It’s a big year for fans of Alfred Hitchcock. The BFI’s The Genius of Hitchcock celebration is now in full swing, with the director’s surviving silent films having been fully restored and a complete retrospective taking place at the BFI Southbank. This year’s Cambridge Film Festival will also feature a Hitchcock strand, including his classic thriller Vertigo which recently ousted long-time champion Citizen Kane from the top spot in Sight & Sound’s decennial poll of the greatest films ever made, as decided by critics and key industry personnel.
It’s little wonder that Hitchcock continues to be feted over thirty years after his death. His ability to weave suspense, humour, artistry and cinematic innovation in to his films was uncanny, and means they are as richly entertaining as ever they were. The man has taken on an almost mythical status; partly his own doing (ever the showman, he put his instantly recognisable silhouette and slow, sonorous voice to good use) but also due to his extraordinary longevity. In a career spanning over fifty years, he churned out certified classics in every decade from the Roaring Twenties through to the Swinging Sixties, from his early days in the British film industry to his later years as Hollywood royalty.
Everyone has their favourite Hitchcock, but in order to avoid choosing a single film I thought I would instead list a few that I have long cherished, and which only seem to get better with age. I managed to catch them all while I was still fairly young – teens, anyway – with the exception of one (detailed below). Oddly, there are two films each from the 1930s, 50s and 60s, but none from the 1940s. Nothing against that decade – I love the likes of Lifeboat and Rebecca – but for some reason I didn’t catch up with them until relatively recently and so they haven’t had quite the same effect on me. Anyway, on with that list:
This was something of a wake-up call for me. I forget exactly when I first saw it, but it was one of the first films to make me realise that old didn’t necessarily mean outdated. I distinctly recall being pleasantly surprised by its innocent-man-on-the-run thrills (the term Hitchcockian begins in earnest here) and witty dialogue – laughing with it rather than at it. The line “Oh look, it’s a whole flock of detectives” as a police car’s route is blocked by sheep never fails to make me laugh out loud. Robert Donat as the urbane Hannay and Madeleine Carroll as the blonde he becomes attached to (in more ways than one) make for a feisty and droll onscreen couple. The hissing/crackly soundtrack notwithstanding, it holds up superbly today. Just go and see the stage version in the London West End for proof: it’s basically a facsimile, with the audience laughing at the exact same jokes.
2. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
One of the last films Hitch made in Britain before skipping across the Atlantic, this is another delicious suspenser with a generous helping of humour (in the style of The 39 Steps) with another great lead couple: Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood. This time though, it’s the girl who takes the lead in trying to solve the mystery. I didn’t catch this one until a few years ago but it went straight on to my list of favourite Hitchcocks, not only because it’s such a richly enjoyable espionage yarn (set in central Europe with the shadow of war looming, leading to a tense and action-packed conclusion) but also because of the strong supporting cast, led by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as a pair of quintessentially English bachelors desperately trying to find out the cricket test score back home. Their delightful double act clearly went down well with audiences of the time because they reprised their roles in several later films (starting with Night Train to Munich, making The Lady Vanishes the first Hitchcock film to be sequelised).
3. Rear Window (1954)
Made when the director was at the peak of his powers, Rear Window continues to dazzle with every viewing. From the ingenious plot (wheelchair-bound photographer witnesses a murder from his window) to the atmospheric studio-built set to the greatest of his star pairings in James Stewart and the impossibly beautiful Grace Kelly, this is a film that sucks you in like no other. The way Hitchcock teases us in to enjoying the thrill of the voyeur is pure subversive magic; the lives of Stewart’s neighbours become as intriguing to us as the main storyline. THAT kiss between Kelly and Stewart was the abiding memory from my very first viewing; it has never been bettered. If, for some crazy reason, you haven’t yet seen it then watch it as soon as humanly possible. You won’t regret it. Dare I say, it might even be better than Vertigo.
There might be less going on at the heart of North by Northwest than some of his other great works, but as an exercise in suspenseful spectacle and bravado, it’s unbeatable. Hitchcock recycles his beloved innocent-man-on-the-run story once again, but this time gives it the full epic treatment. Superb set-pieces tumble one after another: the murder in the United Nations building in New York, the climactic chase across Mount Rushmore, and of course the exquisite crop duster sequence – suave Cary Grant running away from a murderous agricultural aircraft has become one of cinema’s defining images. Immediately after seeing this on the big screen at university, I ran back home pretending to be chased by a plane (no, really). James Mason and Martin Landau add ice-cold charm as the villains of the piece, and beautiful Eva Marie Saint ably supplies the romantic interest. Never mind that the plot barely stands up to scrutiny; this is the great man having enormous fun with his most expensive toys. As an entry point for a first time Hitchcock viewer, it’s perfect. What’s not to enjoy?
5. Psycho (1960)
A stone-cold classic that spawned sequels, copycats and even its own sub-genre – the slasher movie. Made on a modest budget using the crew from his TV show, Hitchcock once again proved his ability to reinvent himself, switching effortlessly from the shiny spectacle of North by Northwest to the lurid pulp fiction of Psycho. Its notoriety – especially the shower scene – meant that I knew what was coming the first time I saw it (like most other people, I suspect), but its gothic horror still made a striking impression. For contemporary audiences it was shocking, not only for its seemingly graphic violence but also its sordid characters and storyline. Psycho‘s horrors are inevitably somewhat tamer now, particularly after the twists have been revealed. But what remains is a taut, oppressive, precision-engineered thriller, with Anthony Perkins superb as the mixed-up Norman Bates. And Hitch’s ability to lead the audience up the garden path never fails to impress – you hope Janet Leigh makes it out of Bates Motel alive every time you watch.
6. The Birds (1963)
The chief memory from your first viewing of Hitch’s other great horror will almost certainly have been that bit with the climbing frame. It works every time. Every time. My own initial viewing sticks in the memory because the video recorder failed to tape the last 30 seconds or so. Not that I knew this; I thought there must have been at least another five minutes to go. But no: borrowing a copy from a friend, I confirmed that the film just abruptly stops. I read somewhere that Hitch wanted it to end suddenly so as to leave the audience unsettled when they left the theatre. One can only assume he was successful in this. Even without that ending, The Birds remains an unnerving experience. Its ability to disturb has allowed the film in some ways to age better than Psycho; the monster here isn’t a certifiable loon but something seemingly far more benign. A world where nature turns on us is a far more potent fear today, with climate change apparently continuing apace, than it ever was in the director’s lifetime.