Friday, August 14, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Alfred Hitchcock's Best Films

Yesterday was Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday – he would have been 110 had he lived this long. So I figured now was as good of time as any to look back at the 10 best films of his career. I know some people will take issue with the fact that I did not include any of his earlier, British films in the top 10. I did consider several – The Lady Vanishes, Sabotage, The 39 Steps and The Lodger – but simply could not find any room in the top 10 for them, so they did not make the cut. With someone like Hitchcock it’s hard – almost all of his films (and there are well over 50 of them) are great. Anyway, without delaying this any further, let’s get to my 10 favorite Hitchcock films.

10. I Confess (1953)Hitchcock’s I Confess is another brilliant take on his fear of the innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit. Hitch’s brilliant twist in this story, is that the accused is a priest, who knows the identity of the real killer, but cannot reveal it, because he only found out when the killer came to confession with him. Revealing the secret, would violate one of his most sacred oaths. Montgomery Clift, making his only appearance in a Hitchcock movie (apparently, his method acting drove the director insane) brilliantly plays the accused priest, who has his name dragged through the mud, not just because of his alleged crime, but also his relationship with a woman before the war (that the censors made Hitch cut down at the time). The films Christ allusions run throughout (this is the most overt of Hitch’s Catholic films), as the Priest approaches a sort of martyrdom if he is convicted on the crime. The film gets the Catholicism just right. As he did with Mount Rushmore in North By Northwest, Hitch uses the famed Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City to brilliant effect for his climax in this film. I Confess is one of Hitch’s most underrated films – it really should be better regarded then it is.

9. The Wrong Man (1956)The Wrong Man is not a Hitchcock movie that often shows up on the list of his best films, but it should. It is perhaps Hitchcock’s best “innocent man accused of a crime” films of his career. Henry Fonda (stepping into the role that Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart usually played) plays a jazz musician who tries to borrow against his wife’s insurance policy to get her some dental work. Unfortunately, Fonda resembles the man who has robbed that same office twice. He is arrested and charged with the crime, that proceeds to trial. Fonda is brilliant as the man who tries futilely for much of the movie to prove his innocence. His alibi cannot be confirmed, and although the entire case is based only on eyewitness testimony, it looks like he will be found guilty. His wife, brilliantly played by Vera Miles, sinks into a deep depression and has to be institutionalized during the course of the trial. Unlike some like North by Northwest or even I Confess, The Wrong Man is not a movie that relies of big set pieces to build suspense. Hitchcock plays it a little more realistically here than he normally does. The result is a powerful movie. My one qualm with the film is the “textual epilogue” that gets tacked onto the end of the film, letting us know that everything indeed turned out okay. It feels like a copout to me, but something tells me Hitchcock knew that, and that it was placed there at the behest of the studio (otherwise, why wasn’t it filmed?).

8. The Birds (1963)On the surface, The Birds appears to be a rather simple, yet brilliantly well executed film, about flocks of birds who attack an unsuspecting woman (Tippi Hendron), her new boyfriend (Rod Taylor), and his family. The scenes with the bird attacks are brilliantly well staged by Hitchcock (especially a bird’s eye view of one attack), and there constant presence in the film builds a sense of true uneasiness throughout the whole thing. But the film is much more than a series of bird attacks – if it were just that, no matter how brilliant they were, the film would not be on the list. The film works to symmetrically break the Tippi Hendron character down. She is a spoiled brat at the beginning of the film, who thinks she is in complete control on her life. Throughout the film, she will continually learn that she is not as in control as she thinks she is – each time this mounting realization hits her, it is followed by a bird attack. She is broken down until in the end, she is essentially a guileless child again, completely dependent on someone else. The Birds is an absolutely brilliant film.

