There is no director who did suspense as well as Alfred Hitchcock. Having directed over 50 films, he proved time and again that he could craft masterpieces in several genres, including spy dramas, murder mysteries, and crime thrillers. I will not boast that I have seen every Hitchcock film, but I watched half of his filmography last year and I think I can offer some advice on which of his films are essential watching for newcomers to the dark world of Hitchcock.
The Lady Vanishes – Made in the days preceding World War II, this film focuses on an elaborate plot to cover up the disappearance of an elderly woman on a train who turns out to be connected with a villainous plot involving completing government agencies. Hitchcock is careful in his blend of comedy with suspense as he demonstrates his talent for keeping serious moments lighthearted.
North by Northwest – Another of Hitchcock’s spy thrillers, this film features one of Hitchcock’s recurring themes: the case of mistaken identity. Featuring a late career turn by Cary Grant who is just as charming as ever in this iconic film which is often regarded as the spiritual predecessor to the James Bond franchise and it’s easily as good if not better than the best entries in that series.
Notorious – The end of World War II created a massive power vacuum throughout Europe as the remnants of the Nazi party fled, with many finding themselves in sympathetic or uninterested South American countries. Notorious follows the daughter of a convicted Nazi played by Ingrid Bergman as she is recruited to locate and bring to justice a friend of her father’s played by the always compelling Claude Rains.
Psycho – Easily Hitchcock’s most famous film, this film rightly deserves to be on any list of his great films thanks to the immensely famous plot twist halfway through and the iconic nature of Anthony Perkins performances as Norman Bates. As revolutionary as it is great, this film successfully flipped the script on what was expected in a mystery-thriller film and has been mimicked and stolen from in dozens of films since.
Rear Window – An experiment in bottle film-making, Rear Window follows an injured photographer who spends his recovery time observing the habits of his neighbors only to discover that one of them might be a murderer. Thanks to a leading performance from James Stewart that is perfectly complemented by Grace Kelly, this film is a nail biter that utilizes every bit of Hitchcock’s massive talent.
Rebecca – The only of Hitchcock’s films to win Best Picture, this film does the best job with another of Hitchcock’s favorite themes: a spouse with a secret. Following a young woman who becomes enamored with and then marries a wealthy widower, she finds herself living under the shadow of his deceased wife as her secrets threaten to destroy the newly married couple.
Vertigo – Highly regarded as one of Hitchcock’s most interesting and finest works, Vertigo follows a police detective whose crippling fear of heights has resulted in him taking work as a private detective to avoid confronting his fear. James Stewart and Kim Novak have great chemistry as a series of twists and turns offers to drive them both over the edge as they confront their own inadequacies before they destroy each other.
And now…the half:
The Man Who Knew Too Much – It might seem like a cop out, but as Hitchcock’s used this title for two different films, it’s difficult to decide which deserves a slot on this list. While both revolve around the kidnapping of a child and the efforts of the child’s parents to stop an elaborate plot in order to rescue the child before the kidnappers enact their nefarious plan to bring down the world order.
And now, some superlatives for films of Alfred Hitchcock.
My Favorite: Rear Window
Most Underrated: The Lady Vanishes
Honorable Mentions: The Birds, Dial M for Murder, Rope, Shadow of a Doubt