23 March 2011

So You Want to Start Watching Hitchcock Films, an Introduction

So You Want to Start Watching _______is an occasional feature here at Streams of Unconsciousness. It is a guide to anyone unfamiliar with a particular star, director, genre, or time period in films. After a brief introduction, I will provide a sampling of films to watch. Although I will always strive to include the best possible films for each chapter in the series, I will also look to present representative work. I'll say a little bit about each film, all of which will be provided in chronological order. This is the third of the series. In the first I provided an introduction to the films of Humphrey Bogart the second was an intro to screwball comedies in the third I introduced films of the 1970s and the most recent was an introduction to Westerns.

So you're new to Hitchcock, eh? Unless you're under, oh let's say 22 years old, or have spent most of your life rafting down the Amazon, I'm quite frankly amazed. Then again I'm somewhat envious. You are about to embark a journey which will lead you to many great discoveries. Kind of like that trip down the Amazon.

Hitch was a prolific director who made films from the silent era through the 1970s. Hitchcock began his career in his native England and moved to the U.S. in 1940. Name a film star from 1930-1970 and she or he most likely starred in one of his films. Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Paul Newman, Joel McCrae, Doris Day, Robert Donat, Henry Fonda, Joseph Cotten, Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Sean Connery, Janet Leigh...I could go on. He has been the subject of myriad books (just check out Amazon -- the website, not the river). There are books on his body of work, individual films and straight bios. The one I find indispensable is Francois Truffaut's interviews of Hitchcock. Every film Hitchcock made through 1964 is discussed, some at great length.

Many critics, film makers and cinephiles consider him the greatest director of all time. It's an arguable point but one cannot dispute that he made one helluva lot of feature films and an amazing percentage of them are today considered classics, or at least widely admired. If you've not seen much of Hitchcock's work I hope you're young. There's a lot there and very little to bypass. Plus there are many you'll want to watch again and again. Anyway, I hope this helps get you started. It is not a list of what I consider -- or even a general consensus necessarily considers -- his best films, nor is it a list of my personal favorites. The ones I've chosen represent 43 years of film (not the entirety of his career, mind you). I tried to give a variety of types of films, with a variety of stars' locales etc. Call it a sampler.

Rear Window (1954) I normally make a point to list films in this series in the order they were released. However in this case I'm suggesting you start with Rear Window. It's classic Hitch. A fair number of folks (not including me) consider it his best, or at least their favorite. I think it's a litmus test though. If somehow you don't care for Rear Window you may as well as forget the whole thing. If you like it...fasten your seat belts. Rear Window is classic Hitchcock suspense. It has most of the trademarks of his films. Specifically suspense, mystery, suspicion, voyeurism and a gorgeous blonde (Grace Kelly). Jimmy Stewart is the wheelchair bound photographer who thinks he's on to a murderer and Raymond Burr is his suspect. Try it, you'll like it.

Blackmail (1929) I start here rather than with a silent film because quite honestly I've not seen enough of them to choose one. This is a good starting point, nonetheless. Indeed it is Hitchcock's first talkie and he got off to a rousing start. Not surprisingly the story centers around a case of blackmail, but as with all good Hitch films, the enjoyment comes from how the story is told. With black and white films Hitch was masterful at using shadows and in his color films, the colors are often deep and lush and accent the story. Blackmail is the first of many Hitchcock films to feature a climactic scene in a famous place, in this case The British Museum.

The 39 Steps (1935) In my not always humble opinion, this ranks right up there among Hitchcock's best. It presages a lot of what you'll see throughout the rest of his career. Innocent man accused of heinous crime, on the run, involved with blonde woman, daring escapes and of course a McGuffin. A McGuffin is a plot device, such as the secret formula, that is the reason our hero is in trouble. Hitch never spent much time working out the McGuffin, he was more interested in how characters dealt with the circumstances they caused. In The 39 Steps Robert Donat is the hero, falsely accused of murder and being pursued by nefarious enemy spies in addition to the police. Here he travels through a large part of Great Britain. Just as Cary Grant would cover a lot of U.S. territory some 25 years later in North By Northwest (1959). Donat brings the kind of wit and charm, along with cunning and daring, that would come to exemplify the Hitchcock hero.