7. Psycho (1960)
Psycho is undoubtedly the master’s most famous film. It has been copied so much, that it may be difficult to see just how daring and different the film was at the time. The movie opens with Janet Leigh’s character stealing money from her boss and hitting the road so she can run off with her boyfriend. For almost the complete first half of the film, she is the main character – the person we follow. Therefore, when she comes to the Bates Motel, and meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), we are not sure what to expect – but it surely is not to have her killed off fairly quickly and the focus to shift to him. Hitch loved to play the audience like a piano, and I’m not sure he ever did it as brilliantly as he does her. Anthony Perkins performance as Bates was so good, that audiences had trouble excepting him as anything else for the rest of his career. He became the template for pretty much all crazed killers in movies since. If the movie makes a misstep, it’s in a long, drawn out scene in which a psychiatrist “explains” Bates to the audience. It is not needed. Perkins, and Hitchcock, do such a brilliant job in creating Bates, that we do not need an explanation. We already know all we need to.

6. Marnie (1964)When Marnie came out in 1964, it was heavily criticized, but over the years it has gained the deserved reputation as being one of Hitchcock’s best films. The film was way ahead of it’s time, and represents at his visual best. The story of the movie centers of Marnie (Tippi Hendren), a thief, who has an unnatural fear of men, thunderstorms and the color red. Her latest victim (Sean Connery) tracks her down after she has stolen from him, and blackmails her into marrying him. He tries to get to the root of her psychological problems, slowly unraveling the mystery. Marnie is one of the most overtly sexual of Hitchcock’s career – the buried themes of repressed sexuality that ran through many of his films were allowed a little more leeway by the mid-1960s. The most disturbing sequence in the film – and perhaps the most disturbing in any Hitchcock film – comes when Connery rapes his new wife when he discovers her frigidity. Marnie is a suspenseful, psychological masterpiece and one of the best films Hitchcock ever made.

5. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)Hitchcock said on more than one occasion, that of all of his films, Shadow of a Doubt was his personal favorite. It is easy to see why. Shadow of a Doubt is a suspenseful movie about a bored young woman (Teresa Wright), living in suburbia where nothing much happens. Her life gets more exciting, when her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton), for whom she was named, arrives in town for a visit. The police arrive along with him though, as they think that Uncle Charlie may in fact be a serial killer, killing wealthy widows for their money. Uncle Charlie confesses his crimes to Wright, and begs her not to say anything – and she agrees. When the suspicion for the crimes falls on another man, Uncle Charlie sees his niece as his one potential downfall – and that’s when she starts having strange accidents. Shadow of a Doubt is a direct precursor to films like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and pretty much every other film in history about the dark side of supposedly perfect, peaceful American suburbia. It marked a definite turning point for Hitchcock’s career – it is certainly his most “American” film up until that point, and perhaps his most American film ever. Shadow of a Doubt is a superb thriller, and the film’s ending is much more downbeat that most Hollywood films at the time. It is a masterpiece.

4. Strangers on a Train (1951)In Strangers on a Train, two men meet on a train one day and start talking. Farley Granger plays a tennis pro, whose wife is cheating on him with just about everyone, but refuses to grant him a divorce so he can marry the woman he really loves. Robert Wagner is a man whose authoritative father will not give him what he wants. Wagner comes up with a plan – the two men exchange murders, each killing the other person’s unwanted person, so the police can never connect them. Grange humors him, but does not take it seriously. Once off the train, Wagner gets tried of waiting for Granger to contact him, so he takes matters into his own hands, stalks Granger’s wife to a carnival, and murders her. From there, things go wildly out of control. Strangers on a Train is a masterful suspense film – from the murder viewed in reflection of the dead woman’s glasses, to the finale at the same carnival, with a merry-go-round in the background, Hitch never lets up building the tension. Wagner makes for one of the most memorable screen villains in history. Hitchcock, working from the great Patricia Highsmith novel, crafted a masterpiece.

