Two Lists, Ten Favorites: Films of Alfred Hitchcock

by HELEN GEIB and NIR SHALEV

An occasional feature where Helen and Nir compare their five favorite films by some of the greats of world cinema.

Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980)

NIR’S TOP FIVE

5) North by Northwest (1959)

This film is the quintessence of a fun-filled adventure that’s at times wracked with suspense. Shot brilliantly and involving a sinister crop field, a knifing at the UN, and a chase across Mount Rushmore, North by Northwest is Alfred Hitchcock’s most entertaining, no holds barred and unique chase film that places the classic “wrong man” scenario at its core. It stars the ever reliable Cary Grant, the beautiful Eva Marie Saint, and the always-awesome-as-a-bad-guy James Mason. Also, look out for a ridiculously young but brilliant Martin Landau.

4) I Confess (1953)

As I’d mentioned in my review for this film, I’d only recently watched it for the first time but I’ve quickly fallen in love with it. The moral dilemma that Montgomery Clift’s Father Michael has to go through is presented brilliantly by the actor and his expressive face and the visual imagery that Hitchcock uses as metaphors for what’s going on inside his mind is brilliant.

3) Notorious (1946)

Notorious is a character driven film about a woman who’s recruited to pretend to be the lover of a Nazi supporter, but only after she’d fallen for the man that had recruited her. Her feelings get in the way of her work and the second and third acts of the film are nerve-wrecking but gorgeous to behold. From the first time I watched this film I’d noted that, on a technical level, this is one of Hitchcock’s best films. Upon a second viewing I’d noticed how important it was for Hitchcock to allow the characters to create the actions and not the other way around. The visual cues (sinister shadowy figures, the glowing glass of poisoned milk, the look on Ingrid Bergman’s face when she realizes that she’d been poisoned) are presented as obvious but brilliant as night and day. This is a perfect film.

2) Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

I love this film and dub Hitchcock a genius for casting the lively Joseph Cotten as a serial killer. After having escaped the city, Charlie Oakley (Cotten) travels to his sister’s suburban home and decides to stay with the family on a temporary basis; Hitchcock utilizes the “killer in the daylight” type of storytelling. Uncle Charlie rekindles his great friendship with his niece Charlotte, also known as Charlie (Theresa Wright) but constantly has to switch between who he is- a psychopath- and a who he pretends to be- a wonderful and loving human being. When it comes to serial killers in films Cotten’s performance is one of the best that I’ve ever seen, because one minute he’s the nicest man in the world and with the drop of a coin he turns nasty and violent. Cotten conveys the emotions with his entire body and especially with his angel face, and he delivers one of the best performances in his career.

1) Vertigo (1958)

When Vertigo initially came out it was, basically, spat on. Critics hated it and it flopped at the box office. That was because Hitchcock hadn’t yet delivered a film as dark as Vertigo and audiences had never thought that he’d go that route. Fast forward a few decades and slowly but surely, Vertigo creeps up into the daylight to be revisited by film buffs and historians, and the world had eventually realizes what it missed.

Psycho (1960) is nothing compared to Vertigo because Psycho tells the story of a woman who commits a crime and eventually pays for it when she comes across a schizophrenic psychopath who also believes he’s his own deceased mother. Vertigo tells a labyrinthine story involving Scottie, a retired detective (James Stewart), Madeleine (Kim Novak), the woman that he’s paid to follow and keep tabs on, her attempted suicide, his rescuing her, their falling in love, and then her actual suicide. After Scottie manages to recover from the shock, which takes many months he spots an actress that looks remarkably similar to Madeleine. As he falls deeply in love with the Madeleine lookalike, he delves into a deranged state of mind because he wants to recreate the woman that he’d supposedly murdered. Undertones of necrophilia are not accidental in this film as Scottie recreates Madeleine using the newfound version of her; and Hitchcock still continues to show that there’s more detective work to be done. By redressing and recreating the actress as Madeleine, Scottie undresses Madeleine in his head. Sounds creepy? Well it’s a haunting film but it’s a beautiful one at that and I tear up every time that I watch it.

Lastly, film composer Bernard Herrmann provides the score for Vertigo and it’s one of the most haunting, emotional, and beautiful scores that I’ve ever heard. Vertigo is Hitchcock’s undisputed and greatest masterpiece and it’s also my favorite film of his.

