Few film directors achieve the notoriety that Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed during his long and fruitful career. Yet today, many have only seen one or two of his fifty-plus features, and erroneously remember him as a horror director, although only Psycho and The Birds really qualify as horror. Anyway, studio marketers routinely pull quotes from reviewers who declare some tepid modern-day thriller to be "Hitchcockian". But as most of my contemporaries pay lip service to Hitch, while finding their true inspiration in directors of lesser interest (e.g., Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann), I remain an old-fashioned devotee to Hitchcock's lean, clever cinema – his balance of fear and levity, personal depth and polished storytelling, romance and black comedy. Of the twenty or so of his features that I've seen, these are my favorites:
- Strangers on a Train (1951). This is my favorite movie of all time, period. For those new to Hitchcock's work, start here: It remains, in my opinion, his funniest and most exciting film, and the one with his greatest villain (played by Robert Walker, who died shortly after the film was completed). Some people complain about the "weak" leading man and lady, but I disagree. And who can resist Hitchcock's own daughter Patricia in a cheerfully smart-assed role?
- Vertigo (1958). Snubbed by critics and audiences alike during its initial release, Vertigo went into hiding for many years before being re-released to an audience better attuned to Hitchcock's artistry. It's not a perfect film – some slow, quiet scenes will bore as many as they mesmerize – but its dark storyline, complex emotional landscape, and Bernard Herrmann's overwhelming score are a few of the many reasons why this is Hitchcock's most haunting masterpiece.
- Rear Window (1954). This may be the "perfect" Hitchcock film, and for that reason I include it on this list, although after seeing a new print of it a few years ago, I found it such a tidy package that I don't really think much about it afterward. But it's Hitchcock's most financially successful picture by far, and arguably his most creative.
- Frenzy (1972). Hitchcock's career suffered badly in the 1960s, due to his crippling obsession with actress Tippi Hedren, but his penultimate feature – shot back home in London, starring a cast of no-names – is the only "classic" Hitchcock work after The Birds. Wrong man scenario? Domineering mother character? Charismatic villain? Coal-black comedy? Taut suspense? It's all here. However, those who claim the director never had to resort to explicit sex or violence to deliver chills obviously didn't see Frenzy's graphic rape/murder scene.
- Lifeboat (1944). This wartime drama does the impossible: It tells a gripping story that entirely takes place on one small lifeboat on the high seas. And other than in the opening and closing of the picture, there's no musical score. (Hitchcock's rationale: you wouldn't hear an orchestra in the middle of the ocean.) It's extremely well-shot; not for a moment did I stop believing that the boat was in the Atlantic, and not on some Hollywood sound stage. Lifeboat is also rife with moral ambiguities – a courageous stance for an American film released during World War II.
- Foreign Correspondent (1940). Shortly before the US entered WWII, the dazzling Foreign Correspondent showed Europe in the early throes of wartime espionage. There are lots of superb Hitchcock "set pieces" here, including an assassination on rainy steps amidst a throng of umbrellas, and a still-convincing plane crash scene, shot from the inside of the cockpit as it smashes into the sea. By the way, there is no connection between this film and my own Foreign Correspondents.
- The Wrong Man (1956). This is Hitchcock's least characteristic picture, despite the eponymous theme which was recurrent in his work. Shot vérité-style, with a naturalistic leading man (Henry Fonda) whose introspective presence seemed an ill fit for the usual snappy-patter Hitchcock heroes, this sad, affecting true-crime story is among the director's most underrated efforts.
- Shadow of a Doubt (1943). While I still have problems with this movie that I can't quite put my finger on, there's no doubt – pun unintended – that the casting of geeky Joseph Cotten as a beloved uncle who's also a serial killer is a stroke of genius, and the film's themes of doubles and moral decay make it a great counterpart to Strangers on a Train. It also, in many ways, presaged David Lynch's Blue Velvet in its depiction of evil lurking in the heart of small-town America.
- Psycho (1960). Perhaps you've heard of it? While fans of the master may drub me for not including North by Northwest (which I do find very entertaining), Notorious (I couldn't get into it), The Birds (it has some terrifying sequences, but the first hour is bloated), or Rebecca (not bad, but a little dull), I'd be positively strung up if I didn't mention Psycho. Though most of the film still doesn't do much for me personally, that shower scene still devastates me. And of course I appreciate it for laying the groundwork for all the horror, thriller and slasher flicks to follow, for better or for worse. And if I had to include a tenth film? 1950's Stage Fright.