Where To Start: Hitchcock Films

I've been a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan since I was a teenager. I collected Hitchcock movies on VHS back in the 80s and still have a few on LaserDisc.  I'm a sucker for upgrading certain films when they become available on a higher resolution format.

You may scoff at collecting old movies on Blu-Ray, an important thing to remember (and I'm getting off track a little here, but it's worth mentioning) that just because a movie is old doesn't mean that in the theaters it wasn't high resolution. The limiting factor for home viewing has always been the old CRT televisions and the means of playing the old movies.  I'm sorry, but watching Casablanca on Blu-Ray is worth it!  One thing to watch for though when buying Blu-Rays is to be sure they aren't simply taken from DVD copies and upconverted. Anyway--major digression--

Hitchcockian Elements:  There are a few types of Hitchcock films out there:

  • Wrong man/mistaken identity
  • Psychological
  • Suspense
  • Horror
  • Confined spaces/limited sets
  • Artsy
  • Plain old drama

I typically think of them in this way, oh, and by the way, he often combines all the elements. Even in his more "pure" dramas there is suspense or some psychological aspect. There are way more elements than these he tends to toss into his films, but the list above shows the basics.

Here I'm going to tell you where I'd start if I was approaching Hitchcock for the first time knowing now what I didn't back in the 1980s:

You could begin with #1 or #2 here, or if you like some of the actors and actresses I list, go ahead and start with their film(s).  Hitchcock used the same actors and actresses quite a bit.

  1. Psycho: This may be obvious, but for mass appeal, I'd start with Pyscho--released in 1960, this is late-period Hitchcock, but so wonderful. Spooky and tense. I'd say it holds up pretty well. A motel out in the desert with a creepy old victorian house overlooking it?  psychological, suspense, horror, and some artsy moments--usually with clever shots
  2. Rear Window:  Any film with Grace Kelly and James Stewart is a winner, I shouldn't even have to write anything else about it.  Stewart plays a photographer trapped in his NYC apartment because he broke his leg. He stares into the courtyard day and night and gets to know all the details about his neighbors--oh, and he believes there has been a murder. See this one. In fact, you could start here if you like.  confined space, suspense, drama
  3. Notorious:  Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. Again, should be enough. Grant plays a government agent attempting to ferret out Nazis in South America while Bergman goes undercover to find out what the Nazis are up to. This is a great spy movie packed with suspense and a love story. Claude Rains is wonderful in his role, and you almost feel sorry for him.  suspense, drama
  4. North By Northwest:  Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, and Martin Landau. Great cast. This film may be the broadest in scope of all the Hitchcock films. This is a mistaken identity film filled with intrigue which takes Grant across the country in order to prove his innocence. This film has it all: wrong man, suspense, drama, love story, and plenty of artsy techniques.
  5. Rope:  I really like the films Hitchcock did where the space is limited (see Rear Window above and not mentioned here--Lifeboat).  Rope is a story about not getting away with the perfect murder, but if some people have a right to murder people they feel are inferior to them intellectually.  This one was done as to appear as one seamless take with no cuts. It's an interesting film to watch for the premise alone.  confined space, suspense, horror, psychological
  6. The 39 Steps:  This is a wrong man film. Again, on the run after he is mistaken for a murderer. A lot of fun and this one is considered Hitchcock's commercial breakthrough.  I believe this is the first of his many "wrong man" films. This one, too, has spies and a broader scope--not quite like North By Northwest, but this was made in 1935!
  7. The Lady Vanishes: takes place mainly on a train and is a wonderful mystery. This one is like a comic thriller in a lot of ways. Witty.  A young woman meets an older woman who seems to disappear into thin air. The young woman gets drawn into a complex mystery.
  8. Strangers On A Train:  based off the Patricia Highsmith novel, and the inspiration for another of my favorites--Throw Momma From The Train. 

'm stopping with these seven. There are quite a few I've left off the list that I adore. Spellbound, Vertigo, The Birds, Suspicion, Foreign Correspondent, The Man Who Knew Too Much (the earlier one with Peter Lorre rather than the James Stewart/Doris Day version), To Catch A Thief, and Rebecca. There are more though, many, many more to find and enjoy.

Rebecca is a great movie (and won an Academy Award)--winning against another Hitchcock film from the same year--Foreign Correspondent! I wouldn't recommend starting with it since it isn't the typical Hitchcock film.

Bottom line: if you enjoy suspense-filled films with the best actors and actresses of their generation, check out Hitchcock. If you want to own the films, find the Criterion versions (many of them are being re-released on Blu-Ray).  The transfers are wonderful, and they usually clean up the sound a bit--but while the picture may be wonderful, many times the sound quality is what lags.

Do you have a favorite Hitchcock film?  Maybe a modern day film or director equivalent?