Foreign Correspondent (1940) Joel McCrea is a crime reporter sent by his American newspaper to cover the forthcoming war in Europe. He has all manner of adventure, some of which are carried out with a fair maiden (Laraine Day). There are nasty double agents, attempts to kill our hero and drama aplenty. Any director could make a decent film out of such a story but Hitchcock made a classic. Whether with windmills or umbrellas, he created some indelible scenes and moments. As with most of Hitchcock's films there's a dose of humor. In this case much of it comes courtesy of Robert Benchley. The stellar cast also includes George Sanders, Herbert Marshall and Edmund Gwenn as a hit man (Santa as a hit man?). Don't be put off by this bizarre but apparently true tidbit: Joseph Goebbels loved this film. Go figure.

Notorious (1946) You can't do much better then Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman starring and Claude Rains in the key supporting role. I dare you to try. This is one of the most exquisitely filmed movies ever committed to celluloid. The shot from the top of the staircase that ultimately focuses on a single key in Bergman's hands is the best of many examples. Please see this post of mine from two years ago.

I Confess (1953) Every artist has a production or two that is underrated. That is, it was neither a box office smash nor an award winner. In some cases the film is, like I Confess, highly thought of though seldom seen or talked about. Here again we have a man falsely accused, this time it's Montgomery Clift who plays a priest who is in fact the real killer's confessor. A mind blowing idea for a story. In the hands of a craftsman like Hitchcock, it is at once enthralling and beautiful to look at (filmed largely in Toronto). Here is a classic example of Hitchcock's wizardry at telling a dramatic story all the more dramatically through his choice of camera angles, lighting and perspective.

Vertigo (1958) You'll see this on many greatest films of all time lists. Frankly I can't believe you haven't seen it yet. I've tried to write about Vertigo many times before but for me it always defies description. I suppose this is largely because it is so visually dramatic. Calling it a psychological thriller somewhat downplays the power of the story. If you must know its about an ex-police detective (Stewart) suffering from vertigo who is hired by an old friend to track his beautiful young wife (Kim Novak). There is all manner of mysterious behavior and of course Stewart falls in love with Novak. Then it gets complicated or weird or psychedelic. You see and decide for yourself. See it a few more times too. You'll want to.

Psycho (1960) Maybe you've heard of it or maybe you were literally born yesterday in which case your precocity is truly astounding. Let's assume for a second you've neither seen nor heard of it. Psycho follows a young woman (Janet Leigh) who absconds with her employer's dough and hightails in the direction of her boyfriend. This illicit road trip takes her to the Bates Motel which is run by a charming if quite eccentric young man named Norman (Anthony Perkins). Eventually she takes a shower and this is where the film takes a turn into cinematic history. Psycho was ground-breaking over 50 years ago. Today it holds up very nicely.

The Birds (1963) I toss and turn late some nights worrying that Peter Jackson is going to direct a re-make with giant birds descending upon the Golden Gate Bridge. The original is part horror story, part mystery. It features one of the great endings in film history. In the years since the film was released there have been any number of movies about animals gone wild wreaking havoc on poor little ole humans. As far as I can tell most of them, you should pardon the expression, suck. One of the great things about The Birds is that Hitchcock doesn't even bother trying to create some hackneyed explanation for this avian attack. There is no hidden moral lesson just below the surface either. What there is, is seriously scary. The cast includes Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren.

Frenzy (1972) The last really good film Hitchcock made. Lo and behold we have a murder suspect but he's the wrong man. The setting is London (it was shot there) and at large is a necktie killer who's preying on women. There's really nothing terribly special about the story but again it's the way Hitch tells it that matters. The camera work is excellent and serves to builds suspense and illuminate emotion and thoughts. Frenzy also suggests what Hitchcock might have done had he not spent the vast majority of his career inhibited the rigorous censorship of the production code (not that it kept him from making some of the greatest films of all time).

Other Hitchcock films I can recommend are: Seriously, there are like two dozen of them. I got you this far....


Sophie said...

One of my greatest cinematic memories is watching Rear Window in a crowded theater filled with Hitchcock "virgins." The audience reactions were almost as entertaining as the film. Priceless! My very first viewing of Vertigo was in a theater, and I left there totally gobsmacked, scarcely believing what I'd just seen. I appreciated it more than I liked it at first, and after many viewings, it still leaves me gobsmacked. Oh and that lovely, noble Robert Donat in The 39 Steps! Sorry, must stop! Thanks for the great list.

mordantfilms said...

Um, hello- Strangers on a Train

mordantfilms said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Teo said...

Man I love these "So You Want" articles of yours! Keep em coming! I'm gonna watch every single one of those films you've mentioned. Some of them I had completely forgotten but thanks to you I will now experience some of the greatest pictures of all time!


