75 years ago, director Alfred Hitchcock, buoyed by the success of films such as “The Lady Vanishes” and “The 39 Steps”, emigrated from his London home to Hollywood where he would be responsible for some of the most frightening and intense films in cinematic history. Yesterday in Part 1 we counted down #’s 16-30 of Box Office Insider’s Top 30 Favorite Hitchcock Films. Today, we present Part 2 (#’s 1-15) of our favorite movies from the Master Of Suspense.
15) REBECCA (1940)
Appropriately enough we begin part two of the countdown with the first film Hitchcock made upon his arrival in Hollywood, “Rebecca”, the film adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel, revolving around a new bride, played to perfection by Joan Fontaine, haunted by the memory of her husband’s (Laurence Olivier) deceased wife in his country estate, Manderley. The melodrama features beautiful sets, stunning music by Franz Waxman and a blood curdling performance by Judith Anderson as Mrs.Danvers. It remains the director’s only Best Picture win, although the award was presented to producer David O. Selznick and not Hitchcock himself, who must have been thinking, “I moved to Hollywood to have this happen?”
14) JAMAICA INN (1939)
On the flip side, this is the final film the director would make in his native England. A rather slight tale, Hitch coaxes superb performances out of both Charles Laughton as the nefarious owner of a seaside inn in Cornwall, and Maureen O’Hara as the orphan teen sent to live with him who ultimately discovers his plot to rob shipwrecked vessels. It’s nothing fancy but it’s another atmospheric gem from the helmer and a capable swan song to his native land.
13) THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955)
…is that Harry’s dead. Another oddball concoction from the Master Of Suspense, “The Trouble With Harry” can be best described as an only slightly more serious “Weekend At Bernie’s”, but thankfully without Andrew McCarthy. Rabbit hunter Edmund Gwenn believes he’s accidentally shot poor Harry but can’t figure out his next move. Amusingly, passers-by also notice the deceased gentleman but seem in no hurry to alert authorities. So much for Neighborhood Watch. Hitchcock assembled a wonderful cast, including Gwenn, John Forsythe (Charlie from “Charlie’s Angels” fame), Shirley MacLaine, Jerry Mathers (yes, The Beaver) and Mildred Natwick and he returned to one of his favorite settings of small town America (this time rural Vermont). It’s not often that you’ll find yourself chuckling through a Hitchcock film so enjoy the chance.
12) SUSPICION (1941)
Mild mannered Joan Fontaine marries the ever charming Cary Grant, who plays Johnnie, a man who seemingly makes a living out of borrowing money from friends. Best friend Nigel Bruce (Watson from the Sherlock Holmes movies of the late 30’s) constantly vouches for Johnnie’s character, even as Fontaine becomes ever suspicious of her new husband’s interest in her fortune. But one day dear Nigel turns up dead, sending Fontaine reeling. The best scene of the film is Cary Grant walking up the stairs to his wife’s bedroom carrying only a glass of possibly-poisoned milk which Hitch bathes in a glowing white light (Hitch and the production department brilliantly placed a small light bulb inside the glass for the effect).
11) THE BIRDS (1963)
If it was a director other than Alfred Hitchcock, anyone who entered a studio office with a pitch of “a socialite and her gentleman pursuer become embroiled in deadly bird attacks in a Northern California town” would be laughed out of the building or at least treated like Tim Robbins treats Buck Henry after his pitch for “The Graduate Too” in “The Player”. Yet somehow it all works as the film is never about the actual violence but the fear of it. Birds collect atop telephone wires and on playground jungle jims, causing panic to a quiet coastal town. Tippi Hedren, in her big screen debut, stars with Rod Taylor and Suzanne Pleshette as the local schoolmarm. Next time, can we all just obey the Do Not Feed The Birds sign? Please?
10) TO CATCH A THIEF (1955)
Cary Grant and Grace Kelly. Watching those two on screen reading Dostoevsky would be sufficient but place them in a jewel thief mystery set on the French Riviera and it makes no difference that the plot is slight and the script is a bit laughable at times. The finest Hitch example of style over substance, “To Catch A Thief” stars Grant as a high stakes burglar who must find out who’s responsible for a string of robberies among the resort’s elite. Grant knows he didn’t do it and will leave no rooftop untraveled (you’ll see what I mean) until he discovers the culprit’s true identity. I hope that Grace got paid by the close-up because Hitch’s camera simply worships her.
9) BLACKMAIL (1929)
This is one of the director’s most intriguing films. It’s his first “talkie” but watch the film and you realize it’s as if the film started out as a silent and then after 10 minutes of footage someone found the money to add dialogue. Hitchcock has always had a thing for blonde damsels in distress and the Polish-Czech-Austrian-German-French (…I think I got them all) Anny Ondra was the first. She stars as a London shop worker whose policeman boyfriend, played by John Longden, barely gives her the time of day. When she decides to accept an offer from a strange man to see his bedroom art studio (yeah, who knew that wouldn’t end well?), he attempts to rape her and she ends up stabbing him, however she leaves behind a witness with blackmail on his mind. Heavy stuff indeed for a film made 85 years ago.
8) SPELLBOUND (1945)
Emotionally closed off psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman falls for Gregory Peck, the new head of Green Manors mental asylum Dr. Edwardes, only to realize that the new arrival is no doctor, but in fact an amnesia victim, who may or may not be responsible for the death of the real Dr Edwardes. In a recurring Hitchcock theme, the main characters go on the run to prove Peck’s innocence culminating in a run down the slopes at the fictional Gabriel Valley ski resort that may prove far more dangerous than any double diamond mogul slope. A fine supporting cast that includes Leo G. Carroll, Norman Lloyd (again), Rhonda Fleming and John Emory and a wickedly sinister score by Miklos Rozsa add to the suspense. You’ll never look at silverware the same again.
