Sunday, June 8, 2014

My Favorite Films: Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock is easily one of the greatest film directors of all time. His films are technically fantastic, clever, compelling and entertaining. His characters are deep and layered. Interestingly though, I find that my favorite films of his are not the ones that always get cited. Here are my favorites.

1. Rope (1948): This is by far the most clever, sickest film Hitchcock has done. The story of two men who kill another man and then invite his family to have a dinner party with the body hidden in the room, this thing is perhaps the best written film I’ve ever seen. This is also one of those rare times where you see the director’s choices actually controlling the story, and Hitchcock proves to be a master at manipulating your tensions.

2. The Trouble With Harry (1955): This is easily the nicest Hitchcock film. It’s essentially a soft, but dark comedy about a group of people who find a body and all think they may have killed him.

3. North by Northwest (1959): This film should be in the debate for greatest film of all time. The acting, the direction, and the twisting plot are iconic and nearly perfect. This film also has the sexiest scene ever shot as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint flirt on the train.

4. Lifeboat (1944): Made during WWII, or else I suspect the ending would be different, this is a highly political film as it is awash in capitalists, communists, and Nazis, and it all takes place on board a single lifeboat. This is another one that needs incredibly strong characters and dialog to work, and it has them.

5. Dial M For Murder (1954): Ray Milland deserves consideration as one of the most vile villains of all time in this film. The way he lets his wife go down for murder is sickening and Hitchcock manages to convey a tremendous amount of raw emotion to his audience in a film that is so sedate on the surface that it could be about an afternoon tea.

6. Topaz (1969): This is a deeply flawed film and perhaps what draws me to it is the potential it never achieves. Actually, what draws me to this film is that it is the only real attempt at making a true (i.e. real life) spy story during the Cold War and everything about it overflows with interest. It’s just too bad that the film ultimately feels like it lacks a climax.

7. The Birds (1963): Tippi Hedron and Rod Taylor have amazing chemistry in this suspense/horror film. The effects are amazing too, given the total lack of CGI and other similar effects. And while the premise may not be that scary in real life, the story feels real and this is a character film more than anything.

8. Turn Curtain (1966): This is another defective film. This one is about Paul Newman as the defector whose girlfriend Julie Andrews follows him to East Germany against his desires. But is he really a defector? The plot to this one feels a little too restrained to call this a great film, but the story has tension and solid characters. I suspect that if Hitchcock had dropped Andrews from the story, he might have made an all time classic here. As it is, he made an enjoyable film with an interesting plot and characters you like a good deal.

9. Vertigo (1958): A tale of obsession, this is often listed by critics as Hitchcock’s greatest film. Others cite it as evidence of his own sick mental state. Personally, I see it as a beautifully shot, beautifully acted film that holds strong interest, but isn’t my favorite to watch.

10. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): As with the others, this film has some flaws. Things happen too easily for the heroes. Some scenes are too drawn out. And Doris Day isn’t the greatest actress. That said, this one feels solid. The trip to Marrakesh is fascinating, even if it is all faked. Jimmy Stewart is compelling. And the way the mystery of the plot builds holds your interest.

11. Strangers On A Train (1951): This is a fascinating film. With homosexual undertones and an array of moral questions just beneath the surface, this one is about a man who stupidly agrees to exchange murders with another man he meets on a train.

12. Rear Window (1954): This is probably Hitchcock’s favorite film for the public and it is a very good film. It’s also one of Hitchcock’s most straight-forward “what you see is what you get” films.



Floyd R. Turbo said...

I've got North by NW at the top... how DOES a girl like Eve Kendall get to be a girl like her??? I still want to know dammit. In my top 5

Rope -- agreed... it is Hitchcock's most brilliant and portrays a worldview perfectly... gay undertone trigger warnings!

High Anxiety... Mel Brooks' Hitch satire... not quite up to Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles... but not far below in my book.

AndrewPrice said...

Floyd, I couldn't agree more about High Anxiety! That's such a great parody of Hitchcock's work. It's smart, funny and on point without ever being insulting. :D

Rope really is a complex story. You've got the whole superman/Hitler thing, you've got the gay undertones, you've got the sickness of inviting the family. And most interestingly, you've got the audience feeling tense about these guys getting caught when that should be exactly what you want to see happen! It's brilliant.

Tennessee Jed said...

North by Northwest at the top of my list and Psycho right there as well. To fully appreciate the impact Psycho had on the genre, you had to have been there. Masterful acting, camera work. The marketing campaign perhaps the best of all time.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I can't deny that Psycho is a great and important movie. It's just not one that I reach for personally very often. I think the ending kind of ruins it for me because it doesn't seem as shocking as it would have in the 1960s.

AndrewPrice said...

.. not that it's ruined mind you. It's still a great film.

Tennessee Jed said...

I am not as much a fan of Torn Curtain as you. Two others that would make my list that I saw when release were the Birds and To Catch a Thief. The Birds has grown on me. One of my high school friends was son of Grace Kelly's cousin. Alwys a sucker for her even though her ating chops not as good as Bergman or some of the others.

Tennessee Jed said...

Of the ones before my time, I like the Rope and 39 steps. I am a huge fan of the book The Lodger, but I have the non-Hitch talkie version. Never saw his silent version.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Torn Curtain isn't very popular, and I can see why.

I struggle with his early stuff, btw.

Dave Olson said...

