Hitchcock films
April 23, 2005 5:18 AM   Subscribe

Which films by Alfred Hitchcock are his best?
posted by jimmy to Media & Arts (38 answers total)
Vertigo has always been my personal favorite, but North by Northwest is pretty awesome too. I know some will disagree, but I found Rear Window disappointing (probably because I saw the Tiny Toons version as a kid).
posted by Who_Am_I at 5:26 AM on April 23, 2005

Notorious is my fave.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (He made this one twice, '34 & '56)
North by Northwest
Rear Window
The Birds

...to name a few.
posted by wsg at 5:30 AM on April 23, 2005

Notorious is in a class by itself.
posted by alms at 5:54 AM on April 23, 2005

I'm partial to The 39 Steps.
posted by Zonker at 6:04 AM on April 23, 2005

all of the above, but don't forget some less well-known gems like Foreign Correspondent and Sabotage
posted by matteo at 6:06 AM on April 23, 2005

I also liked Rope; it's an adaptation of a play, and Hitch went out of his way to maintain a sense of claustrophobia. It's not as intense as Psycho or anything, but still worthwhile, I think.

Boy, Marnie was odd. Subdued, a bit slow, and not bad, but peculiar.

Avoid The Trouble With Harry (unless you're a big Jerry Mathers fan) and, I hear, Family Plot.
posted by kimota at 6:22 AM on April 23, 2005

The "best" is always subjective of course, but North by Northwest, Vertigo, Rear Window and Psycho are the obvious picks.

One thing about Rear Window, it's a totally incredible film, but it's one whose impact is diminished tenfold when seen on the small screen. It should be a law of some sort that this movie only be seen in a movie theatre- there's so much detail that gets lost otherwise.

(You could make a case for the other ones obviously, but Hitchcock's reliance on rear-screen projection for some of the special effects has unfortunately dated itself and is more apparent on the cinema screen)
posted by jeremias at 6:25 AM on April 23, 2005

It really depends why you like his work. If it's for the craftsmanship in the direction, the earlier films he did in Britain--especially the black-and-white ones like Strangers on a Train and The 39 Steps--are really some of the most impressive. (Not that the later films aren't also great that way, but these were earlier in his career, when he was really focused on establishing his own visual style. Also, the B&W format really makes the formalism of his composition and lighting stand out.)

If you're looking for his "scary" movies, then Psycho, The Birds and Rope are hard to beat. (For The Birds, though, you have to be able to step into a much-slower mindset, where you can get progressively creeped out by a slow build-up. Most modern folks would find it too slow.)

Finally, if you're looking for rip-roaring entertainment, then NxNW, Vertigo, Dial M for Murder and (either version of) The Man Who Knew Too Much are all great fun. They've all got his amazing visual style, but in those he really focuses on the sheer entertainment value of what he was making.

Again, all of his movies have great visual style, they're all suspenseful, and they're all entertaining--so please no one accuse me of saying that Dial M for Murder isn't stylish or suspenseful. I'm just saying that different movies showcase different strengths.

(Also, don't ignore his TV series, either. They're much more of a throwaway, and not nearly as good as his better films, but still a lot of fun.)
posted by LairBob at 6:57 AM on April 23, 2005

  1. North by Northwest
  2. Rear Window
  3. The Rope (if you're a fan of technical bravado)
  4. Psycho
The Man Who Knew Too Much is a wonderful idea, but I never cared for the execution, in either version.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:02 AM on April 23, 2005

LairBob's answer is such a thoughtful and thorough one that I'm amazed by the one utterly incorrect statement in it: that Vertigo is "rip-roaring entertainment." Vertigo is my favorite Hitchcock precisely because it's incredibly creepy and disturbing. It's totally different in spirit from the madcap fun of North By Northwest.

One tip: when you watch Vertigo, try to see it all the way through, beginning to end, without interruptions. A lot of its power comes from the slow start, and the steady building of creepy atmosphere. If you watch it at home, turn off the ringer on your phones, lock the door, and let yourself get steadily sucked in...
posted by yankeefog at 7:04 AM on April 23, 2005

My favorite is Strangers on a Train. Robert Walker is amazing as Bruno. One of the creepiest performances ever.
posted by agropyron at 7:20 AM on April 23, 2005

My personal favorites are Rear Window and Vertigo.

Ebert also lists as Great Movies Psycho (which I liked, but didn't find so impressive), Strangers on a Train (which I didn't like as much as the others), and Notorious (which I haven't seen yet).

