Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, we've spent a lot of time watching.
This Monday was National Alfred Hitchcock day. Between that and the recent news of Scarlett Johansson being cast as Janet Leigh in the upcoming behind-the-scenes dramatization Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (Anthony Hopkins is, awesomely, set to star as the iconic director), we're on a Hitch kick. And what better way to honor an obsessive and meticulous director than with an obsessive and meticulous ranking of all his films? (Any non-attributed quotes come from Francois Truffaut's amazing book-length interview, Hitchcock.)
51. Waltzes from Vienna (1933)
This was "a musical without music" taken as a for-hire gig when Hitchcock had no other film projects and just wanted to keep busy. It shows.
50. Easy Virtue (1927)
If anything, Easy Virtue is a disturbing look at the life of women in the not-so-distant past: the movie is about a woman who's "disgraced" when her terrible husband divorces her.
49. The Manxman (1929)
The Manxman was Hitchcock's last silent movie before his first "talkie;" Hitchcock himself called it "a very banal picture."
48. Champagne (1928)
Made as an excuse to "do a picture with the title Champagne," this was a bomb upon release and is only notable now for showing a lot of British people acting drunk.
47. The Farmer's Wife (1928)
One of the first "light-hearted" Hitchcock productions, it's kind of an upstairs-downstairs portrayal of Britain in the twenties. But silent. And slow. And over two hours long.
46. The Skin Game (1931)
There's a really cool auction scene in this, but that's about it.
45. Jamaica Inn (1939)
Hitch's final film before he moved to America was also his most profitable to that date, but that may have been due to Brits wanting to see why super-producer David O. Selznick had invited the director overseas. Jamaica Inn wouldn't give them much of an idea.
44. Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)
This story, about a divorced couple who just can't seem to stop running into each other at the most inopportune times, is the only pure comedy Hitchcock made while in America. There's a reason for that.
43. Downhill (1927)
While this story about a boy in boarding school accused of theft is generally a snooze, hints of the director's future visual style (especially in a memorable dream sequence) make it a point of interest for Hitch completists.
42. The Paradine Case (1947)
This was a courtroom drama set in England, meaning everyone got to wear those strange white wigs. The story is decent, but ultimately a waste of Hitchcock's talents.
41. Number Seventeen (1932)
You'd think a story about a detective on the hunt for a gang of thieves in London would be prime Hitchcock fare, but the chase sequence at the end is really the only worthwhile part of Number Seventeen.
40. Juno and the Paycock (1930)
Based on the widely-popular play by Sean O'Casey — who would become the inspiration for the doom-sayer in The Birds — Juno and the Paycock isn't bad, but as a straight adaptation, it lacks the directorial flair of a "Hitchcock film."
39. Murder! (1930)
A classic whodunit in which a juror goes out of his way to investigate the case of a seemingly-wrongfully accused woman, Murder! finds Hitchcock mastering his use of sound.
38. The Secret Agent (1936)
One of Hitchcock's darker works, this noir-ish film is about a British intelligence agent who goes to Switzerland and accidentally kills the wrong man. It also co-stars Peter Lorre, which is really reason enough to check this one out.
37. Under Capricorn (1949)
While you'd think the presence of Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten would make this one a keeper, Hitchcock's attempt at using the same super-long take format he'd unleashed in his previous film, Rope, doesn't work as well the second time.
36. Sabotage (1936)
Sabotage features a drawn-out sequence in which a young carrier is delivering a bomb without realizing it; Hitchcock revs up the suspense while simultaneously showing the audience that no one's safe. Perhaps that last part is what led to the film's brief cameo in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.
35. Rich and Strange (1932)
While this tale of an ordinary couple getting rich and going on a cruise was a dud at the box office, Hitchcock himself always considered it underrated, possibly because it featured some erotic belly dancing.
34. Topaz (1969)
In this Cold War spy story, Hitchcock seems overworked with too many international balls to juggle. The strongest evidence of this is that the film was released with two different endings, a rarity for the meticulous director.
33. The Ring (1927)
This story of two boxers in love with the same woman showcases the camera tricks that Hitch would later perfect: elaborate montages, subtle visual symbolism, and building suspense, this time through subtle changes in title card font.
32. I Confess (1952)
A vehicle for Hitchcock's Catholic angst, I Confess is a morality play about a priest who's accused of murder even though he's heard the killer's confession. It makes for a great one-line synopsis, but there's not a lot of worthwhile suspense or drama here.