Vertigo is an interesting film in so many ways: the technical achievements, the musical score, its value as a cultural time capsule, and a commentary on sanity and obsession. It has clawed its way back from "box office dud" to "bona fide classic" as time has gone by, proving that the biggest hits aren't always the best movies. I suspect that at least three of this years' five top grossing films will be utterly forgotten in 50 years.

You left off Psycho for some reason. Maybe it's too trendy to place it on the list of "Best Hitchcock Films". All I can say is that I watched it on TV when I was about 12. A crappy 19 inch RCA of early '80s vintage with one mono speaker and no remote control. And since it was on WGN or TBS, there were ad breaks. About two years later I saw it as intended, in a darkened theater on a large screen and not even an intermission. I knew exactly what was coming, but I didn't take a shower that night. Now that's what I call a classic.

Tennessee Jed said...

another one that came out before my time, but is very good is Shadow of a Doubt. Joseph Cotton is one of my favorite "under-rated actors. It is out on blu-ray, and probably worth adding to the library.

Tennessee Jed said...

Dave - I think Andrew's point about Psycho is one we discussed last week. This isn't a "best" list. Rather, it is a favorites list. Although nno justification is required, I totally understand his rationale. If anybody hasn't seen the recent movie Hitchcock (about the making of Psycho) I hihly recommend you do, It was great.

Tennessee Jed said...

I always liked Vertigo because of the acting, and because it featured Ernie's Restaurant in San Francisco, one of my favorite American Restaurants (I bet Lawhawk would have agreed) :) Although from the east, I had to manage our west coast operations at one time in my career. When on the road in business, great restaurants was pretty much part of the deal.

Anonymous said...

North by Northwest may not be Hitchcock's best movie but damn, it might just be the most fun! The dialogue, the music, the effects (love that UN matte painting). Everything works.

From what I understand, Hitchcock kept trying to make the ultimate Cold War thriller and I don't think he was happy with either Torn Curtain or Topaz. In the case of Torn Curtain, he not only had to deal with the changing studio system, but with method actors like Paul Newman, the deaths of his longtime editor and DP, and the end of this working relationship with Bernard Herrmann, whose score wasn't used.

And Topaz is at least 20 minutes too long. But it's fun to see Dean Wormer as a Cuban. :-)

Dial M for Murder I once compared to a Swiss watch - it's so immaculately constructed and you never notice that it takes place in just one or two locations.

Agreed with pretty much everything else, though I would've added Notorious.

tryanmax said...

I'll always have The Birds in my personal top spot b/c it was my first Hitchcock. I'm frankly over Rear Window. 39 Steps has a unique tension. High Anxiety may be Brooks' best parody in terms of getting it all in w/o any sour notes. It definitely shows that Hitchcock is as much a genre as a man.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave and Jed, As Jed notes, this is a favorites list, not a best of. If it were best of, then a couple of these movies, like Torn Curtain and Topaz would need to come off the list.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I didn't know the restaurant was real! :)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, He seemed to take several tries at spy movies, but somehow they never quite hit the target. Given the utter lack of credible spy movies out there, I'm thinking there must be something very difficult about them.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, The Birds is a great film.

Agreed about High Anxiety. Interesting way to put it, about him being his own genre. Very true.

Tennessee Jed said...

A thought on spy movies, and credibility and difficulty of doing them well. You can do Bond which can be really great and fun films, but hardly realistic. Or, you can do LeCarre and Smiley which define the genre in terms of credibility ....... BUT as such, tend to get a tad dull. What makes it difficult is to try and find a way to do both, and that is hard. You have to suspend belief a tad. The trick is making people be o.k. with that rather than scoff and saay "what a crock"

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think that's where Hitchcock was on the right track with Topaz and to a lesser degree Torn Curtain. He picked the issue of defection, which allows you to do more of a Bond type action film while maintaining the credibility of being real.

Then in Topaz he added some politics and the need for a quick theft. Unfortunately, after that, the film kind of meanders to a close.

PikeBishop said...

I find "Vertigo" to be very over-rated. I could never understand that the first AFI Top 100 list that came out in 98 or so, had it in the Top Ten of all time.

Well shot, yes, but totally unbelievable. No human being would put themselves through what Kim Novak's character did for someone else, no matter how much guilt they felt over their prior actions.

Vertigo probably doesn't make my Top 5 Hitch films

And Andrew, I totally agree with "Rope" at #1. What amazes me about this film is how it is such a product of its time and mainstream audiences just did not get the gay subtext. A middle school child today would watch it and scream, "My God these guys are sooooo gay."

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, What's interesting to me is that when people think about films from the 1950s, they typically think of very shallow "Leave It To Beaver" like films where everything is telegraphed to an audience incapable to grasping subtlety. Only supposedly superior modern audiences get films with nuance.

And yet, Rope is awash in nuance and subtlety to such a degree that no one would make the film like that today because it asks too much of the audience to understand.

If find that really ironic.

AndrewPrice said...

Also, agreed on Vertigo. She's takes too many chances for no clear reason.

Kit said...

Well, some people have argued that even Leave it to Beaver was more subtle than it is given credit for. Such as this PopMatters article:

Kit said...

Rear Window
The Birds
North by Northwest

I want to see Strangers on a Train.

Anonymous said...

If anyone ever has the opportunity to see the stage version of The 39 Steps, I highly recommend it. It's redone with comedic elements & a bit of an improv feel to it. The cast is only 4 people--One male lead, one female playing the main 3 female roles, and 2 others playing EVERY other character, and sometimes inanimate objects! Worth seeing even if you've never seen the film, but especially for Hitchcock buffs.

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