7) THE 39 STEPS (1935)
Widely considered the first great Hitchcock film, Robert Donat stars as a suspected secret agent on the run (yes again) from London to Scotland to evade the police. Along the way he meets up with the sultry young wife of a local farmer (an alluring Peggy Ashcroft, mostly remembered for her more matronly roles later in her career) and dangles from an Edinburgh train while crossing the Forth Rail Bridge to Dunfermline. The plot is a bit complicated and there’s the rather silly MacGuffin of Mr. Memory that wafts its way into the movie but Donat and Madeleine Carroll make a fetching pair, the director uses the exteriors in the film to his advantage, and quite frankly the ending rocks.
6) PSYCHO (1960)
Mommy complex, anyone? In many ways this is the perfect Hitchcock movie…horror, thrills, over-the-top performances, damsels in distress, cross-dressing…what more could an audience want? Anthony Perkins stars as mama’s boy (in more ways than one) Norman Bates who evidently didn’t approve of the length of Janet Leigh’s shower and decided she had to be done away with in one of the most famous scenes in film history. The first and only Hitchcock film that actually made us jump out of our seats, the movie set new cinematic standards for sexuality, violence and deviant behavior.
5) THE LADY VANISHES (1938)
This little seen gem is one of the director’s finest pure mysteries. An avalanche strands a train full of passengers in a fictional European country. A young woman (Margaret Lockwood) on her way to get married meets up with kindly governess Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) only to subsequently discover the woman has seemingly vanished into thin air. A cracking mystery, Lockwood teams up with impish playboy Michael Redgrave (who gives a performance to die for) to interview the train’s passengers, a motley collection of different nationalities, all of whom seem to have no interest at all in helping find the old woman. Everything works in this film, the cast, the nearly perfect screenplay and the black and white cinematography, but it’s Redgrave who steals the movie in every scene he’s in. A must see.
4) SABOTAGE (1936)
Suspense at its best, “Sabotage” could easily be remade almost 80 years later without changing a thing. Oskar Homolka plays Mr. Verloc, the sinister looking owner of a local movie theatre who also doubles as a saboteur for an unnamed terrorist group. His plan is to blow up a London double-decker bus and cause widespread panic throughout the city. Scotland Yard policeman John Loder goes undercover by managing the fruit stand next to the movie house and begins to fall for Verloc’s wife (Sylvia Sidney) and befriends her younger brother Stevie (Desmond Tester). The film is intense, especially as the last act finds Stevie carrying what he believes to be a reel of film given to him by Verloc aboard the aforementioned double-decker bus and Hitchcock does a masterful job in prolonging the agony of Stevie’s fate. Sadly, as I mentioned, it’s a film that’s as pertinent in 2014 as it was in pre-war England in 1936.
3) NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)
It’s a simple and familiar enough plot…Cary Grant plays an advertising executive who somehow gets mistaken for an international spy while dining at the Plaza Hotel and then must go on the run to prove his innocence. Heard this one before? Probably, but never like this. Grant is superb as a man confounded at every turn who meets up with the gorgeous Eva Marie Saint on a train who appears to want to help him. The sexual interplay between the two is pretty steamy, especially for 1959 (Eva: “I can take care of myself, I’m a big girl”. Cary:”Yes, and in all the right places”). Hitch returns to the idea of movie climaxes atop American landmarks (as he did on the Statue Of Liberty in “Saboteur”) as this time the finale is set at the top of Mount Rushmore and along the way there are the now famous crop duster scene, Cary pulling a knife out of the back of a United Nations diplomat and attempting to drive a car along a Long Island road after being plied with bourbon by evil James Mason and Martin Landau . The two leads smolder together and there are fine supporting performances by Mason, Landau, Leo G. Carroll and Jessie Royce Landis, who plays Grant’s mother despite only being eight years older than Cary in real life,
2) REAR WINDOW (1954)
Photographer James Stewart breaks his leg on assignment and is confined to a wheelchair in his garden apartment where he passes the time by eavesdropping on the lives of his fellow residents. Stewart’s girlfriend, the radiant Grace Kelly, chastises him for his voyeurist tendencies until one night Stewart notices that one neighbor’s (Raymond Burr) wife has seemingly disappeared and the mystery begins. All of the scenes in the film take place in Stewart’s apartment and his confinement echoes our own as we watch the suspense unfold as the normally refined Grace decides to take matters into her own hands and breaks into Burr’s apartment to look for clues as to the wife’s whereabouts. John Michael Hayes’ screenplay is exceptional as is Robert Burks’ cinematography. Suspense, par excellence.
1) NOTORIOUS (1946)
Socialite Ingrid Bergman is set up by government agent Cary Grant to spy on her father’s ex-Nazi friends in post war South America. When one of those friends (Claude Rains) falls for her she reluctantly goes “all in” undercover. It’s difficult to succinctly convey what is so special about this movie. Yes it’s a cracking good spy yarn with exotic locales, a sharp screenplay and solid supporting performances, especially from Leopoldine Konstantin, who plays Rains’ aloof and intimidating mother, but the film’s allure comes mostly from the interaction between Grant, Bergman and Rains and the scenes in which all three are in are priceless. But make no mistake, this is Bergman’s movie. She is the core of the film, the hub from which both Grant and Rains revolve around and seldom do we find a female heroine character in a Hitchcock movie as strong and as developed as this. She is a reflection on a post war world, weary and complicated with unclear alliances and an uncertain future. Rarely did the director’s films go this deep.