There are certain films culture will always recognize as all-time, legendary classics. As a director, Alfred Hitchcock probably has more of his works remembered as “classics” than most. In his more than fifty years behind the camera, Hitchcock demonstrated tremendous versatility, resulting in drastically different features with varying sensibilities. Even if some of his movies might not speak to you, chances are there will still be plenty to watch and enjoy. With such a dynamic filmography, no one is sure to have the same Top 5. Alfred Hitchcock made too many good film.
This week, I wanted to examine Hitchcock’s varied career to look at some of my favorites.
Without further ado, here are my Top 5 Favorite Alfred Hitchcock Movies.
5.) North by Northwest (1959)
North by Northwest is a movie that took some time to percolate with me. The first few times I watched, it just didn’t gel. However, with age and perspective, it quickly pulled itself into my top 5.
The film follows Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) a businessman who is suddenly confused with a spy named George Kaplan. The problem is… he has no idea who Kaplan is and as such, has no way to fix it. In matters of espionage, nothing is ever clear, but there is one thing that is… lots of bad people want Kaplan dead. Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau co-star as two of Hitchcock’s most memorable villains. Anyone who follows the director knows, that is a really tall order.
North by Northwest captures all the glamor, intrigue and suspense associated with Hitchcock’s work during the late 1950s, the era most consider the director’s peak. While most are sure to remember this film thanks to two impressive action sequences, there’s a lot more to enjoy.
North by Northwest is currently streaming on HBO Max.
4.) Rope (1948)
There might be some rolling eyes here. As a film, Rope is very much a love it or hate it entry in Hitchcock’s filmography. I for one absolutely love it.
The feature stars Jimmy Stewart, Farley Granger and John Dall in a story (very!) loosely based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case. The script follows two young men who commit murder in the minutes leading up to a fancy dinner party. In an act of hubris, they decide to have the dinner party anyway… with the body coyly hidden in a converted table. Believe me, if you haven’t seen it, I’m not telling you anything that doesn’t happen in the first act.
Rope shows Hitchcock reaching his full powers and confident enough to try what is actually quite a gutsy experiment. In making the movie, Hitchcock experimented with long takes, only cutting when the film reel demanded it. Considering that, Rope feels very theatrical. It nurses a slow burn tension in real time as the audience watches these characters tap-dance around each other. Will the boys get caught? Will Jimmy Stewart figure out what is going on? This is the very definition of suspense.
Rope is available to stream as a rental through a number of services, including Amazon Prime.
3.) Rebecca (1940)
Rebecca was my introduction to Hitchcock’s early works. Keep in mind, the director released his first film more than fifteen years before this movie (which served as his introduction to Hollywood); however, this smart and beautiful piece is a great place to start if you’re looking to jump into his early period.
Rebecca is based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier and stars Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson, George Sanders and Reginald Denny. The script focuses on an unnamed young woman (Fontaine) who marries the wealthy Maxim de Winter (Olivier) in whirlwind fashion. However, as she tries to integrate herself into his world, she finds this is far, far more complicated than she was expecting.
Rebecca is a gorgeous work of the gothic romance variety. The performances are stunning. I mean, Olivier is one of the titans of acting, while George Sanders and Judith Anderson are true legends in their own right. Admittedly, it took me longer to warm to Joan Fontaine. However, as I’ve watched this film a number of times and my perspective has changed, it is truly interesting to watch her make the character her own. Fontaine’s is a layered and complex performance and I’m sorry it took me as long as I did to appreciate it.
Rebecca is a challenging one to find on streaming (don’t fall into the Netflix trap!). The best way to watch the film is on physical media. It’s available through a very good Criterion transfer, available here!
2.) Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
I spoke of my love for this movie in the picks last week. While I grew up around Hitchcock’s work, I actually didn’t find this one until I was in college. Interestingly, this is probably one of the most “Un Hitchcock” of Hitchcock’s filmography. It doesn’t reflect the glitz and glamour which so many of his pictures do. Instead, it brings a pleasant and adorable small town aesthetic to the screen which feels decidedly unique.
Shadow of a Doubt stars Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, Macdonald Carey, Patricia Collinge and Hume Cronyn. The story follows Charlie (Wright), a young woman in small town California. She’s over the moon when she discovers her namesake uncle (Cotten) is coming to visit. However, evidence soon emerges that the man might be a serial killer.
Where this movie shines for me is in the colorful collection of characters. It hardly needs to be mentioned that Cotten and Wright are both great. However, there’s so much strength in the featured players behind them. Edna May Wonacott is brilliant as Charlie’s brainy younger sister, while the combination of Hume Cronyn and Henry Travers are utterly delightful as the local true crime buffs. Of course all of Hitchcock’s characters are well-rounded, but there’s something so fresh and new in Shadow of a Doubt which solidifies its place on this list.
Shadow of a Doubt is available as a rental through a number of streaming services.
1.) Strangers on a Train (1951)
Strangers on a Train is a movie which really only recently started receiving the acclaim it truly deserves. The 1951 feature comes in a bit of a quiet period for Hitchcock, alongside films like Under Capricorn, Stage Fright and I Confess, so it tends to fade a bit behind the work which started just a few years later. Dial M for Murder and Rear Window came shortly after in 1954.
Strangers on a Train stars Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Patricia Hitchcock, Ruth Roman and Leo G. Carroll. The film follows a tennis player (Granger) who meets Bruno (Walker) a colorful eccentric one day on… you guessed it… the train. With nowhere else to go, the conversation turns awkwardly to the strange man’s theories on murder. If Guy kills Bruno’s meddlesome father, Bruno will kill Guy’s troublesome ex-wife. Criss-Cross! However, Guy isn’t factoring in one thing… for Bruno, this isn’t just a theory.
Strangers on a Train comes to the screen not just from the mind of Alfred Hitchcock. The script has some legendary history as well. Raymond Chandler (of Philip Marlowe fame) is one of the writers credited on the screenplay. At the same time, the story comes from a novel by Patricia Highsmith, best known to contemporary audiences as the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Ultimately though, Strangers on a Train wouldn’t be the movie it is without the performance of Robert Walker as Bruno Anthony. The actor enters new territory in this role, having spent much of his career playing well-meaning juveniles before eventually being derailed by personal demons. Strangers on a Train was his last fully completed film before his death at the age of 32. I’ve mentioned it here before (and I still believe) it is one of the real tragedies of Hollywood that we didn’t get to see where he was going after a performance like this one.
Strangers on a Train is available as a rental through a number of streaming sites.
In the history of Hollywood, there have been so many filmmakers whose reputations have lived on and survived the passage of time; however, Alfred Hitchcock’s name shines vibrantly as one of the best and most accessible. The brilliant director enjoyed an almost fifty five year career and many of his works have been preserved as essential classics. Though all this, his style changed and grew, but the product was always purely enjoyable.
What is your favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie? Shout it out in the comments!
Podcaster at Hollywood and Wine, historian and filmmaker studying contributions of women in Classic TV. Film critic for Geek Girl Authority. Classic film lover for Ticklish Business.
You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!