31. Family Plot (1976)
There's a lot to like about Hitchcock's final movie, including Bruce Dern's performance and some of the darkest comedy Hitch had ever made — but much of Family Plot has a phoned-in quality. (Although, if you were a seventy-five-year-old man making your fifty-first film, you might phone it in too.)
30. Torn Curtain (1966)
Torn Curtain's lasting legacy may be inspiring Hitchcock's subsequent biting quotes about method actors. (There's a reason this was Hitch's only movie with Paul Newman — allegedly, when Newman asked about motivation, Hitchcock snipped, "Your motivation is your salary.") But the long, drawn-out death scene remains tough to watch.
29. Lifeboat (1943)
While Hitchcock would later perfect the one-location suspense film with Rope and Rear Window, Lifeboat is a worthwhile rehearsal for how to create suspense in an enclosed environment.
28. The Lodger (1927)
To really appreciate the first true "Hitchcock film," you have to take into account the context, knowing how fresh and exciting it was for its time. It's amazing how, even this early in his career, so many of Hitch's favorite themes (wrong man, suspicious neighbors) and visual innovations are on display.
27. Stage Fright (1950)
Perhaps best known in cinephile circles as one of the first examples of the "lying narrator," this Jane Wyman/Marlene Dietrich film is a humorous whodunit set in the theater world. There's not so much that's "Hitchcockian" about it, but it's solid nevertheless.
26. Young and Innocent (1937)
The first seventy-five minutes of Young and Innocent are basically just an excuse for the extremely long and intricate tracking shot that reveals the killer at the end. But what a shot it is.
25. Saboteur (1942)
This classically Hitchcockian tale about a wrongly-accused man on a cross-country journey to prove his innocence can be seen as a precursor to the superior North by Northwest. It even ends with the hero dangling from an American monument — this time, the Statue of Liberty.
24. Blackmail (1929)
This was Hitchcock's first "talkie," and it features many of his trademarks: a rollicking chase sequence in a famous locale, darkly comical cuts, and a blonde in peril. It also features one of Hitch's greatest cameos — he assaults a young brat on a train.
23. The Trouble With Harry (1956)
One of the only "non-suspenseful" Hitchcock stories that actually works, this film follows the citizens of a sleepy Vermont town as they attempt to figure out who killed one of their brethren and, more importantly, what to do with the body. Think Weekend at Bernie's, but classier.
22. Spellbound (1945)
Co-starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, this ahead-of-its-time psychoanalytic thriller tried to visualize the human dreamscape via a sequence designed by none other than Salvador Dali.
21. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
A remake of his own 1934 British film, this version featuring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day should be a step up, but the whole thing's more unwieldy than the original. (Hitchcock himself agreed.) The climactic Albert Hall sequence, however, is worth the mess that precedes it.
20. To Catch a Thief (1955)
Featuring Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, both in their prime, and filmed in the French Riviera, To Catch a Thief has all the elements of an all-time classic. As it stands, it barely cracks Hitch's top twenty; maybe it's the lack of happy ending. As Hitch points out, "the final note is pretty grim."
19. The Wrong Man (1957)
The Wrong Man almost plays like a documentary; Hitchcock felt this true account of a man wrongly tried for a crime he didn't commit was strong enough to stand on its own without any dramatic manipulations. Most procedural dramas you see on the networks today can be traced back to this.
18. Suspicion (1941)
While the first half of Suspicion is a standard romantic romp, the second half picks up once the newlywed wife (Joan Fontaine) begins to suspect her husband (Cary Grant) of trying to kill her. If Hitchcock had kept his original ending — in which Fontaine was to deliver comeuppance from beyond the grave — Suspicion could've landed squarely in the top ten.
17. Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar along with another Hitchcock film, Rebecca (which won), this spy thriller is a perfectly-chiseled popcorn action movie.
16. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
Hitchcock's original British version of this story is forty-five minutes shorter than the higher-profile remake, but still retains the same suspenseful set pieces and climax at the Albert Hall. Oh, and this one has Peter Lorre.
15. North by Northwest (1959)
It's a familiar story for Hitch: in a cross-country adventure, a wrongfully-accused man tries to clear his name against the efforts of a nebulous spy network. And while North by Northwest features plenty of rightfully famous set pieces (the biplane in the cornfield and the climax on Mt. Rushmore being the two most obvious), it actually drags a bit in the middle. At a robust two hours and sixteen minutes, it could've been trimmed.
