Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Top 5 Alfred Hitchcock Films

Other than perhaps Steven Spielberg, no name is more synonymous with the word “director” in mainstream thought than Alfred Hitchcock.  The man had what I believe to be the most prolific career of any Hollywood director, past or present, with about 66 credits to his name spanning a 50-year career.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen all 66 of his films—I’m currently only at 25 (although I have seen all of his more highly regarded films).  Regardless, I felt that with two forthcoming films about Hitchcock (“Hitchcock” starring Anthony Hopkins, and HBO Movie “The Girl” starring Toby Jones), a top-5 list of my favorites of his filmography was in order.  Hope you enjoy.

5.  Psycho (1960)

The aforementioned film “Hitchcock” focuses on the story of the making of this film, which the director struggled to even get made, due to the nature of the source material.  Voted by AFI as the #1 horror film all time, the film follows a woman who skips town after stealing $40,000, and ends up at the eerie Bates Motel.  I won’t spoil it any further for those who may not have seen it, but everything that transpires is perhaps the genesis of the modern horror genre.  There are exactly four Hitchcock films that I believe to be better than this one, but Psycho will always be his most iconic. 

 4.  Rope (1948)

Hitchcock shot this entire 80-minute film in ONE take, which is probably the thing it is most remembered for.  But the story itself is probably one of the most oddly-intense narratives of any of Hitchcock’s films, which seems like it’s right out of an Edgar Allen Poe volume of short stories: Two young men strangle their "inferior" classmate, hide his body inside a buffet table in their apartment, and invite his friends and family to a dinner party as a means to challenge the "perfection" of their crime.

Jimmy Stewart, one of Hitchcock’s go-to leading men, stars as the young mens’ former school-teacher, who begins to catch on to their stunt, and pieces together the clues.  His performance is rock-solid, as always, but the true revelation here is the psychotic, yet magnetic performance of John Dall, the mastermind of the entire plan.

3.  Rear Window (1954)

Oh, Grace.
Speaking of Jimmy Stewart, he plays the central role in what I think is the most directorially creative film on this list, and also partly the titular inspiration for this blog.  In Window, a temporarily wheelchair-bound photographer progressively pieces together a crime that is taking place in his apartment complex, which he does from his bedroom window, through binoculars. 

The apartment complex takes on a life of its own through Jeff’s binoculars, as he observes the somewhat odd behaviors of all his neighbors.  Hitchcock lets the audience experience the voyeurism as Jeff does, through the lens of his binoculars.  We don’t know any more about the characters he is witnessing than he does.  This makes the film so much fun to watch, and it provides the suspense necessary for any good Hitchcock film. 

Grace Kelly plays Jimmy Stewart’s love interest, and I can say without hesitation that it is the most stunningly beautiful that anyone has ever looked on celluloid (I checked with the wifey—she agrees with me, so no offense taken from her). 

2.  Rebecca (1940)

The only Hitchcock film to ever win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, this flick based on Daphne Du Maurier’s novel of the same title uses one of Hitchcock’s ongoing themes in his films: the mysteriousness, and haunting nature of women (more on that in my #1 film).  This particular film concerns a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who marries a rich widower (Laurence Olivier, who’s great as always) and moves out to his mansion.  When she gets there, she finds that the memory and ghost of her husband’s dead wife is maintaining a strong and paranormal grip on the house and its servants.  The performance here that is normally singled out is Judith Anderson, who plays a creepy-as-hell housekeeper bent on making things a bit, shall we say, “difficult” for the new resident of the house.

1.  Vertigo (1958)

I have to admit bias at the outset for the coming gushing over this film, since it sits comfortably inside my personal top 10 of all time list at #8.  But there is much to gush over here.  In Jimmy Stewart’s all-time best performance, he plays Scottie, a former detective who is contracted to do some private investigation work, tracing the wife of an old schoolmate.  After saving her when she falls into the San Francisco Bay, he slowly begins to fall in love with her.  To give away much more of the plot would necessitate spoilers, but the story that ensues is one of passion, obsession, a bit of voyeurism, and even paranormal, and it is all packaged inside the box of one of Hitchcock’s standard thrillers. 

It’s not difficult to make the case for Vertigo being the #1 film on any Hitchcock list.  The plot, much like the title implies, is off-kilter and eccentric, which is probably why it was not well received at the time, and failed to make much money at the box office.  There is a fascinating and genius 20-minute sequence near the beginning of the film, in which Scottie follows his subject around San Francisco (gorgeously shot by Hitchock, of course), containing almost zero dialogue and using beautiful images, and a wide array of lighting and colors. 

The use of color and light continues throughout the film to capture the vibrancy of Judy, Scottie’s obsession.  The video below encapsulates this perfectly (which is not spoilery out of context) in one of my absolute favorite scenes in film history (check out the corresponding screenshot in my banner at the top of the blog).

Vertigo recently toppled long-time champ Citizen Kane and claimed the #1 spot on the Sight & Sound Poll, what I think is the most prestigious film list out there, done once every ten years.  All hail the Hitch.