Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Alfred Hitchcock, the greatest of all directors?

No, Hitchcock isn't the best ever, but he's at worst #3 in my book (after Martin Scorsese and Akira Kurosawa). With somewhere in the range of 60 directing credits, Hitch has quite a catalog from which to choose. Therefore, if someone wanted to know which movies to check out, they could easily end up with one of his bad movies (of which he had more than a couple). To help alleviate that, I've come up with a list of my Top 5 favorite Hitchcock movies. Hope you enjoy.

1. Vertigo (1958)
Not a huge surprise if you know my all-time top 10 (where it occupies the #5 spot), but I believe Vertigo to be Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest movie. Unfairly criticized upon its initial release as too long and too slow moving, Vertigo failed miserably at the box office, and ended the great working relationship that Hitchcock had with his star, Jimmy Stewart. The movie opens as private investigator Scottie Ferguson (Stewart) develops vertigo after a cop dies while trying to save him from falling off the side of a building. Scottie has trouble even climbing a step-ladder after this experience, but is convinced to return to investigating by an old school friend who wants to keep tabs on his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). Scotty slowly falls in love with the quiet beauty, but is devastated after she’s involved in a fatal accident. The second half of the movie follows Scottie as he meets Judy (also Novak) and sinks deeper into his obsessions and towards a final tragic conclusion.

Jimmy Stewart was blamed by Hitchcock for the movies initial failure (calling him too old for the part); even if he later conceded that Vertigo was one of his best movies. Stewart is actually perfect for the role, as he was the complete embodiment of the everyman in cinema. That is what makes his performance all the braver (and more effective) when Scotty descends into his manic obsession about Madeleine. Kim Novak is quite effective in her double role, pulling off the believably separate personas of Judy and Madeleine. Vertigo is Hitchcock’s most personal movie, as Scotty’s obsession with molding a woman is just a more severe form of Hitchcock’s obsession with molding his actresses. It is a hypnotic, dreamlike, beautiful, and nightmarish movie that should be cherished as the crowning achievement of Hitchcock’s career.

2. Psycho (1960)
Hitchcock’s most famous work, and the birth of the modern horror movie. Psycho wowed (and scared the bejesus out of) audiences in 1960 and it holds up remarkably well. Looking for a bit of a grittier feel, Hitch grabbed the crew from his TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” for the making of the movie, and he made it fairly inexpensively. The plot has been talked about so often and ripped off so many times (the beginning of Wes Craven’s Scream is an obvious homage to Psycho, and we also had to suffer through Gus Van Sant’s pointless remake in 1998) that it’s almost unnecessary to recap. Marion (Janet Leigh) has stolen a lot of money from her employer, and is on the run when she stops in at the Bates Motel, run by anxious, lonely innkeeper Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). “12 rooms, 12 vacancies” He says. What happens before long is possibly the most famous sequence in the history of movies, the shower scene. It is around 2 minutes of absolute genius, and I believe it to be Hitch’s single greatest achievement. However, it is not the action of stabbing (or Bernard Hermann’s legendary score) that sticks in my mind; it’s the slow zoom away from Marion’s lifeless body, half fallen out of the shower, eyes wide open. It’s one of those images that attaches itself to your brain and won’t let go.

Anthony Perkins is superb as Norman, and Janet Leigh is good in her relatively brief screen time, but I believe the movie suffers when it isn’t following either of them. The search for Marion is somewhat on the boring side, as the characters searching for her aren’t particularly interesting. And there is also a completely unnecessary scene (which seems to go on for at least 5 minutes) involving the explanation of Norman’s psychological state. But there is so much here that is brilliant that it counters the rest. One of the final images of the movie, that of Anthony Perkins deranged face, is yet another image that won’t leave your brain any time soon. Psycho is a truly unsettling work and deserving of its revered place in movie history.

