Two Lists, Ten Favorites: Films of Alfred Hitchcock
by HELEN GEIB and NIR SHALEV
An occasional feature where Helen and Nir compare their five favorite films by some of the greats of world cinema.
NIR’S TOP FIVE
5) North by Northwest (1959)
This film is the quintessence of a fun-filled adventure that’s at times wracked with suspense. Shot brilliantly and involving a sinister crop field, a knifing at the UN, and a chase across Mount Rushmore, North by Northwest is Alfred Hitchcock’s most entertaining, no holds barred and unique chase film that places the classic “wrong man” scenario at its core. It stars the ever reliable Cary Grant, the beautiful Eva Marie Saint, and the always-awesome-as-a-bad-guy James Mason. Also, look out for a ridiculously young but brilliant Martin Landau.
4) I Confess (1953)
As I’d mentioned in my review for this film, I’d only recently watched it for the first time but I’ve quickly fallen in love with it. The moral dilemma that Montgomery Clift’s Father Michael has to go through is presented brilliantly by the actor and his expressive face and the visual imagery that Hitchcock uses as metaphors for what’s going on inside his mind is brilliant.
3) Notorious (1946)
Notorious is a character driven film about a woman who’s recruited to pretend to be the lover of a Nazi supporter, but only after she’d fallen for the man that had recruited her. Her feelings get in the way of her work and the second and third acts of the film are nerve-wrecking but gorgeous to behold. From the first time I watched this film I’d noted that, on a technical level, this is one of Hitchcock’s best films. Upon a second viewing I’d noticed how important it was for Hitchcock to allow the characters to create the actions and not the other way around. The visual cues (sinister shadowy figures, the glowing glass of poisoned milk, the look on Ingrid Bergman’s face when she realizes that she’d been poisoned) are presented as obvious but brilliant as night and day. This is a perfect film.
2) Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
I love this film and dub Hitchcock a genius for casting the lively Joseph Cotten as a serial killer. After having escaped the city, Charlie Oakley (Cotten) travels to his sister’s suburban home and decides to stay with the family on a temporary basis; Hitchcock utilizes the “killer in the daylight” type of storytelling. Uncle Charlie rekindles his great friendship with his niece Charlotte, also known as Charlie (Theresa Wright) but constantly has to switch between who he is- a psychopath- and a who he pretends to be- a wonderful and loving human being. When it comes to serial killers in films Cotten’s performance is one of the best that I’ve ever seen, because one minute he’s the nicest man in the world and with the drop of a coin he turns nasty and violent. Cotten conveys the emotions with his entire body and especially with his angel face, and he delivers one of the best performances in his career.
1) Vertigo (1958)
When Vertigo initially came out it was, basically, spat on. Critics hated it and it flopped at the box office. That was because Hitchcock hadn’t yet delivered a film as dark as Vertigo and audiences had never thought that he’d go that route. Fast forward a few decades and slowly but surely, Vertigo creeps up into the daylight to be revisited by film buffs and historians, and the world had eventually realizes what it missed.
Psycho (1960) is nothing compared to Vertigo because Psycho tells the story of a woman who commits a crime and eventually pays for it when she comes across a schizophrenic psychopath who also believes he’s his own deceased mother. Vertigo tells a labyrinthine story involving Scottie, a retired detective (James Stewart), Madeleine (Kim Novak), the woman that he’s paid to follow and keep tabs on, her attempted suicide, his rescuing her, their falling in love, and then her actual suicide. After Scottie manages to recover from the shock, which takes many months he spots an actress that looks remarkably similar to Madeleine. As he falls deeply in love with the Madeleine lookalike, he delves into a deranged state of mind because he wants to recreate the woman that he’d supposedly murdered. Undertones of necrophilia are not accidental in this film as Scottie recreates Madeleine using the newfound version of her; and Hitchcock still continues to show that there’s more detective work to be done. By redressing and recreating the actress as Madeleine, Scottie undresses Madeleine in his head. Sounds creepy? Well it’s a haunting film but it’s a beautiful one at that and I tear up every time that I watch it.
Lastly, film composer Bernard Herrmann provides the score for Vertigo and it’s one of the most haunting, emotional, and beautiful scores that I’ve ever heard. Vertigo is Hitchcock’s undisputed and greatest masterpiece and it’s also my favorite film of his.
HELEN’S TOP FIVE
5) The 39 Steps (1935)
After Nir and I decided Alfred Hitchcock would be the subject of our second “ten favorites” post, it didn’t take me long to realize that I don’t have five favorite Hitchcock films. I have a top three, but after that I hit a shortlist of his movies that I particularly like, that I’ve watched and re-watched with pleasure, and that I don’t especially favor, one over another. So while today my number five slot is filled with The 39 Steps, tomorrow it might be filled with Strangers on a Train, Foreign Correspondent, Sabotage or another title. Some things I particularly like about today’s favorite: the charming Robert Donat and lovely Madeleine Carroll; the sparking screenplay by Charles Bennett; and a story that I also greatly enjoyed in the original novel by John Buchan and the 1950s adaptation with Kenneth More.
4) Rear Window (1954)
I bumped Rear Window from the shortlist to the number four slot because it’s a movie made for cinephiles.
3) Stage Fright (1950)
I have an unreasoning love for this movie. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of good reasons to love it, because there certainly are, starting with an excellent mystery and gorgeous black and white cinematography (just look at those shadows!). Nevertheless, my love goes beyond reason, which I suppose is as good a working definition of “favorite” as any. What I most love is the characters and performances: Jane Wyman and Michael Wilding are wonderfully appealing as the heroine-amateur detective and love interest-professional detective; Marlene Dietrich is delicious as an aging diva; Richard Todd is remarkable playing against type as the twitchy prime suspect; and Alastair Sim is beyond fantastic the heroine’s eccentric father.
2) Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
After Nir and I didn’t overlap at all on our Kurosawa lists, I figured we probably wouldn’t have any Hitchcock favorites in common either. So I was tickled when I got his list and saw that of all the great movies Hitchcock made, it was the comparatively little known Shadow of a Doubt that should show up on both our lists- and in the very same spot even! However, since uniformity is dull, I’m relieved to see that our reasons are different: While I fully acknowledge and appreciate the brilliance of Joseph Cotten’s performance, it’s the never-better Theresa Wright who has my allegiance.
1) The Lady Vanishes (1938)
One of the great things about Hitchcock is that his best films are so precisely, perfectly balanced. The Lady Vanishes is an inexhaustibly entertaining blend of suspense, romance, comedy, and action. There’s even some topical politics worked in. The exceptionally witty script is by Sydney Gilliat and Frank Launder, the filmmaking team behind some of the best British films of the 1940s and ’50s, and the cast is filled with great, quintessentially British stars- Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood- and character actors- Dame May Whitty, Cecil Parker, Naunton Wayne, Basil Radford, Googie Withers….
What are your favorite Hitchcock films?