Also, Dial M for Murder was well done, and had very good acting.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 8:03 AM on April 23, 2005

Sorting Hitchcock's Filmography by rating gives a fairly accurate representation of the general consensus about which films are the best.
posted by Arch Stanton at 8:06 AM on April 23, 2005

Shadow of a Doubt. Psychological tension like you wouldn't believe, and unlike most of his later films, the female protagonist Charlie is an actual heroine (on many levels), not yet another frigid brittle "Hitchcock blonde" in mild distress.
posted by Asparagirl at 8:09 AM on April 23, 2005

I think Rebecca is underrated, but then again, I just discovered last week how the original novel by de Maurier actually ended. Too bad Hitch didn't film that ending!

On preview: I see by Arch Stanton's link that Rebecca is #7, so perhaps it's not as underrated as I thought.

The Birds would be my favorite, except I hate the ending. Overall, I would say North by Northwest is his best.
posted by mischief at 8:24 AM on April 23, 2005

I have never been bored like Vertigo bored me, and I like Hitchcock very much. Generally the big ones are kind of disappointing--The Birds, Psycho, even Rear Window, which would be great if anyone else had made it but is only in the middle of the Hitchcock ouevre. My order would be something like:

1. Strangers on a Train
2. Suspicion
3. The Man Who Knew Too Much (Jimmy Stewart)
4. North By Northwest (a wonderful Cary Grant)
5. The 39 Steps
6. Rope (Jimmy Stweart again)
posted by dame at 8:24 AM on April 23, 2005

Oh, I haven't seen Rebecca, but my friend swears by it. So you aren't alone, mischief.
posted by dame at 8:29 AM on April 23, 2005

As others have listed the more familiar works in the Hitchcock canon, I'll chime in to list a couple of his films that I would recommend you view *after* seeing the better known ones.

Secret Agent is very entertaining, having a good portion of the wit of The 39 Steps and an absolutely not to be missed performance by Peter Lorre (who is also brilliant in the 30s version of The Man Who Knew Too Much).

Also, Frenzy is probably the most "adult" of Hitchcock's films. The sex and violence is more explicit than before (as times had become more permissive) and the undercurrent of misogyny evident in his earlier films is more overt. This is not the first Hitchcock film anyone should watch; that said, it has a great story, marking a real return to form for Hitchcock after a string of duds in the second half of the 60s. The performances are great, the dialogue is sharp and witty and it has one of the more satisfying endings of all his films.
posted by filmgoerjuan at 8:33 AM on April 23, 2005

Vertigo is my fave, but I've actually got a special place for Marnie. Someone mentioned above that Hitchcock's use of rear projection looks dated now, but in some cases I think the use of unreal looking effects (rear projection, exteriors that are obvious sound stages, saturated color, etc.) is deliberately trying to suggest an imagined, imperfect world, one where the characters are in psychological turmoil of one kind or another. MArnie is a prime example of these techniques.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:33 AM on April 23, 2005

Vertigo is probably my favorite. I think its his best work too for many reasons. Its carefully composed with so many little details it probably best to watch it on a big screen (like many of his films) You have to let the film take you into its own world.

North by Northwest is the most fun, a suspenseful movie thats a bit of a roller coaster ride and yet also well crafted.

Notorious is incredible and stands apart from the others in many ways. However it does also have that sense of just moving along carefully and then building up to an unbelievable climax (the staircase scene in Notorious still haunts me) but its only because you have been following the movie all along and letting Hitchcock take you into this other world. Hitchcock movies require a bit more patience than modern movie-goers are used to, but man, that payoff is well worth it.
posted by vacapinta at 8:35 AM on April 23, 2005

charade. oh, wait.

well, a while ago I (bought and) watched rope and notorious on the recommendation of glenn erickson, but was not very impressed by either.

however, 39 steps and strangers on a train are absolutely fantastic. also nnw, just classic.

can I interest you in a series of jimmy stewart / anthony mann westerns? 'cos those are pretty phenomenal as well....
posted by dorian at 8:48 AM on April 23, 2005

I saw Marnie last November. I also like it, but that movie is all about character development and I just could not divorce the James Bond character from the mid-60s Sean Connery.

dame: I would LOVE to read your review of Rebecca once you see it.
posted by mischief at 8:51 AM on April 23, 2005

Notorious, NXNW, Vertigo would be my top three but Notorious is miles ahead of anything else he made, imo.
posted by dobbs at 9:03 AM on April 23, 2005

I think it's fair to separate his UK films from his US films when trying to determine which are his best. Regardless, I tend to enjoy his less popular films: The Lady Vanishes, Spellbound, etc.

