The Hand Down the Staircase, “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” (1927)
The silent film that first earned the director considerable praise from British critics and audiences, “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” plays like a prototype Hitchcock film, introducing many of the visual storytelling techniques and thematic overtones that he would continue to explore over the next several decades. Set in London as a serial killer is murdering attractive young blondes, the movie’s taut suspense centers on whether or not the Bunting family’s new renter is the killer. As played by Ivor Novello, the lodger’s haunting appearance and gestures recall Nosferatu, and his interest in the Bunting’s beautiful blonde daughter, Daisy (June Tipp), ominously suggests he may be the murderer the police are looking for.
In the chilling shot above, the lodger sneaks out of his room late one night to take to the streets for unspecified reasons. By cross cutting between the lodger’s cautious exit and Ms. Bunting’s worried expressions as she listens to her new guest creak down the stairs, Hitchcock expertly enhances the audience’s suspicion of the character. When he cuts to this shot above — the lodger’s hands quickly gliding along the railing like a ghost — it’s a spine-tingling visual that makes you ever so fearful of the character’s true identity.
Mr. Verloc’s Point of View, “Sabotage” (1936)
The full magnitude of this shot can only be felt by watching the sequence in which it takes place, but make no mistake, this slow camera push is one of the most terrifying shots in what might just be Hitchcock’s most intense moment ever. The climax of the director’s “Sabotage” utilizes the Chekov’s gun principle to painstaking effect. The long-suffering Ms. Verloc (Sylvia Sydney) finally learns the truth about her son’s murder after her husband (Oscar Homolka) confesses to his mob dealing ways. The two prepare for dinner and Hitchcock shows the viewer a knife, an unavoidable sign the meal will not end pleasantly for one of its guests.
What follows is a master class of silence and editing, as the director cuts between the Verloc couple and the knife so that all three individuals involved — Mr. Verloc, Mrs. Verloc and the viewer — know what’s about to take place. As Mr. Verloc gets up from his chair to confront his wife, Hitchcock cuts to a sinsiter POV shot that slowly creeps towards the wife. It’s only several seconds long, but this one slow camera push provides the visceral feeling of a predator going in for the kill. As a viewer who has come to identify with the lonely Ms. Verloc, it’s a moment of suspense like no other.
Mrs. Danvers in the Bedroom, “Rebecca” (1940)
Adapted from the 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier, Hitchcock’s Best Picture winner triumphs in recreating the supernatural ambiguities of Gothic literature. After the unnamed protagonist (Joan Fontaine) moves into Manderlay, she enters into a foreboding relationship with the estate’s housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. Played with a supreme sternness by Judith Anderson, Mrs. Danvers is ferociously obsessed with the house’s first lady, the titular Rebecca, and while her spiritual connection to the deceased remains in question, Hitchcock alludes to such unearthliness in a handful of chilling shots, none more effective than the one above. Standing like a phantom in Rebecca’s bedroom (which Danvers refers to as “her favorite room in the house”), Hitchcock captures the housekeeper as a black silhouette against the ghostly transparent curtains, the room bathed in a soft, spiritual light. If there was any indication that Mrs. Danvers should not be trusted, this image is certainly it.
A Glass of Milk, “Suspicion” (1941)
This aptly titled psychological thriller starring Joan Fontaine and Cary Grant epitomizes much of what earned the director the moniker The Master of Suspense. Hitchcock had an uncanny ability to plant the slightest amount of suspicion in the viewer about a character or plot point and then proceeded to toy with said suspicion in ways both agonizing and hair-raising. “Suspicion” defines this notion to its core, following a charming young woman who comes to believe her husband is trying to murder her for her money. Like a nerve-wracking seesaw, Hitchcock balances the doubts the viewer has with the character and Grant’s undeniable charm to constantly put the husband’s motive in question.
The most nail-biting moment comes when the husband brings his wife a potentially poisoned glass of milk. Working with cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr., Hitchcock creates a frightening image of shadows, juxtaposing the stark white color of the milk against the dark silhouette of the husband and the house’s staircase. Hitch’s lighting positions the milk as something to be wary of, which makes its use in the next scene, as Grant pressures Fontaine to drink it, all the more terrifying.