Anonymous said...

Great selection of Hitchcock films there and I too believe if you have seen all those films, you kind of know what Hitchcock has made. But, I would still add Shadow of a Doubt, just for that look-in-the-camera scene

P.s.:I Confess was largely shot in Quebec City, not in Toronto. My regards, from a Quebecer.

Alan Bacchus said...

Thanks for the fun article.
And good choices, though, Hitch newbies need to check out more of his black and white films as well. But as you say, there's very few misses.
Also, one minor correction. I Confess was largely shot in Quebec City

Prospero said...

"Pyscho" was "groundbreaking" for over 50 years, but just "holds up" today, 1 year after its 50th anniversary?

Richard Hourula said...

No it was groundbreaking 50 years ago and still holds up quite nicely. Don't know what's confusing about that.

Anne N. E. Mouse said...

This is as bad as that other article. All these movies are ancient. Why nothing from the past 35 years? No Obsession or Body Double or Femme Fatale? You are way too biased toward older films.

Unknown said...

I KNOW it's not one of the more "horror" type films, but how could you leave off "Rebecca"? Not only is it his only Best Picture winner, but it is an early and masterful use of suspense, camera and lighting effects, and surprise twists.Should not be missed by any new fan.

Anonymous said...

Rear Window is my all-time favorite, but if you're just starting to watch Hitchcock, you must start with North by Northwest. Whenever I'm introducing a new Hitchcock viewer to his world, I always start with that and THEN got to Rear Window. Great list, otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I would say start with The 39 Steps, it will get you hooked on Hitchcock and is one of his earlier works. That, and the fact that is downright hillarious.

francois-xavier said...

I totally agree with Swanlady: Rebecca should have found a place in your list, for all the reason she already mentioned, but also to show that Hitch cannot be reduced to the "master of suspense" label. Another reason to notice this one, is because of its unnamed main character, a tous-de-force which did not begin with Fight club, as younger generations may think.

Anonymous said...

Whe I introduce anyone to Hitchcock I tend to start with NbyNW cause it is his most out right entertaining film. I Have a fondness for Rear Window, Rope, & Psycho. I find it odd that you missed films like The Man Who Knew Too Much (either version) & Rope, but another fine film that I think people tend to forget about is Lifeboat. Also to forget to list Starngers on a Train is just odd.

Richard Hourula said...

Clearly I should have just listed every film Hitchcock ever made and saved so many people the trouble of detailing what I'd left out.

Uncle John said...

I just want to say - please keep posting the "So you want to ... " lists. Know that the responses will be a little critical. Don't let them bother you.

Having said that - No "Strangers on a Train ?!? - C'mon....

Thanks for your list, my friend.

Kyle said...

I don't necessarily blame you for leaving it off, but The Lady Vanishes is probably my favorite of his films. Well, that and Psycho... and Rear Window... and Rebecca... and Suspicion... and Spellbound... and The 39 Steps... and...

Anonymous said...

Sorry to be nitpicky, but it's Joseph Cotten (not Cotton). Also, I am soooo tired of Vertigo being included in Hitch's canon of greats. To me, it is a film that just does not work. I think its relatively recent surge in popularity has more to do with critics who need something new to say about Hitch than about the quality of the film. I mean, Rear Window is a near-perfect movie, but how many times can you discuss it without saying something someone else has already said? By puffing up one of his lesser films, you suddenly have something new to discuss.

Richard Hourula said...

I can fix the misspelling of Cotten's name but I doubt I can fix your misguided opinion of Vertigo. By the way it first appeared on Sight & Sound's Top Ten Films poll in 1982. It has similarly been hailed by various organizations and critics for longer than that. To call it one of his "lesser films" is, at best, disingenuous.

Dave said...

Nice writeup! Kudos for mentioning Truffaut's wonderful book. For general accessibility, I'd say start with 'Northwest' or 'Birds' or 'Psycho' or... Personal favorite is 'Vertigo' - perhaps partly because I love the San Francisco locales.
The Birds
North by Northwest
The Man Who Knew Too Much
Rear Window
Dial M for Murder
Strangers on a Train
Shadow of a Doubt
Foreign Correspondent
The Lady Vanishes
The 39 Steps

Brad said...

Vertigo is THE definitive Hitchcock movie, an absolute masterpiece. No offense to Rear Window, but Vertigo is as close to a perfect movie as ever made. Only someone called "Anonymous" would joke that it is anything less.