Really, I shouldn’t have to say anything else, right? If you’re a classic movie fan, I can just utter the word “Hitch” and wait for the nods of comprehension. When one “outs” oneself as a Hitchcock fan, at least in my experience, the result is a long discussion/debate/vehement argument about which film in the director’s repertoire is, in fact, the “best.”
This series has been in the works for a while, ever since Kate over at Silents and Talkies posted a list of her 20 favorite Hitchcock films. I don’t know about Kate, but I have found it to be beyond difficult to construct such a list … at least, it is difficult to RANK such a list. Ultimately, I find myself at an impasse, of sorts: I have two favorites for my numero uno Hitch classic, neither of which I can comfortably rank above the other. So, as this list progresses over the next few days, please indulge the presence of two “number one” films (hey, I make the rules. Well, most of the rules. But Carrie’s not here, so she can’t stop me. Mine is an evil laugh).
By most counts, Hitch directed over 50 films, including his pre-1940 efforts in England, many of which I sadly have yet to see. Therefore, my list is weighted unequivocally toward the director’s American films. One of my classic viewing goals this year is to catch up on those British productions, so perhaps I will be able to update this listing if and when I manage to do so.
Without further ado, starting from the bottom, and working my way up, numbers 20-16 on my list of Hitchcock’s greatest.
20. The Trouble with Harry (1955)
Hitchcock is not especially known for having a particularly deft hand with comedy; he only directed one true comedy during his time in Hollywood (I’ll get to that movie later), and though there is a vein of macabre amusement running through several of his films, I think he was wise to focus his directorial efforts elsewhere throughout his career. That being said, The Trouble with Harry is rather light fare for a Hitch film, even if it does involve a corpse!
When several citizens of a small New England town stumble across a dead body (the eponymous Harry) in the nearby hills, a comical struggle to conceal the “evidence” ensues between them, as each person who comes across the body thinks he or she is responsible for the man’s mysterious demise. In the midst of this chaos, the man’s estranged young widow, Jennifer, falls in love with a curious local artist, and everyone tries to hide the crime from the dour local sheriff by burying (and repeatedly exhuming and re-burying) the body.
Hitchcock often claimed this film to be one of his personal favorites, despite its lack of critical and financial success at the box office, and it’s easy to see why. More than anything, the director loved to subvert the expectations of his audience. By taking this rather dark material and placing the story out in the bright, sunny open of an innocent New England setting, the situation seems more absurd than frightening, more worthy of uneasy laughter than screams of fright.
This movie marks the first collaboration between Hitch and composer Bernard Herrmann, who would later win acclaim for scoring some of Hitchcock’s greatest films, including Vertigo, Psycho, and North by Northwest (all of which will appear later in this list). According to Turner Classic Movies, when preparing the score for the title sequence of this film, Herrmann temporarily inserted Funeral March of a Marionette as a placeholder–and that same song, accompanying the famous silhouette, would later become Hitchcock’s hallmark on the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Harry is also noteworthy for providing the first film role for its leading lady, Shirley MacLaine, and one of the first roles for young Jerry Mathers, who would soon after gain fame on television as the Beaver.
19. Rope (1948)
One of Hitchcock’s most ambitious, yet ill-conceived experiments was the filming of this suspenseful drama. For so many reasons, the film doesn’t work. And yet, for so many others, it’s an interesting viewing experience.
Rope was the first film Hitchcock made after escaping the clutches of notorious perfectionist producer David O. Selznick, and several critics have questioned the choice of this somewhat limiting material for his first truly independent production. Based on the play Rope’s End by Patrick Hamilton (which was, in turn, based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924), the film revolves around two college students and “roommates” (their sexual relationship is only loosely alluded to in the film), Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger). The two young men, testing their perceived mutual intelligence and skill, decide to commit the perfect murder and thereby strangle their friend, David, right before hosting a dinner party for David’s family and friends, including their former teacher, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart). Perversely, they place David’s body in the trunk upon which they intend to serve the meal. Brandon, especially, is intent on bragging about their success under the nose of the increasingly suspicious Rupert, who begins to believe that David’s increasing tardiness over the course of the evening is due to something more sinister than any of the guests may realize.