HELEN’S TOP FIVE

5) The 39 Steps (1935)

After Nir and I decided Alfred Hitchcock would be the subject of our second “ten favorites” post, it didn’t take me long to realize that I don’t have five favorite Hitchcock films. I have a top three, but after that I hit a shortlist of his movies that I particularly like, that I’ve watched and re-watched with pleasure, and that I don’t especially favor, one over another. So while today my number five slot is filled with The 39 Steps, tomorrow it might be filled with Strangers on a Train, Foreign Correspondent, Sabotage or another title. Some things I particularly like about today’s favorite: the charming Robert Donat and lovely Madeleine Carroll; the sparking screenplay by Charles Bennett; and a story that I also greatly enjoyed in the original novel by John Buchan and the 1950s adaptation with Kenneth More.

4) Rear Window (1954)

I bumped Rear Window from the shortlist to the number four slot because it’s a movie made for cinephiles.

3) Stage Fright (1950)

I have an unreasoning love for this movie. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of good reasons to love it, because there certainly are, starting with an excellent mystery and gorgeous black and white cinematography (just look at those shadows!). Nevertheless, my love goes beyond reason, which I suppose is as good a working definition of “favorite” as any. What I most love is the characters and performances: Jane Wyman and Michael Wilding are wonderfully appealing as the heroine-amateur detective and love interest-professional detective; Marlene Dietrich is delicious as an aging diva; Richard Todd is remarkable playing against type as the twitchy prime suspect; and Alastair Sim is beyond fantastic the heroine’s eccentric father.

2) Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

After Nir and I didn’t overlap at all on our Kurosawa lists, I figured we probably wouldn’t have any Hitchcock favorites in common either. So I was tickled when I got his list and saw that of all the great movies Hitchcock made, it was the comparatively little known Shadow of a Doubt that should show up on both our lists- and in the very same spot even! However, since uniformity is dull, I’m relieved to see that our reasons are different: While I fully acknowledge and appreciate the brilliance of Joseph Cotten’s performance, it’s the never-better Theresa Wright who has my allegiance.

1) The Lady Vanishes (1938)

One of the great things about Hitchcock is that his best films are so precisely, perfectly balanced. The Lady Vanishes is an inexhaustibly entertaining blend of suspense, romance, comedy, and action. There’s even some topical politics worked in. The exceptionally witty script is by Sydney Gilliat and Frank Launder, the filmmaking team behind some of the best British films of the 1940s and ’50s, and the cast is filled with great, quintessentially British stars- Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood- and character actors- Dame May Whitty, Cecil Parker, Naunton Wayne, Basil Radford, Googie Withers….

What are your favorite Hitchcock films?

24 responses to “Two Lists, Ten Favorites: Films of Alfred Hitchcock

  1. Richard Winters

    Okay here is my top 5:
    1.) North by Northwest
    2.) Frenzy — I can’t believe neither of you picked this one. It is really good!
    3.) Rear Window
    4.) Lifeboat — I’m also shocked that neither of you mentioned this one. This might be Hitch’s most unique film as all the action takes place on one little boat in the middle of ocean and yet it is highly riveting and who can forget Tallulah Bankhead
    5.) The Lady Vanishes
    I would also give honorable mention to ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ it is highly underrated. ‘Stage Fright’ and ‘I Confess’ seemed a little bit slow to me. ‘Saboteur’ is a good one

  2. Richard Winters

    Also, Helen, in your capsule of ‘Stage Fright’ you mention that Marlene Dietrich was ‘delicious as the aging diva’. Does that mean you ate her? =)

    • Richard Winters

      Alright that was a dumb joke. I was reading the blog during my lunch hour at Macnivens restuarant and over a couple of beers and since that word is rarely ever used in that context it just seemed funny to me at the time.

  3. I own Lifeboat and it’s been sitting in the drawer for almost a year. I still hadn’t watched it so I can’t add it to my list.
    The Lady Vanishes is an amzing film that almost made my list. But no matter how entertaining, or even funny The Lady Vanishes is, North by Northwest won me over because of its composotions and the scene with the crop duster.
    …I hadn’t yet watched Frenzy or Stage Fright so they were disqualified… (don’t shoot me!)

    And Rear Window’s best shot is one that no one ever mentions, maybe because it’s accidental: when the lights go out in the apartment opposite James Stewart’s, there’s the faintest little red, round light that flares up and then disappears. It seems as if there’s someone standing in the dark smoking a cigarette and it always creeped me out (in a good way).

    But this list is of favourites and not a “best of” list so I chose my Hitchcock faves. Besides Vertigo being his best film, I don’t have a “Best of Alfred Hitchcock” list in mind. His movies are mostly on the same excellent calibre.

    • Richard Winters

      Yes, I remember that shot in ‘Rear Window’ as well and it is meant to show that the Raymond Burr character is sitting in the dark and smoking a cigarette. You really got to see ‘Lifeboat’ and get back to me on it. I would be interested in hearing your take on it. As you know Hitch always liked to have a small cameo appearance in all of his films and his appearance in that one is quite creative.