Spinning Devlin, “Notorious” (1946)
Long before the dizzying love triangle at the center of Hitchcock’s romantic thriller “Notorious” takes shape, the director foreshadows its troubling results with a spin shot around T.R. Devlin (Gary Grant) as a hungover Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) watches him approach her. The shot certainly occupies Alicia’s hungover POV, but it also alludes to the whirlwind romance that will nearly destroy her life a couple of months down the road. All the viewer knows of Devlin at this point is that he’s more than just the dashing gentleman at Alicia’s party the night before — someone with possible police ties considering he was able to prevent Alicia from getting a DUI — and the spiral shot suggests that, whatever happens, the viewer should be more cautious of Devlin than initially meets the eye.
Eyeglass Murder, “Strangers on a Train” (1951)
The instigating murder at the center of this superior thriller takes place after nearly six minutes of tension both humorous and menacing. The charismatic psycho Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) has followed his victim, Miriam (Laura Elliot), to a small-town carnival, where he proceeds to stalk her and catch her eye by capitalizing on her promiscuity. Always the button-pusher, Hitchcock fills the scene to the brim with sexual innuendo both literal (ice cream cone licking) and visual (tunnels of love). The director had always said to film murders like love scenes, and the climax of this prolonged buildup is the murder itself, which the director visualizes as a sardonic punchline by using the reflection of the crime in Miriam’s glasses — an accessory that Bruno was told he’d be able to identify her by — to depict the killing. It’s a wildly inventive image, one that speaks directly to the movie’s observational study of murder and fate and foreshadows the act of killing that must now be reflected onto tennis superstar Guy Haines (Farley Granger).
The Fractured Mirror, “The Wrong Man” (1956)
Abandoning his usual flare for sensationalism, Hitchcock startled audiences with an added dose of docu-drama realism in “The Wrong Man,” which is the only film the director ever made based on a true story. Henry Fonda stars as Manny Balestrero, a struggling musician who is falsely accused and convicted of robbing an insurance office. The meticulously paced drama is one of Hitchcock’s most criminally overlooked, and in exploring the plight of an innocent man, the director exposes numerous errors existing among the police and in the law. Manny’s imprisonment becomes a tumultuous experience for him and his wife, Rose (Vera Miles), who becomes increasingly unhinged and unresponsive as her husband’s freedom seems less likely. In one of the film’s most powerful images, Hitchcock fractures Fonda in the reflection of his mirror, a potent metaphor for not just Manny’s mental anguish, but also for the film’s uneven divide between right and wrong, freedom and incarceration and the characters’ turmoil and resilience.
The Woods, “Vertigo” (1958)
“Vertigo” is overflowing with one mesmerizing shot after the next — Judy emerging from the washroom done up as Madeleine, Madeleine sitting at Ernie’s restaurant, Scottie looking down as he dangles from a railing — but one of the most haunting and under appreciated moments has always been that in the forest during Scottie and Madeleine’s trip to the Muir Woods. Similar to Ms. Danvers in “Rebecca,” Hitchcock constructs Madeleine with a supernatural ambiguity that toys with the viewer’s own sense of reality and seduces him/her closer to the object of beauty.
The events of “Vertigo” are set in motion after Galvin Elster asks Scottie (James Stewart) to follow his wife, claiming she is possessed. Scottie, a detective who sleuths with reason, is reluctant to believe this, as is the viewer for much of his intial investigation. Then comes this startling, hypnotic camera movement that moves ever so slowly around a set of trees Madeleine has walked behind. This subtle push, combined with the glowing background that stands in contrast to the shadowy mid and foreground, provides the slightest suspicion that Madeleine has actually vanished in midair. Its an intoxicating shot full of mystery, one that pulls us further into the character’s scintillating (and potentially supernatural) aura.
The U.N. Building, “North by Northwest” (1959)
Hitchcock’s rollicking adventure film defines spectacle in every sense of the word. More a movie of standout moments than individual shots — the crop-duster scene, the Mount Rushmore climax — “North by Northwest” does include one jaw-dropping still as the mistaken Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant in pre-James Bond mode) exits the U.N. General Assembly building in order to evade capture. Filmed from atop the building looking down, the shot is at once eye-popping in its color scheme and geometrical organization and thrilling its thematic makeup. Hitchcock was rarely subtle or subversive in his visual metaphors, and he goes bigger and more blatant than ever in this shot, capturing the fleeing Thornhill as a tiny speck in this giant industrial maze of building and landscape. If one ever had to summarize Thornhill’s predicament through pure visuals, this one shot would undeniably do it best.