The material has the potential to be interesting, but instead, the movie drags on and on, even at its relatively brief running time of around 80 minutes. In large part, this is due to the manner in which Hitchcock filmed the movie. As a technical experiment, Hitch insisted on filming the movie in eight ten-minute continuous takes, requiring his actors to deliver their lines and movements flawlessly as the camera wheeled around furniture and set pieces, as one flub would result in torturous, lengthy retakes. The film’s expansive backdrop is especially noteworthy; it was reportedly the largest backdrop ever used on a sound stage. The clouds in the “sky” are what I find the most interesting; they were made of spun glass, and the prop masters were able to mold them into different shapes as the film progressed, so it looked as if they were truly moving and shifting as in nature.
The film has gained renewed interest among queer-theory scholars, as the homosexual themes (both overt and hidden) of the film are revisited by film critics. Similarly, the film’s attention to the philosophy of Nietzsche, and the concept of placing relativistic value on a human being’s life, has given way to criticism about the existentialist undertones of the film.
Hitch’s experiment, though ultimately a box-office failure, does have its moments of brilliance. Stewart gives a great performance as the increasingly unsettled professor, and Dall is particularly creepy as Brandon. I’m not saying this is a great film (it’s low on this list for a reason), but I enjoy the technical aspects, and that alone makes it worth a viewing.
18. The Birds (1963)
Hitchcock’s second foray into the horror genre, The Birds may not be the greatest of Hitchcock’s thrillers, but it’s certainly one of the few revolving around seemingly realistic events that could potentially happen to any viewer. Not everyone will be attacked by a murderer, married to a Nazi, stranded on a lifeboat, or hacked to death by a knife-wielding mama’s boy in their lifetime, but practically everyone has seen a scary-ass bird or two before!
Tippi Hedren stars as Melanie, a trouble-making dilettante who flirts with lawyer Mitch in a San Francisco pet shop, where he is trying to buy a pair of lovebirds for his sister’s birthday. Melanie buys the birds instead and travels to Mitch’s hometown of Bodega Bay, California, to deliver them in person. After completing her delivery by boat, Melanie is attacked by a seagull, but she brushes off the encounter. Then, all hell breaks loose as onslaughts of birds begin to ravage the town, leaving some citizens trapped in their homes as everyone tries to figure out why the birds have seemingly lost their little birdie minds.
Considering that the filmmakers were dealing with hundreds of live birds (in addition to some animated birds as well), the special effects are amazing. I don’t want to imagine what the bird wranglers had to deal with while trying to maneuver all of those animals around the set, but it’s impressive to think about. The film is also noteworthy as being the third Hitchcock adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier work (after 1939’s Jamaica Inn and 1940’s Oscar-winning Rebecca). The author was quite displeased with Hitchcock’s effort in adapting the first film, but relatively pleased with the results of the second. However, she professed to again disliking Hitchcock’s efforts in adapting The Birds, particularly the changes to the setting (the original took place in du Maurier’s home country of England).
Several years ago, in a class that focused on the construct of allegory in literature, art, and film, I gave a presentation on this film, bent on answering the one question that remains unanswered within the movie itself: what do the bird attacks mean? There are several popular theories: some critics see the attacks as an allegory for the Cold War; some see it as Hitchcock’s treatise on the inevitability of chaos; still others propose that the film uses the bird attacks to represent the frailty of human existence and the dangers of environmental encroachment.