3. Notorious (1946)
An underappreciated masterpiece, Notorious features Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains all in top form. Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy who is recruited by U.S. government agent Devlin (Grant) to turn spy against a group of German’s working out of Rio de Janeiro just after WWII. Devlin convinces Alicia to infiltrate the group through one of her father’s former friends Alexander Sebastian (Rains), whom he wants her to seduce. It becomes a harder mission after Devlin falls in love with Alicia, and she with him. Sebastian is also in love with Alicia, which makes it even harder on our two lovers, because Alicia did her job so well. Oh yeah, and there’s some bit about Sebastian enriching uranium (for nuclear weapons).

This basic plot was stolen by Robert Towne in his screenplay for Mission Impossible 2, but it was done with far less success. Cary Grant gives his greatest performance as Devlin, who is emotionally eaten up by forcing the love of his life into another mans arms. Bergman is as good as she ever was as the woman being pushed away, and Claude Rains was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for his role. The uranium is the most famous example of what Hitchcock called the “MacGuffin”, the thing that sets the plot in motion but is completely unimportant. Nobody (characters or audience) cares about the uranium, or wonders what happens to it, by the end of the movie. Speaking of, Notorious features what might possibly be Hitchcock’s greatest ending, but of course I won’t spoil that here (I couldn’t do it justice anyway).

4. Strangers on a Train (1951)
Hitchcock’s most underappreciated masterpiece, Strangers on a Train (adapted from the debut novel by Patricia Highsmith, future writer of “The Talented Mr. Ripley”) features one of the great villains of all time in Robert Walker’s Bruno Anthony. Bruno meets famous tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) on a train one day and the two begin talking. Knowing that Guy is going through a messy divorce, and eager to get his own father out of the way, Bruno proposes an idea to Guy. Since neither man knew the other before meeting on the train, so neither can be tied to the other by the police, why don’t they trade murders? Bruno will take out Guy’s wife, and Guy will murder Bruno’s father. Guy uneasily laughs off Bruno’s offer, but when Bruno comes through with his end of the agreement, he expects Guy to hold up his end, whether Guy agreed to it or not.

Robert Walker is truly fantastic as the spoiled, but dangerous Bruno, who is surprised when Guy isn’t happy that his wife has been murdered. And Farley Granger gives off the aura of a kind of weak willed everyman who is in way over his head, making us not sure whether he’s going to prevail. Strangers on a Train is required viewing for any Hitchcock fan, and is one of the great suspense movies of all time.

5. Rear Window (1954)
One of Hitchcock’s most beloved movies is also one of his best. Jimmy Stewart (working with Hitchcock for the second time) is perfect as everyman “Jeff” Jeffries, a photojournalist who has broken his leg and has nothing to do but stare out the rear window of his apartment complex and watch the lives of his neighbors. A harmless enough pastime, until he starts to suspect one of his neighbors (Raymond Burr, in terrific pre-“Perry Mason” form) of murdering his nagging wife and attempting to dispose of the body.

Like all the great Hitchcock pictures, Rear Window is both an exciting suspense piece, as well as the study of a man and his obsession, in this case Jeff’s voyeurism. The movie was a huge success in its original release (receiving 4 Oscar nominations, including one for Hitch as Best Director, which he lost to Elia Kazan for On the Waterfront) and has remained possibly Hitchcock’s most popular work. I can see why.

Some may wonder “Where is The Birds? Where is North by Northwest?” Well, I enjoy The Birds immensely (it has another of the great endings in the history of movies), but don’t feel it quite deserves a place on the list. North by Northwest was my favorite Hitchcock movie as a kid, but viewing it recently I thought it was far too long and drawn out and, though good, also not deserving of a place on the list. Hitch has many other great movies (Shadow of a Doubt, The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rope, Rebecca, etc.), but I believe these 5 to be the best representation of his work, as well as the highest highs he accomplished. And if you haven’t seen them, see them now!


klee said...

Great job! Glad you added our Hitch :) I really like the added pictures and think they make your blog even more interesting, especially for those who have not seen the movie.

That Film Girl said...

Have you seen Dial M for Murder? That is my personal favorite is Ray Milland is the perfect villain.

Kyle said...

I have seen "Dial M for Murder", but it was a long time ago and I don't honestly remember anything about it. I'll have to check it out again.