With the impending release of Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock, it’s only appropriate to look back at the subject matter’s oeuvre in preparation. While Gervasi’s film primarily deals with Alfred Hitchcock’s struggles in a getting the controversial Psycho off the ground, one could easily reflect back on his previous films for added subtext. Beyond that though, it just doesn’t hurt watching some of the best films ever made. Alfred Hitchcock’s immaculate work is something of a beast, whereupon he commands such a compelling formal understanding of plotting and suspense. He has added so much to the language and perception of films, maintaining formal integrity while reaching commercial success. The ten outlined films are not just the best Alfred Hitchcock films – they are among the very best films ever made.
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Generally, I tend to find stage play adaptations to be less than involving. Their roots are not of the cinematic, focused on performances and singular set pieces. But with Dial M for Murder, Hitchcock may be boxed in to apartment room settings, but uses this as an opportunity to amply suspense through confinement. Rich dialogue enhances the mood and instills fear, as the opening act is a precise discussion on the manner in which to commit a perfect crime. The intricacies exposed in this conversation are nothing short of compelling, which is further compounded by Hitchcock’s meticulous level of detail. Much like Rope and Rear Window, the craft elevates an already impeccable script. While not quite as textually layered as his other films, Dial M for Murder suffices as one of Hitchcock’s more overt pieces of purely entertaining filmmaking – it’s a perpetually moving picture that wraps you up in its formal sophistication and audacious dialogue.
I Confess (1953)
Considered an outlier of sorts, I Confess deviates from Hitchcock’s more overt suspense tactics with a subtler and subdued approach. With an extremely passive central character, I Confess instills tension through the act of stasis. It’s a picture that was met with some critical disapproval upon its release, particularly given Hitchcock’s moniker as a “master of suspense” – but the deviation from his typical narrative outline is perhaps one of Hitchcock’s more formally progressive of pictures. With its gorgeous black and white photography and dense subject matter (Hitchcock dwells on the role of spirituality in the face of sexual misgivings and even murder). I Confess perhaps doesn’t adhere to visceral pleasantness that most of Hitchcock’s films achieve, but the immaculate compositions and filmmaking more than makes up for it.
Much of the discussion regarding Rope tends to reflect the manner of Hitchcock’s technique – the impressiveness of having the film shot with so many extended unedited scenes with few cuts. But the method in which this technique is employed in correspondence with the narrative speaks to the brilliant thesis that Hitchcock evokes. Several of the cuts in Rope are necessary: they are structured in a manner that demands the camera to be adjusted and moved for the benefit of its actors and narrative.
Now in a plot that involves two homosexual lovers who have committed a murder, stuffed the body in a trunk, and invited their friends for a party with the trunk still in the room, the notion that the murder and body are still there is a palpable evocation throughout Rope. The game of integrating narrative with technique is expertly played with the idea that we cannot hide what we know is there.
The Wrong Man (1956)
In what is an impressive catalog of performances in his films, the best performances in any Hitchcock film comes from Henry Fonda. In what is undoubtedly one of the most tragic films in Hitchcock’s filmography, the narrative structure is one that leaves both the characters in the film and the audience in a state of uncertainty. Still, the casting of Fonda in the lead role, as a character who is accused of a murder yet maintains his innocence, is particularly insightful. Perhaps my knowledge of Fonda’s roles is a bit limited (largely restricted to his work in John Ford’s films like The Grapes of Wrath, My Darling Clementine, and Young Mr. Lincoln); he always struck me as an actor to play the good-hearted protagonist. To see him in a role where his moral integrity is questioned, despite every plea made to the contrary, has a particular emotional heft that has never quite left me.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
In a hell of an opening sequence, flamboyance meets prudence. The idea that Hitchcock could essentially bring two characters together, one with a flippantly open disposition toward murder and the other adhering to a more practical moral code, largely through a sequence involving shoes, is astonishing. But he manages to use cues of this nature, ones on the nature of consumption and the unreliability of perception, to subvert expectations and instill a tremendous amount of tension. While Strangers on a Train may adopt the sort of typical Hitchcock narrative of achieving the perfect murder (the same sort of idea explored in Rope and Dial M for Murder), it’s the finest primer of the material – it’s where technique, characterization, and textual depth are at their most effective.