As a feminist scholar, I was particularly interested in a Freudian-based analysis that looks at the women in the film as metaphorical “birds”: Annie, Lydia, and, to a lesser extent, Mitch’s sister, Cathy, have spent their lives flocking around Mitch, and when Melanie’s rampant sexuality threatens to displace their “roost,” the physical bird attacks are a manifestation of the displaced women’s fear and anger. Look at the mother whom Melanie slaps in the diner; the woman calls Melanie “evil” and points out that the attacks did not begin until she arrived in town. Considering Hitchcock’s occasional impulse for painting his female protagonists with a misogynistic hand–and treating his female actors somewhat badly–such a theory may not be far from the mark. Reportedly, Hitchcock was so enraged that Tippi Hedren had spurned his advances that the director prolonged the filming of the attic attack scene for several days, exhausting the actress, who was forced to stand in place and have live birds thrown at her for hours on end.
But getting back to my original point … perhaps the bird attacks mean all of these things. Perhaps they mean nothing. The titular birds may simply be yet another infamous Hitchcock “MacGuffin,” the long-desired object which serves as the rationale for the action in the film, but is not a particularly grave matter of concern for the audience. In the end, it doesn’t matter that we leave the film with no answers, that we are left only to watch our intrepid characters make an uneasy escape and leave their deadly avian foes to enjoy the spoils of their success. The genius of a film like The Birds is in the unsettled feeling with which the viewer is left after concluding the film, as every bird circling overhead causes a sudden, unmistakable sense of dread to develop in the pit of one’s stomach.
At least for the first couple of days after watching the movie, anyway.
17. Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Hitchcock’s second American film–and his first away from the controlling hand of Selznick–was this timely war thriller, starring the inimitable Joel McCrea.
McCrea stars as Johnny Jones, a crime reporter who sets out eagerly for his first international reporting job. When Jones, reporting under the name Huntley Haverstock, arrives in Holland to interview a pacifist named Stephen Fisher, he happens across a Dutch diplomat named Van Meer and finagles an interview. Jones later learns that Van Meer has disappeared, but when the diplomat reappears later in Amsterdam, Jones watches in horror as Van Meer is shot in the street. While trying to find the assassin, Jones enlists the help of a British correspondent, a man named ffolliott (yes, that’s spelled correctly) and Fisher’s daughter, Carol, with whom Jones soon falls in love. As they try to figure out who killed Van Meer, the trio uncovers a vast network of spies and must work together to expose them.
I adore McCrea, and the casting of slick-as-steel George Sanders as ffolliott is delightful (I could listen to that man’s voice all day). Laraine Day, as Carol, is one of Hitchcock’s weaker heroines, but even that doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of this film. And while the film contains an interesting mystery, the staging of the film is particularly intriguing. Two of the most famous scenes in the film take place in a windmill–a seemingly innocuous setting that becomes foreboding and spooky in Hitchcock’s hands, as you will see in the clip below–and in a plane that is bombed and subsequently crashes into the ocean. Considering the relative dearth of special effects knowledge in 1940, the plane crash looks remarkably believable on film.
Hitchcock made this movie while on loan to producer Walter Wanger, and during the filming was happy enough to be away from Selznick, whose notorious habit of badgering his directors (and everyone else) with constant memos had created tension on the set of Hitchcock’s previous project, Rebecca. But after filming, when the director discovered that Selznick was making a tidy profit from loaning Hitchcock’s talent to other studios, he became infuriated, damaging the men’s already uneasy relationship even further.
Still, part of the appeal of working on the picture–aside from escaping Selznick–was the chance to contribute, in some small way, to the war effort overseas; though the United States had yet to enter into the fracas of World War II, Hitchcock longed to support his fellow Britons in their fight against the Nazis. However, Hitchcock had to be sly in using propaganda so as to avoid angering the State Department. Therefore, the real enemy behind the film’s ring of spies is never really named … though anyone in the film’s audience at the time knew perfectly well that they were Nazis. In the end, with Foreign Correspondent, the director produced the pro-Britain statement he’d longed to make (Hitchcock was later able to fully and openly throw his support behind the Allied forces in the war by filming two French-language propaganda pictures, Bon Voyage and Aventure Malgache, as well as a documentary about the horrors of the Holocaust).