And don't forget that Hitchcock worked in the silent era as well. Some of those films are kind of cool.
posted by aladfar at 9:04 AM on April 23, 2005

The 39 steps features the most ridiculous use of aircraft in the history of cinematography - that's reason enough to watch it in my book!
posted by blindcarboncopy at 9:05 AM on April 23, 2005

Wait, Dorian, I thought Destry Rides Again was the greatest (Jimmy Stweart) western ever made (and in fact, Marlene Dietrich's Frenchy is the inspiration for Lili Von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles).

Anyway, looking at these lists, it seems there are those who like Hitchcock for the psychological instability first and those who prefer the suspense in service of a good mystery/adventure. (Kind of like the Hammett v. Chandler question in this thread.) Obviously both are present in all the movies, but one usually predominates. In the Vertigo and Birds lovers–camp, people seem to get off on the former and in the North by Northwest and Strangers on a Train camp, the latter. I mean, yes, in Strangers on a Train, Bruno is fucked in the head, but the momentum comes from the chase. Notice Rope appears on both lists and it has the most equality between the two modes.

So maybe it would be good to try one from each general category, then follow up on the lists of the one you prefer.

mischief: Will do. Expect an email in a month or so, as I do love a mission.
posted by dame at 9:10 AM on April 23, 2005

Vertigo is my favorite, too.

I just saw Spellbound a while ago. Not H's best, but definitely a must-see. It has a dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali. It has Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman. It has coffee with an egg in it. And it has all kinds of classic Freudian theory -- stuff that seems shockingly simplistic now but is historically fascinating. It has a schlocky love story, but that's why it's not his best film.
posted by climalene at 9:16 AM on April 23, 2005

I also vote for Vertigo. I think it's one of those movies that has different layers of meaning. If I was trapped on a desert island with a home theater and a generator but only one movie - it's the one I'd want.

I highly recommend the Truffaut book for any Hitch fans. It's worth checking out of the library at the very least to peruse after you watch a Hitchcock flick.
posted by Staggering Jack at 9:26 AM on April 23, 2005

Vertigo again, but I've always loved Rebecca. I have a strong sentimental attachment to it since, when I was hospitalized for a few months, a friend brought me her VCR and a few movies, and that was one of them.
posted by Kellydamnit at 9:33 AM on April 23, 2005

About boredom, or the Vertigo caveat: The comments aluding of the let-down effect, is probably that the older movies *seem* slower than new movies the younger audiences are used to (including me). But being bored is usually a symptom of expecting to be spoon-fed clues which todays movies often do (sadly). To enjoy this (Vertigo, or Chinatown, or Citizen Kane) you have to really pay attention to the details and try to understand whats going on, as the main character does. I find approaching it as a detective would, looking for the obvious detail, forming theories, watching them fall or come together is the most fun in watching these movies. If you do not engage the movie and sit passively yes it could bore you --because your not trying.
posted by uni verse at 10:24 AM on April 23, 2005

I dunno, uni verse. I love Chinatown and Citizen Kane; I watch old films almost exclusively, and I still found Vertigo unspeakably dull.
posted by dame at 10:29 AM on April 23, 2005

According to IMDb user ratings, the top five are:
#1 (8.70) - Rear Window (1954)
#2 (8.60) - North by Northwest (1959)
#3 (8.60) - Psycho (1960)
#4 (8.40) - Vertigo (1958)
#5 (8.19) - Strangers on a Train (1951)


posted by monsterhero at 11:59 AM on April 23, 2005

You ask a very subjective question here. But I'll try.

I'm going to be one of those who mentions Vertigo as my personal favorite. I understand, however, the different positions on this. Vertigo is on many lists because it's one of the few Hitchcock movies that deals thoughtfully with love and with the human soul; this it does profoundly and superbly. Many people find it dull because it's fairly quiet a lot of the time, but patience can be rewarded, I believe; that very quietness, I think, is part of the point. It's supposed to be frighteningly mesmerizing. Watched correctly, Vertigo can actually be the only movie Hitchcock made (maybe that anybody made) that is solidly and intensely gripping from beginning to end.

(Vertigo is also obliquely the subject of two very fine other films by a guy named Chris Marker which I highly recommend. The first is a fine short made in the sixties called La Jetee; it's composed almost entirely of still shots, is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, and provided the story for Twelve Monkeys. The second is a poetic documentary made in the eighties called Sans Soleil, which is about a man returning to Japan after years of travel abroad.)