3. Rear Window (1954)One of the things that Hitchcock loved to do in his films, was make the audience implicit in the crimes and sins of his characters. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Rear Window. Jeff (Jimmy Stewart) is a photographer, who is stuck in his apartment with a broken leg. To pass the time, she starts playing peeping tom with his neighbors. Jeff is a voyeur, and we go along with him, essentially becoming voyeurs ourselves (this is one of the reason Hitch loved to cast people like Stewart, Cary Grant or Henry Fonda, because the audience instinctively liked them, and would follow them into much darker places then they would with someone else). Things get bad for Jeff when he thinks he witnesses the aftermath of a murder committed by one of the neighbors across the way. Trapped in his apartment in his wheelchair, there is little he can do. So he enlists the help of his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) to do his dirty work for him. The film is masterfully shot, the two buildings and the courtyard between them becoming one of the most memorable movie sets in history. I love the way that Hitchcock mirrors the relationship between Jeff and Lisa to the lives of the couples across the way that he spies on. Ask me on a different day, and this film may move up the list.

2. Notorious (1946)Notorious is unlike any other movie romance, or thriller, that I can think of. It stars Ingrid Bergman as Alicia, whose father has just been convicted of being a Nazi spy after the war has ended. To try and save her family’s name, she agrees when a government agent named Devlin (Cary Grant) shows up and asks her to do a job for them. Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) is a former Nazi now living in Rio de Janerio. He and Alicia knew each other, and he was in love with her. Devlin wants Alicia to go down to Rio and get information on what Sebastian and his cohorts are planning. She does, and when Sebastian proposes marriage, Devlin pressures her into accepting. All this is despite the fact that in the meantime, Alicia and Devlin have fallen in love. The brilliant thing about Notorious is that Hitchcock makes the “hero”, Devlin into an asshole. He uses Alicia’s love for him to do what he wants her to do, and then basically calls her a whore for doing it. When he shows up at the house one day, after Sebastian’s mother has broken the plot Alicia has going and is slowly poisoning her to death, Devlin just thinks Alicia is a drunk, and further mocks her. Not only is the hero an ass, the “villain” Sebastian is portrayed sympathetically. He is a weak willed man, controlled by his domineering mother, but his love for Alicia is real and pure – he would never use her the way Devlin does. The three leads in the film could not possibly be better. Much like many Hitchcock plots, the plot about some explosives is really a McGuffin – used only to set the events in motion. The movie ends on a supposedly happy note, but when you think about it, it is not really happy at all. Alicia will continue to love Devlin, despite what he did to her, and Sebastian takes a long lonely walk back to his house, where he will surely be killed by his mother. The only person who could possibly be happy at the end of the movie is Devlin – the asshole. Utterly brilliant.

1. Vertigo (1958)
There is a reason why over the years, Vertigo has become regarded as Hitchcock’s best film. Simply put, Vertigo is the most complex, most visually stunning and best of Hitchcock’s films by a wide margin. No matter how good the other films in his career were, Vertigo was the best. The film centers on Scottie (Jimmy Stewart), a former San Francisco Police Detective who has developed a fear of heights, and had to leave the force. Now, he is hired by a wealthy man to track the actions of his wife Madeline(Kim Novak), as the man worries that Madeline’s obsession with her great grandmother Charlotta Valdes may lead Madeline to share her fate – suicide. Scottie gets to know Madeline after he rescues her from killing herself in the San Francisco Bay. The two start to develop feelings for each other, and Scottie becomes determined to save Madeline. When he takes her to a place that she dreamed about, a high bell tower, in the hopes of curing her, she breaks free and runs up the stairs. He tries to follow, but his fear of heights stops him. He hears a scream, and then sees Madeline’s body fall past the window – she succeeded in killing herself after all. Much later, after a stint in a mental hospital, Scottie meets Judy Barton (Novak again), who of course looks strikingly similar to the Madeline that he fell in love with. Scottie tries to make Judy over into Madeline – changing her hair, her clothes, everything about her (he is essentially trying to commit necrophilia with the woman he once loved). Things get stranger from there. Vertigo is the Hitchcock film with the most complex mysteries to mine, the most interesting character in Scottie to evaluate. Madeline/Judy is also a complex creation, and Novak does a brilliant job with the film – by far her best role. The movie is a visual masterpiece, that is matched on every level with the story and the characters. Quite simply put, it is one of the very best films in history.

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