14. Rope (1948)
Hitchcock's "one shot" masterpiece — it was really ten shots, with the cuts obscured by various characters walking in front of the camera — starts with a murder and holds suspense throughout by keeping the body hidden in plain sight. While Jimmy Stewart's performance is rightfully lauded, it's John Dall's intellectual and ice-cold killer that sticks with you.
13. Rebecca (1940)
There are many tales of production conflict between Hitch and uber-producer David O. Selznick during the making of the former's first American picture. But they kind of don't matter, because the final work is so close to perfection.
12. Marnie (1964)
Though Marnie was a bit of a disappointment when it was first released — it came on the heels of a five-year period that saw the release of Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds — this complex story about a thief who's blackmailed into marrying her employer is as close to a sleeper hit as you'll find in Hitchcock's oeuvre.
11. The Birds (1963)
It's not the special effects that make this one work, or the everyday ubiquity of the enemy, or the complex personalities of the characters. What sticks with you after the final reel of The Birds is the sense of despair. Things, this time, aren't going to be all right. There are few more nihilistic visions in cinema history.
10. Dial M for Murder (1954)
You wouldn't think a (nearly) one-location thriller, adapted from a stage play and composed of mostly dialogue, would allow Hitch to show off his visual tricks. And, for the most part, he simply gets out of the actors' way and lets them do their work. But the few suspense scenes scattered throughout show him at his most masterful.
9. Notorious (1946)
This is quintessential Hitchcock: there are spies, poison, MacGuffins, overbearing mothers-in-law, iconic tracking shots, and Hitch pushing the Production Code's rules of decorum. Notorious is also perfectly cast; much of the critical adoration at the time was spent fawning over co-stars Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, but this movie simply wouldn't work without the nuanced performance of Claude Rains.
8. Strangers on a Train (1951)
With striking camera angles and harsh black-and-white contrasts throughout, this story of two strangers who try to "criss cross" murders might be Hitch's most beautifully photographed film, as well as one of his most subtextually rich. (And it doesn't hurt that it directly inspired the still underrated Throw Momma From the Train.)
7. Frenzy (1972)
After back-to-back mishaps with spy stories (Torn Curtain and Topaz), Hitchcock returned to his native London and back to the genre that made him famous: murder. Throw in a wrong-man story and the swinging fashion and bright colors of '70s England, and you have an under-the-radar classic in Hitch's catalogue.
6. The 39 Steps (1935)
This is as crowd-pleasing as you can get. The road movie with a mismatched bickering pair (at one point they even get handcuffed together) is a formula that's long since been overused. But the dialogue here is so fun, the set pieces so perfectly executed, and the characters so fully realized, that the film still feels fresh today.
5. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Detractors of The Lady Vanishes complain it doesn't move quick enough, that the first half is needless build-up, that Hitchcock should just get to the lady and her actual vanishing already. But the dry, witty ensemble comedy on display in the first half is almost better than the scenes of suspense that follow. This is easily Hitchcock's funniest movie.
4. Psycho (1960)
When Gus Van Sant released his ill-conceived shot-for-shot remake of Psycho in 1998, what was striking was how well Hitchcock's original construction still worked. Even if you were snickering at the whole idea, you still cowered when the shower scene got underway.
3. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
This story about a shady man who tries to hide out at his sister's quaint home in Anywhere, U.S.A. was Hitchcock's favorite of his own films. All of Hitchcock's favorite tropes are there: duality, the devil coming to town, "normal" people's fascination with the macabre. Shadow of a Doubt is also a beautifully dreamlike experience, most evidenced by the harsh black smoke that marks Uncle Charlie's arrival — a portent of things to come. It's a must-watch for fans of David Lynch.
2. Rear Window (1954)
There's a theory in Hitchcock academia: whenever the director cast Cary Grant, he was making a movie about who he wanted to be, but whenever he cast Jimmy Stewart, he was making a movie about who he really was. So it's not surprising that his two greatest works feature Stewart in the lead. In Rear Window, Stewart plays a bedridden man who tries to cure his boredom by spying on his neighbors and, subsequently, sees something he shouldn't have. While the story has been stolen countless times since, the original version is the best and still most effective.
1. Vertigo (1958)
In Vertigo, Hitchcock brings out all of the dirty parts of his soul. Stewart plays a private investigator hired to keep an eye on a friend's wife (Kim Novak), who may or may not be possessed by a deceased relative. This is all setup, though, for an exploration of obsession, love, deception, what it means to be a director, and how to get over someone who's gone. While the exquisite scenes of Stewart following Novak will keep you intrigued throughout, the shocking ending will stick with you long after.
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