Oh Hitchcock, the greatest of auteurs, the most influential director in film history who amazingly never won an Oscar for Best Director (He was nominated 5 times), because he was considered an entertainer and not an artist. Hitchcock’s critical reputation began to be rescued during his interview with Francois Truffaut in 1966. Truffaut and his other French New Wave compatriots saw what we see now: a director at the height of his craft, who created more interesting images in one film than some directors have in a career.
Recently as a COVID quarantine exercise, I revisited most of Hitchcock’s filmography and decided it would be fun to make a list of my favorite Hitchcock movies. Being that I kept the list short, I kept a number of films that I love off of this list. (Apologies to North by Northwest, Notorious, Shadow of Doubt, Rebecca, both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Dial M for Murder, and many more). I tried to keep my list to the movies that intrigued me most psychologically and emotionally. I was not looking for flawless films as many of the films on my list are imperfect, blemished works. For example, number 5 on my list, which is a very flawed movie…
5) Marnie (1964)
A fascinating, disaster of a film. (Truffaut called it a “flawed masterpiece”). Marnie was a critical and box office failure when it came out, and it is easy to see why. It is equal parts enigmatic and silly in its attempts at psychoanalysis. It is not a film I’d call a “crowd-pleaser” but a long meandering meditation on control, sexuality and trauma.
Nevertheless, I love this movie. In part because it is a one-of-a-kind character study of repression and sex, partly because Tippi Hendren gives a wunderkind performance that is equal parts icy, earnest, and devastating, and in part because there is a campy, overly earnest element to it that is missing from most Hitchcocks movies (I think of the mother’s affected, exaggerated accent or Sean Connery’s barely concealed Scottish accent despite being from Philadelphia).
As a psychotherapist myself, I appreciate the psychoanalytic elements to it, such as the repression of traumatic memories that manifests itself in kleptomania and frigidness, even though I found the explanations a little too facile. (If only we could all be cured after uncovering the darkness of our childhoods). But in a modern film world of incomprehensible exposition (I’m looking at you Tenet), I am grateful to Hitchcock for even trying to go beneath the surface.
4) Rope (1948)
Another film that was a box office bomb and was maligned by critics upon release. It didn’t help that Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart both hated the film as well, while famous critics like Roger Ebert thought the film gimmicky. And I will admit that the screenplay and experimental no-take trick was probably unnecessary. (Would anything have been lost if the film was cut in a traditional way?).
But man is this movie suspenseful. The entire dinner sequence is a masterclass film blocking and tension. And John Dahl’s cloying, evil performance as a man so in love with his intellect that he will murder for the challenge is masterful. Lastly, few directors want to wrestle with humanity’s darkness, the parts of us that we all want to reject. After all, we are all “good people” in our internal narratives. (Even Heinrich Himmler discussed the decency of the SS in letters). But Hitchcock could see past this superficiality. He must have wondered how evils like Nazism and Leopold and Loeb, who reportedly influenced the film, still existed in a world where everyone thought of themselves as “moral.” Films like Rope explore this repressed darkness with flair and bravado.
3) Psycho (1960)
From 1958 to 1960, Hitchcock made three movies, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho, which are generally considered three of the best films of all time. No other director has quite had a run like that. (The only other ones that come to mind are Coppola with The Godfather, The Godfather II, and The Conversation in a 3-year span or Kurosawa making Rashomon, Ikiru, and Seven Samurai in a 4-year span).
Psycho is markedly different from the previous two. Vertigo and North by Northwest are shot in lush, technicolor cinematography while Psycho is shot in black and white. Psycho also had a significantly smaller budget as Hitchcock wanted to make the film feel as if the production was cheap. While the other two movies were romantic and grand, Psycho feels horrific and small, a horror story designed to get under our skins. All of this works perfectly.
There is much to call attention to about the craft of Psycho, but I’d like to call attention to my favorite part of the film. In his interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock states that every director should be trained in silent filmmaking in order to learn how to tell a story through images alone. Psycho is a prime example of Hitchcock’s talent for silent cinema. From the moment after Norman Bates and Marion Crain share a meal together to when Norman Bates sinks Marion Crane’s car into the moat after her murder, Psycho turns into an almost wordless film for 15 minutes. (The only word spoken is Norman Bates yelling, “Mother!” after he discovers the murder). In this wordless sequence, there are many of the most famous shots in any movie, including the shower scene, which deserves all the praise it has gotten. But even more impressive is the slow pan away from Marion Crane’s dead eye. It’s such a chilling vantage point of the monstrosity that has just happened.