Rear Window (1954)
A masterful display on the execution of suspense, Rear Window possesses a genuine sense of timelessness. Mimicked and remade, one could make a case that it is Hitchcock’s most “perfect” film – crafted with such great detail and realized wonderfully in Technicolor. Subsequent viewings prove to be rewarding, extending and developing on the film’s surface level assessment on the nature of voyeurism. But this is also one of the most inspiringly entertaining films in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Rear Window also continues with the thematic consistency of characters being confined to a singular space, James Stewart’s character immobilized in an apartment setting as he keeps neighborhood watch. But with Rear Window, the nature of this confinement extends to the audience as well, as we begin to placate judgment through our voyeuristic eye.
With the notable exception of a bit of exposition toward its conclusion, one could make a case for Psycho’s cinematic perfection as well. Perhaps lending itself to a generation’s worth of dull slasher and torture porn film, the oft mentioned shower sequence benefits from an integral piece of character development. Forty-five minutes of exposition, of careful plotting and genuine tension, develops a context for a scene of candid brutality. Highlighted by careful editing and Bernard Hermann’s mythic score, this sequence remains one of the most brutal scenes in cinema. Anthony Perkins brilliantly realizes his Norman Bates character with the sort of camp that one tends to find in Hitchcock’s film, but enlivens him with a true sense of quiet dread. Few films achieve the measure of incredulous fear presented in Psycho – those that do latch on to your consciousness without letting go.
North by Northwest (1959)
In the wake of a contemporary release like Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, one can’t help but revel in the absolute brilliance achieved in the action-oriented North by Northwest. If Psycho was Hitchcock’s treatment and reassessment of horror films, North by Northwest deconstructs the meaning of an action film. This is a film that perpetually moves, giving way to the notion that contemporary blockbuster need to pursue incessant action sequences to please audience’s visceral sensations. But what many contemporary filmmakers forget is that North by Northwest achieves thematic relevancy – everything from Hitchcock’s prior utilization of mistaken identities, misguided parental affection, and queer politics are explored. Some may dismiss the film as light, which is compounded slightly by being released in between two of Hitchcock’s most creatively inventive films, but North by Northwest achieves the harmonious balance of exploring a rich thematic terrain, having the formal integrity to realize this beautifully, and just being damn entertaining as a result.
With a filmography that exalts formal perfection, Hitchcock’s technique never quite reached the heights of excellence displayed in Notorious. In one of my favorite examples of camera technique, Hitchcock amplifies tension by moving through the chambers of a lavish party. The audience sees the crowd as Hitchcock glosses over the festivities. He’s interested in one room and one person. So he continues to move diligently, calibrating and aware of his spatial setting, as he moves above the stairs, and finds Ingrid Bergman. The narrative demands her to there to smuggle a key, but the particulars of her being there are insignificant – it’s all a McGuffin to develop tension and reel you in.
Written during a time that demanded subtlety and a need for innuendo, Notorious is second only to my number one film in terms of its morbidity. Sexual despondency, cuckolding, flagrant alcoholism, hell, even Nazism are explored in this tumultuous piece of precision filmmaking. But the delicacy in which this is explored, and the demand that Hitchcock has on his audience to realize these concepts, have never been more expertly explored in his films.
Cited by Sight and Sound as being the greatest film ever made, I almost hesitate to follow the herd. But I cannot deny Vertigo’s excellence. It is flawed, but through its flaws are moments of such revelatory expressions of what it means to be human and the artistic integrity associated with realizing our placement in the world. Compounded by the nature of loss and the fluidity of identity, Vertigo could perhaps be faulted for taking on too much at once. But in its Technicolor display, a surrealist quality begins to feel evoked. The whole film begins to feel less like a picture guided by conventional narrative plights and more a dreamlike journey into the moral decay of a man burdened by the loss of the woman he loved and his incapability of combating his own fears.
Most have noted this as Hitchcock’s most personal picture, a realization of his own fears and ambitions. The notion of shaping a woman, in the manner in which a director shapes his actors, can be realized, coupled with additional outliers on the director’s celebrity. But what pulls me toward the film, and what I presume gravitates most others as well, is the relatable emotional landscape it treks. The palpable feeling of loss, the inability to overcome one’s own fears and the desire to adhere to an easy fix has all the sort of human qualities that many want to reject, but few are willing to admit.