Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
The master of suspense has made far more films than most people realize, having started his career in his native United Kingdom during the silent era. After coming to the United States in 1939 to make his first feature at the behest of legendary producer David O. Selznick, his career took a new and vaunted turn with two celebrated films in 1940 alone followed by a string of great pictures that have been studied and examined for decades. Picking five is difficult. Films like North by Northwest, the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and `The 39 Steps all merit inclusion as do many others, but these are my five favorites.
With two films in 1940, Hitchcock more than proved Selznick’s faith in him. Not only were they successful, Foreign Correspondent picked up six Oscar nominations, while Rebecca picked up eleven, winning tow Oscars. Few directors have managed so many nominations in a single year. This is testament to Hitchcock’s pending dominance of American cinema over the next two decades.
Based on a wildly popular Daphne Du Maurier novel, the film stars Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter, a wealthy artistocrat whose previous wife, Rebecca, died in a mysterious boating accident. Joan Fontaine appears as the second Mrs. de Winter who is haunted by the spectre of her predecessor’s larger-than-life presence and whom the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, played by a brilliant Judith Anderson in one of the screen’s most iconic roles, worshipped. As the second Mrs. de Winter, who is never given a name, looks deeper into the matter, she uncovers some hard truths about the relationship between Maxim and Rebecca as well as Mrs. Danvers’ involvement.
Hitchcock had largely perfected his suspenseful style before embarking on his American journey, but Rebecca helped set the tone for the rest of his career. Although he didn’t win Best Director, a trophy he never secured, his film won the awards for Best Picture and Best Cinemaatography (black-and-white). While other of his films are cited more often as influences or icons of cinema history, this film is unquestionably one of his most haunting.
Rear Window (1954)
One thing that Hitchcock excelled at was finding unique sources that translated well to the big screen. His adaptation of “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich, is easily one of his most fascinating premises. Never writing his own screenplays (this one was written by John Michael Hayes), Hitchcock excelled at using the visual medium of cinema to entertain, surprise, and impress audiences from all walks of life.
Rear Window is about a professional photographer, played with all his dashing vulnerability by James Stewart, who has been confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg. As he recuperates, his homebound pastime is watching the lives of his apartment neighbors across their shared courtyard, his camera a window into their lives. When he begins to put two and two together regarding the sudden disappearance of his neighbor’s wife and his sudden interest in gardening, Stewart’s paranoia begins to assert itself and he starts fearing for his life and that of his girlfriend (Grace Kelly), the tension rises quickly as the film winds towards its surprising conclusion.
Wendell Corey and Thelma Ritter join the cast as a police detective friend and Stewart’s nurse respectively. Hitchcock was known as the master of suspense for good reason. He excelled at the genre above all others, giving us unique perspectives and fascinating depictions. Here, he taps into the human fascination with voyeurism, looking into the lives of others, and getting involved even when your own involvement isn’t necessary. Taking matters into one’s own hands for fear of the unthinkable happening, Rear Window is a masterclass in twisted perceptions and remains a fascinating watch even these many years later.
In the last of four films Stewart made with Hitchcock, Vertigo once again taps into the everyman’s strength in creating selfless characterizations. In Vertigo, Stewart plays Scottie Ferguson, a retired detective sidelined by a fear of heights and the accompanying bouts of vertigo. When asked to follow the wife of a colleague, Stewart tails Kim Novak through the streets of San Francisco, unraveling the mystery that surrounds the perceived possession of Novak’s Madeline by the spirit of her great-grandmother who committed suicide after her husband tossed her aside.
While the film has a fascinating story at its core, it’s Hitchcock’s use of the dolly zoom technique that really set the tone for all that was to follow. Dollying out while zooming in creates a sensation of falling as the background compresses into the foreground. Hitchcock didn’t invent the technique, but he popularized it with this one film. Stewart and Novak deliver fine performances with Barbara Bel Geddes providing suitable support.
The film has slowly increased in popularity as the years have progressed, eventually rising to the top of the Sight & Sound decennial Greatest Film of all-time list in 2012 dethroning the long-reigning Citizen Kane. While I whole-heartedly disagree with this particular development, there’s no question that Vertigo, like so many films of its era, deserves suitably more praise than it received upon its initial release. The film also featured an iconic title sequence crafted by John Whitney and a superb score by the undeniably great Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann.
Herrmann scored dozens of films across his career from his first film score for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane to his last for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Herrmann’s best work came from Hitchcock’s pictures. It was a seven-film collaboration that began in 1955 with The Trouble With Harry and ended with 1964’s Marnie. While all of his work for Hitchcock is stellar, his most iconic and most memorable score is for the film Psycho.
Starring Anthony Perkins as creepy stuffed-bird collector Norman Bates, the film centers around a small motel in southern California where Bates works, tending the place for his invalid mother. Janet Leigh plays opposite Bates as a real estate secretary who had skipped town with a monetary deposit that she hopes to use to help her and her indebted boyfriend get married. After Marion Crane (Leigh) is stabbed to death in the shower by a woman with her hair done up in a bun and her body is sunk into the swamp in the trunk of her own car, Marion’s Sister Lila, played by Vera Miles, arrives looking for her.
John Gavin as Marion’s boyfriend, Martin Balsam as a private investigator, and Miles all turn in solid supporting performance and Leigh delivers a strong, if short-lived leading performance. Yet, it’s Perkins who delivers the film’s most bone-chilling and surprising performance. While the film is largely straight forward, the shower scene and the final confrontation with Norman’s mother in the even creepier mansion on the hill behind the hotel stand out as the most memorable elements to the film. For all of its influence on future film history, Psycho is a spectacular film with the kind of twist ending that even horror maven William Castle would have been envious of (and ultimately was, copying it for his schlocky Homicidal).
The Birds (1963)
While some of Hitchcock’s other films like North by Northwest, The 39 Steps, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and even the aforementioned Foreign Correspondent are terrific films and often more frequently cited as his best, for me, The Birds fills out the list as one of his most entertaining efforts. It was one of the first of his pictures I ever saw as a kid.
Starring Tippi Hedron as a socialite with a troubled past who buys a pair of lovebirds for a handsome man (Rod Taylor) she meets in a pet shop, she decides to drive the birds out to his family’s farm. While there, strange happenings with the avian creatures of the area, hens, gulls, and others, force the residents to shelter in place as the normally docile creatures become savage and violent. Trapped in a house together, tempers boil over and the turmoil inside the house is almost as volatile as the events outside.
Featuring a number of strong performances from Hedron, Jessica Tandy as Taylor’s disapproving mother, Suzanne Pleshette as a local teacher who once dated Taylor, and Veronica Cartwright as Taylor’s 12-year-old sister whose birthday present from Taylor (the lovebirds) seems to instigate the whole situation. Fond of filming in studios where he was more in control, Hitchcock’s house-bound The Birds is a superb entry in horror history. The director infrequently shifted from suspense thrillers to horror, but when he did, the end results were impressive. While the film might not be one of his best made, it’s certainly one of my favorites from long before I even considered becoming a film critic.