But I understand if you aren't extremely interested in "watching correctly," and prefer mostly to have fun with a good thriller. In which case one can easily recommend The 39 Steps or North by Northwest or especially Rear Window or Rope. These four are some of the most-watched, and for good reason: they have universal appeal. They're fun, and they're pretty damned thrilling.

Incidentally, my second-favorite Hitchcock film is Spellbound, which is for me the most enjoyable movie he made. It's very odd, very strange and surreal (including a dream sequence by Salvador Dali) but so much fun.

Finally, by the way:

dame: "I thought Destry Rides Again was the greatest (Jimmy Stewart) western ever made..."

The Man who Shot Liberty Valance deals with the same subject better, also has Jimmy Stewart, and has the added benefit of having John Wayne in it. It was also directed by John Ford, who was the best director of films the world has ever known, in my humble little opinion. Lovers of Westerns are urged to watch The Searchers, which is possibly the greatest western ever made, and has the best acting Mr. Wayne ever set to film.

posted by koeselitz at 12:23 PM on April 23, 2005

No, no, koeselitz, you misunderstand. Destry is brilliant because it *doesn't* have John Wayne it and it wasn't directed by John Ford. It's the most Alan Alda western and for that is beloved.
posted by dame at 1:00 PM on April 23, 2005

Interesting story behind Rope: In the Hitchcock bio, The Dark Side of Genius, it explains that Rope was an experiment by Hitch. A big part of the greatness of his work, and any good film, is in the editing, of course. The shower scene in Psycho has something like 90 edits in about 45 seconds.

Rope is shot in uninterrupted scenes of 10 minutes, because a can of film ran 10 minutes long at that time and Hitch wanted to try making a film using scenes of that duration and chaining them together artfully. He tried his best to conceal the edits and make them unnoticable and is very successful. It's fun to try to catcht the edits. Every 10 minutes an actor will pass the camera real tight, thereby blacking out the shot and the next shot is the actor walking away and past the camera, if you can picture that. That is only one device he uses. There are several others, like a profile of an actor walking through a doorway.

You can imagine, it's very hard to make a film this way. Every scene must be super-tightly rehearsed and timed out to be exactly 10 min. long. If an actor blows a line they have to stop filming, reload the camera with a new can of film and start the scene over. On top of that, the camera is constantly moving and furniture is being moved in and out of the shot to accomodate the camera as it moves. There are many opportunities for error.

Anyway, Hitch hated that film because that style of filming took control of the action and pacing out of his hands and his tour de force editing. It was all up to the actors to convey the drama.

Hitch was never an actors' director. He didn't care for them and considered them for the most part to be a necessary evil, except for his blonde leading ladies, several of whom he developed very unhealthy obsessions for. (He sent Tippy Hedren a doll-sized effigy of herself in a casket after she spurned his advances.) For him, the joy of filmmaking was in the planning of every detail of the film and editing, not the performances. Actors who worked for him said they mostly got no direction at all. Hitch hired good actors and left the performances up to them. As long as they could get the lines right, he was happy. An interviewer once asked Hitch if it was true that he had said that actors were cattle to him. He said no, he did not say actors were cattle, he said actors should be treated like cattle. Not much of a distinction really...

I do tend to go on at times, don't I?
posted by wsg at 1:06 PM on April 23, 2005

Another Vertigo fan here, and I absolutely agree with yankeefog: it has nothing in common with North By Northwest (which I also enjoy, in a very different mood). It's the only real tragedy he made, and it has one of those unforgettable moments that stab you through heart and brain the first time you see it and never really go away thereafter. If you haven't seen it, do not read reviews or let anyone tell you what it's about -- just shut yourself off from all disturbances and pop the DVD in (better yet, of course, see it in a theater if you have the chance, but what are the odds of that?).
posted by languagehat at 1:26 PM on April 23, 2005

posted by KS at 2:46 PM on April 23, 2005

Vertigo is Hitchcock at his worst in terms of a coherent storyline. As cynical as Hitchcock was about actors, he sometimes could be just as cynical about plotlines. If logic or logistics got in the way of pacing or suspense, the moment prevailed over the context.

Trying to piece together Vertigo's plot after the fact, particularly motivations and characters' responses, is a real headache, enough to make a person dizzy.
posted by mischief at 2:50 PM on April 23, 2005

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