As others have noted, Psycho’s biggest flaw is the psychiatrist’s explanation at the end. It adds nothing to the movie, and I’m not sure why Hitchcock decided to turn the last 5 minutes into a Christopher Nolan exposition-fest. Everything could be gleaned from the previous 2 hours of film. C’est la vie.
2) Rear Window (1954)
Another film that does wonders with wordless sequences, Rear Window was once my favorite Hitchcock film. It’s impeccably edited, and lets the images do the storytelling. With just a few minutes of camera exploration, we get to know Miss Torso, the composer, Miss Lonelyhearts, the Newlyweds, and others. It’s also so fun. Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly glow in technicolor (I also love Thelma Ritter’s Stella, whose homespun wisdom and frankness provide the laughs). And it has interesting themes about filmmaking and voyeurism.
Rear Window also has my favorite moment in any Hitchcock film: the moment when the murderer, Lars Thornwall (Raymond Burr), looks out his window and sees Jimmy Stewart staring at him through a long lens camera. The first time I saw this scene, I actually yelped. What a moment! We identify completely with Jimmy Stewart at this point in the movie, and now we’ve been found out as peeping toms, voyeurs into other people’s lives.
As I’ve grown older, however, I tend to grow a bit more bored with the scenes of Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly arguing about her suitableness for marriage. I understand why it’s there, it’s a part of the character development of Jimmy Stewart’s character to fall in love with her by the end. But let’s just say I find it on the incredulous side that anyone would reject Grace Kelly in that way.
1) Vertigo (1958)
Of course, number one has to be Vertigo, the film voted by critics as the greatest of all time in 2012. I must admit when I first saw it, I didn’t understand all the fuss. I enjoyed it but it was undoubtedly weird. Compared to a film like Rear Window, where every element of the film is perfectly planned and executed, Vertigo felt wayward and unfocused. Its themes of obsession and love were themes in my own personal life that I had struggled with and did not fully understand. In short, it was beyond me.
But I kept revisiting Vertigo over the years because something primal about it called to me. Each time I’ve seen it, it has grown on me. It casts a spell on me like few movies ever have. It is dreamlike and hypnotic. I feel in a trance at some of its images. It somehow digs into some primal, unconscious feelings I have about sex and desire that I have never fully been able to articulate.
Now when I watch it, I love how weird Vertigo is. Besides maybe Marnie, it is the least Hitchcockian film. Yes, it does have some of the Hitchcockian elements we come to expect like a Bernard Hermann score, beautiful technicolor images, a Mcguffin that is mostly pointless and usually around a murder or crime, a cameo by the director, and an icy blonde, Kim Novak, in the lead role.
But other elements have no other parallels in other Hitchcock movies. Take the wordless driving sequence as Jimmy Stewart follows Kim Novak to see where she is going. The music is so lush and trance-inducing. Jimmy Stewart’s face becomes more and more intrigued and obsessed with his object as he follows her. These scenes could have easily been shorter or maybe even eliminated altogether. But they work to take us further down the rabbit hole. This quiet sequence stays with me more than even the more celebrated Vertigo scenes.
I would be remiss to not say more about Bernard Hermann’s score. It is in my opinion the greatest score in a movie. I am not a music critic, but without the score, many of the scenes in Vertigo might have fallen flat. Instead, they are heightened to such elevated desire for something ineffable which Jimmy Stewart has lost, but that we as an audience all feel.
Unlike Rear Window or Psycho which are just about perfectly constructed, Vertigo’s construction feels a bit messier. And some of the Midge scenes just don’t work for me. (I always laugh when Midge berates herself). But it is this messiness ironically which makes it a superior film. The messiness is an entry to our unconscious where our deepest, more primitive feelings are, the ones that can only be excavated only in our dream worlds or maybe through psychedelics. But somehow Vertigo lets us enter this state like few movies ever have. Because of this entryway into the collective unconscious, it is easily my favorite Hitchcock film, and one of my 3 or 4 favorite movies ever made.