      ‘Frenzy’ is a must see as well. I remember my film class in college spent an entire hour discussing one particular camera shot that involves the camera pulling out of the apartment, where the action is, and back onto the street. When you watch it you will know what I mean. It is very innovative and something no one else has ever seen done in any other film

  4. Good, let us know what you think and also if after watching those films if your top 5 will have then changed.

  5. Probably not. lol
    Like I said, The Lady Vanishes almost made my list but as far as favourites go in general… Heck, Strangers On a Train is brilliant, too! Then there’s also The Lodger and Suspicion that almost made the list…

    …I like my list…

  6. I can’t believe I forgot ‘Strangers on a Train’. That’s another good one. ‘Suspicion’ certainly has its moments, like when Cary Grant serves Joan Fontaine that glass of milk at the end, which really kept me in suspense, but I did not like the tacked on happy ending to that one, that apparently was not what Hitch wanted, but he was forced to put it in due to the restrictive code of that time period.

  7. Coincidentally I drove across downstate Illinois yesterday. Because of Nir’s capsule for “North by Northwest” I kept thinking about the crop duster scene.

    “Lifeboat” and “Rope” fall into the “interesting experiment” category. I like “Lifeboat” but it’s dated in the usual way of WWII “we’re all in this together” propaganda films.

    @Nir: I have to ask… did you like the stills I found for “Shadow of a Doubt”?

    • I forgot to comment on them but I did notice that they’re sequential…
      …which is awesome!

    • When driving across downstate Illinois one’s mind can’t help but wander. I know Indiana has always been stigmitized as being the ‘boring state’, but my brother (who used to live there) and me feel it is really Illinois. Being chased by a crop duster plane would at least be interesting and better than being dulled to death by the endlessly flat, desolate landscape.

      • I’d say that Ohio is the most boring state because outside of Cincinnati there’s nothing. Years back I’ve chatted with people online who lived, or still do, in Ohio and they all claimed that it’s devoid of interesting life.

        • Of course have you traveled to downstate Illinois? That does not include Chicago, which is pretty much seperate from the rest of the state. Also, people in Cleveland might take issue about what you said as they are a bigger city than Cincy and they do have the Rock ‘n’ Roll hall of fame there, which should count for something. There is also the capital Columbus, which houses the The Ohio State University, which is one of the largest colleges in the country. Ohio also has a lot of rolling hills, which is better than the stark flatness that you get in Illinois.

      • Flat and unvarying, but hardly desolate- it was the fields of corn stretching out to the horizon that called the association to mind. I find the landscape quite soothing (another man’s boring…) but it does incline the mind to wander. When my mind wanders it very often wanders to movies.

        Every state has its good points, which I say as a preemptive strike before anyone has a chance to start trash talking Indiana. ;-)

  8. Bless me, I love Rope. As was written above, “my love goes beyond reason.” :)

    • That’s the film that has only one shot in it, right? If it then, then I hadn’t watched it either.

    • @Michelle: I’m pleased my impromptu definition has been useful. ;-)

      @Nir: That’s the one.

      • Another Hitchcock classic to watch… *sigh*

        • That should be “Another Hitchcock classic to watch… *yay!*” ^_^

          Something you said earlier with which I totally agree: “His movies are mostly on the same excellent caliber.” They have high repeat viewing value too. This post has reminded me that there are several I haven’t watched in much too long, like “Notorious” for instance.

          • No one’s mentioned To Catch a Thief, which is also one of his most entertaining films.

            • I’ve seen ‘To Catch a Thief’, but in my opinion it was too fluffy and not enough tension. How about ‘Torn Curtain’ with Paul Newman. I know Newman and Hitch didn’t get along, but it had it’s moments. How about ‘The Birds’ ? Nobody has mentioned that one and it certainly has some great special effects.

              • The Birds, much like Psycho don’t really need to be mentioned because they’re the most famous films of his. But what I like about To Catch a Thief is exactly that it’s a fun film and not a thriller. Watching Cary Grant’s silhouette run across roftops in, I believe, Monte Carlo is kind of iconic.
                And there’s also the underrated (or simply ignored) Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). Just plain fun ‘ol Hitchcock.

  9. ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’ had some funny moments, but overall I can’t say it was a favorite of mine. It was similar to ‘The Trouble with Harry’, which was another Hitchcock comedy that to me ended up being pretty flat and boring. I know my Dad and Mom watched it and felt the same way. To me ‘The lady Vanishes’ works the best in the comedy area because it still has a good mix of suspense and intrigue.

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