.
9. Frenzy. 1972. A return to form after a flurry of failures, this is the only Hitchcock film after The Birds I consider classic. For me it’s the quintessential movie marrying black humor to the macabre, supplying endless laughs amidst so much depravity that I marvel at how much mileage I keep getting from it. The gourmet dinner scenes have me laughing so hard I cry: Chief Inspector Oxford is even better than the inspector in Dial M for Murder, unable to choke down any of the exotic dishes his wife serves up; he can’t even cut them with a knife. He tries his damndest to be a good sport, but breaks down when trying to explain a “pull-in” around a mouthful of rubbery sauteed pig’s feet: “It’s a café frequented by truck drivers, my dear. They serve humble food like bacon and egg sandwiches, sausages and mashed potatoes, and cups of tea and coffee.” As for the story itself, the Necktie Strangler was a perfect villain for the time, as serial killing and rape could be done visual justice by ’70s standards. As in Strangers on a Train, Frenzy depends on orchestrated contrasts between two “friends”, one helplessly taking the fall for the other’s crimes.
10. Notorious. 1946. Considered by some (Truffaut, Ebert) to be the ultimate masterpiece, I take serious issue with that, though there’s no denying Notorious is very good. The camera shots are brilliant; the story is skillfully crafted, and manages to subordinate political espionage to romance in a way that heightens the suspense of the former in subtle ways. Not-so-subtly, it’s a commentary on sexual and emotional abuse in the context of political manipulation, and there are times Ingrid Bergman seems as emotionally raped as Joan Fontaine in Rebecca. On top of this is her gradual poisoning (which in my favorite scene on the bench, Cary Grant contemptuously assumes is her sliding back into alcoholism). Another Rebecca parallel is the figure of Sebastian’s mother, an ogre who somehow epitomizes matriarchal fascism without being cartoonish — as chilling as Mrs. Danvers. The “happy ending” so uncharacteristic of Hitchcock no doubt rides the waves of post-WWII optimism, though Grant’s rescue of Bergman from the clutches of Nazi evil is uplifting in a rather dark way, since she’s still poisoned, and the final note hinges on uncertainty.
Next month: David Lynch.
“There isn't a score to speak of, just clever sound effects, and aside from Hard Candy, I can't think of a modern horror-thriller that's leaned on such wisdom.”
My friend, you oughta see Martha Marcy May Marlene. Just about as gripping as a thriller can be. Or Cache, which is by definition a thriller, but some may argue it's too brainy to be a pure genre piece.
Great post though. I can't comment on all of the films because I haven't seen all of them, but for the most part I agree with your synopses. That expository talkfest at the end of Psycho really is horrendous, both as a mood-killer and as a way of tidily defining the frightening mystery of human behavior. It doesn't bode well for a horror film.
And I'm surprised you thought The Grey was the best man vs. nature horror film since The Birds. As you know, I liked The Grey, but I think it belongs to a pretty fruitful subgenre. Wouldn't Alien count for you? I really liked Contagion recently.
I did see Martha Marcy and really liked it, but I wasn't thinking of that sort of thing by horror-thrillers. Though you're right, it's pretty horrific in its own way. I never thought of Alien as man-vs.nature, no. But I was floored by The Grey and probably love it more than it deserves — even if the wolves are so ludicrously misrepresented. It hit me in a specific way I haven't felt since The Birds, with a distorted picture of savagery that's oddly all the more convincing for it. Wolves behaving like grizzly bears, birds massing like incarnated pterodactyls… this stuff is strong when done right.
Psycho's epilogue really is a problem, and it gets worse each time I see it!
Great post, Loren. I'm Rear Window / Psycho / Rebecca, I think, for my top 3. They are the ones I can watch again and again. Not sure I'm with you on the end of Psycho. The last shot is brilliantly blink-and-you-will-miss-it-chilling.