I just finished a three-session film class on Alfred Hitchcock. Over six hours, we tried to digest his remarkable career. Of course, it helps to have seen most of his films and much of his television anthology series.
Hitchcock is a lot of things, personality, auteur, mystery and macabre storyteller, and great observer of life. Like many other legendary filmmakers, Hitchcock had his passions and obsessions, which permeated his work. I cannot do justice to Hitchcock world in a blog, but I can pick my favorites of his work by decade, and offer a few observations of my own on his themes and reoccurring choices.
A few of my favorites, and then other of his important films of each decade.
1920s Young Hitchcock starts directing films in London. He quickly begins to find his style, even with limited production resources, which probably challenged him to be creative and find subtleties to communicate his artistic vision. His themes of wrongful accusation, fear of the police, the icy and smoldering blonde, and the kinky sexual undertones that people hide until they can’t.
The Lodger (1927) – A serial killer rents a room and begins showing attention to a girl who is dating a detective that becomes suspicious of the lodger. Pretty blonde girls are the victims. An early film that shows some of what Hitchcock will later utilize.
1930s Hitchcock came into his own. In this decade he firmly established his narrative style. The themes he worked with in previous decade, he perfected: foreign intrigue and being weary of the law. Average men mistakenly caught up in big trouble. The hint of sex, and always some dry humor.
The 39 Steps (1935) – Spies, a wronged man and a cross country chase. This formula would be used by Hitchcock multiple times. One of the best of his English films
Sabotage (1936) – Foreign agents operating undercover. Scotland Yard has their location under surveillance. A detective is sent undercover, his identity becomes known.
Secret Agent (1936) – A British soldier returns home from the war and discovers he is dead. This serves as his cover to become a government agent in Europe. Peter Lorre is around for comic-relief. An unusual spy story, but with Hitchcock, he likes to take things in a different direction. Not great, but interesting.
The Lady Vanishes (1938) – Passenger on a train are forced to stay overnight in a village. When they re-board the train, one of them is missing, and thus begins the search for her. Interesting in part because the protagonist is a woman.
1940s Hitchcock relocates to Hollywood and makes several films for David O. Selznick. This was a very successful decade for Hitchcock, now with bigger budgets and production values. Still, a hit and miss decade, particularly the later years.
Foreign Correspondent (1940) – Joel McCrea stars an American reporter in London on the eve of WWII. The film is filled with intrigue – and humor. Along with McCrea are George Sanders, Laraine Day, Edmund Gwynn, Robert Benchley and Herbert Marshall. This more than a cerebral film about moral responsibility, it has great visuals: the windmills, the escape scenes and the airplane crash into the sea. This may be Hitchcock’s best overall film of the decade.
Rebecca (1940) – Laurence Olivia and Joan Fontaine star in this adaption of Daphne du Maurier’s novel of psychological intrigue. A big commercial and critical success.
Suspicion (1941) – Cary Grant uses his dashing persona to play a cad, who may be planning to murder his new wife for her father’s money.
Saboteur (1942) – Bob Cummings is the average Joe who is mistaken for a munitions factory saboteur and chased across country by the police and foreign agents. He has to convince a young lady to help him after taking her hostage. There are attempts on his life and a daring sequence on the Statue of Liberty, similar to North By Northwest.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright star in this mystery about the popular Uncle Charlie, who may not be who he pretends to be. The truth about Uncle Charlie’s past becomes frighteningly clear to his his worshiping niece.
Lifeboat (1944) – A group of survivors of a German U-Boat attack end up in a lifeboat. They rescue a German sailor who causes great division in an already struggling group. Is he the captain of the U-Boat which also sank? Why is he dividing the survivors and a great threat to their survival? Lives are debated and decided by this small community of people from different walks of life. One of Hitchcock’s most penetrating films into the depth of the human psyche.
Spellbound (1945) – Gregory Peck plays a psychiatrist who may not be who he claims to be, and Ingrid Bergman is another psychiatrist who falls in love with him, and together try to find the truth. Is he a murder? I found this a bit convoluted and stretching the bounds of believability. Interesting, but not great.
Notorious (1946) – Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman star in this post-war thriller about spies and atomic secrets. Grant and Bergman are very good together. I was thinking Howard Hawks as I watched this film, the ones with Bogart. This film was co-written by Ben Hecht (Withering Heights, Gunga Din, His Girl Friday), photographed by Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, The Grapes of Wrath)
Also: Rope (1948)
1950s Hitchcock’s most successful period. An independent producer, he had sweet contracts with movie studios. Hitchcock utilized three main stars during this period: Cary Grant, James Stewart and Grace Kelly.
Rear Window (1953) – This film is amazingly good. James Stewart and Grace Kelly are marvelous together. The entire film was made on a soundstage as Hitchcock creates this community experience with visual care. The tension is palatable, building to the last moments of the film. I have seen this film probably a hundred times and I never get bored with it.
To Catch a Thief (1955) – A light, romantic, thriller. Somehow, all of the elements of this film work. Lightweight? Yes. Fun? Yes. Grace Kelly and the French Riviera? A dashing and daring cat burglar, and a beautiful and spirited American heiress.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) – Another classic that I never really appreciated. A remake of one of Hitchcock’s earlier films. It has some extraordinary visual scenes and a great deal of dramatic tension. For me, the problem is with the performances of James Stewart and Doris Day, which I do not find very engaging. The film feels longer than it should be.
Vertigo (1958) – Recognized as perhaps Hitchcock’s best film, I would disagree. Yes, it is a moody, complex, psychological thriller, with great production values and disturbingly fine performances, but it leaves me cold.
North By Northwest (1959) – The best and last of his romantic, thrillers. This film ended a tremendously successful period. If I had to pick between this film and Rear Window as my favorite Hitchcock film, I might not be able to do it. Both are superb.
The television show (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) – From 1955 to 1965, Hitchcock produced a weekly anthology series. At first, it was presented as a 30 minute program, but the last years were 60 minute programs, for a total of 361 episodes. Hitchcock opened and closed each program, delivering a witty introduction to the story viewers were about to see. His weekly appearances made him a star, but he placed production of the series in the hands of assistant Joan Harrison and actor Norman Lloyd.
Also: Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Wrong Man (1956).
1960s The decade started with two of his greatest films, and then petered out. Something terrible happened – his films got boring.
Psycho (1960) – Maybe his most controversial film, it certainly became a classic. Hitchcock used his television crew to film what might be his most cinematic film. This would serve as the peak of his career.
The Birds (1963) – Not quite as impactful as Psycho, but not much of a step down. This thriller is more like the disaster films of the next decade. My main complaint with this film is the lack of character exposition. You know only slightly more about them at the end as you do at the start of the film.
Also: Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969).
Frenzy (1972) – Hitchcock’s first substantial hit for a decade. Fashionable and brutal, Hitchcock returns to his English roots for this serial murder mystery. This film is shocking like Psycho was a decade before. The wrong man is suspected of necktie murders. Hitchcock’s best film since The Birds.
Family Plot (1976) – An odd mix of comedy and crime thriller, the film does not succeed at either. From the man who gave us Psycho, North By Northwest and Vertigo, this film is a lightweight, throwback to his earliest films.