The master’s top tier ranked from worst to best. You can find 52-27 here.
(1927) The first real sign of the director’s signature style, and by some distance, the best film of his silent period. The Lodger finds a – yes – innocent man under suspicion of being a murderer, a ripper-in-their-midst idea Hitch would still find appealing as much as 45 years later with Frenzy. Rather like Grant in Suspicion – well, in spite of the director’s intentions – the titular lodger couldn’t be the killer because he’s played by Ivor Novello. The first of his movies that could in any way earn the master-of-suspense term, and also his first cameo. If you’re – quite understandably – dubious about investigating Hitch’s earliest period, this is the place to test the waters.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith
(1941) Another where Hitchcock was offhandedly dismissive of the quality, this time on the grounds that it wasn’t his cup of tea. And admittedly, screwball comedy is not his best foot forward. Still, Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard have lively chemistry as a couple who discover their marriage is invalid. Lombard doesn’t take it well when Montgomery suggests he’d have stayed single if he had the chance to live it all again, throwing him out and embarking on a romance with his business partner (Gene Raymond). Of course, Montgomery really does want to be with her, and amusing larks ensue as he tries to win her back. This is no competition for the best of its genre, but an enjoyable little curio nonetheless.
(1936) If you’d always wondered how John Gielgud would fare as the romantic hero of a spy thriller, here’s your chance to find out. He’s… interesting, a decidedly cerebral spy. But that suits a scenario very much designed to cast doubt on heroic wartime fervour and ideals as he and Peter Lorre botch their assignment and must deal with the moral consequences. Also featuring Madelaine Carroll, far less effectively cast than in The 39 Steps. Hitchcock’s spy movies – the suspense genre with which he’s most readily identified – were rarely as reflective or ruminative as this, and if he doubted the wisdom of suck a tack, Secret Agent remains all the richer for it.
(1976) In some respects, Hitch’s last outing invites a verdict of middling TV fare. The kind of trifle one might expect as a movie of the week, what with its larky fake medium, indifferent cinematography and Murder She Wrote John Williams score. That’s all fair, but Family Plot is also a lot of fun with it. Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris are aces as the small-time scammers getting in over their heads when they track down an inheritance to William Devane. It turns out Devane and his accomplice Karen Black are in the big leagues: kidnap, blackmail and the precious-gems racket. Ernest Lehman’s screenplay is deceptively deft, and if your immediate response that it’s on the lightweight side bears out, it’s surprisingly satisfying for all that.
To Catch a Thief
(1955) Another lightweight affair, flourishing probably the definition of charismatic, slumming-it Cary Grant and unattainably cool Grace Kelly. His (aging) cat burglar – not nearly as old as Connery in Entrapment, but nevertheless – doesn’t have too many pressing concerns on his plate to distract him from winning his leading lady. Snaring a young pretender is pretty much an afterthought. This one receives so many plaudits that I have to tend towards placing it in the overrated category, but To Catch a Thief is never less than slick and serviceable. Plus, there’s some quite grisly wholesale cigarette-egg destruction going on.
(1936) Hitch does Conrad. In the process, he perpetrates a famously wanton piece of murder he later regretted, on the grounds that it took the audience past the point they were willing to go. To make the case for the defence, Sabotage is fascinating because of that decision. It may not have spelled great box office, but the choice, rather like the casting of Gielgud in Secret Agent, makes for more interesting, surprising and layered viewing. Plus, it’s a superlative suspense sequence. True, it’s difficult to believe Sylvia Sidney would have ended up marrying Oscar Homolka, and the ending is a little too neat, but Sabotage is a very worthy addition to his spy/suspense arsenal.
(1958) Many consider Vertigo to be the director’s towering achievement. Some consider it to be cinema’s towering achievement (if you go by Time Out polls). I’ve never been convinced. Technically, the picture is hugely impressive, as is the director’s pure-cinema approach of attempting to tell the story as visually as possible (it’s frequently the closest he comes to a silent in the sound era). Although, one might allege this leads to an exhausting amount of one person (James Stewart) following another person (Kim Novak) around throughout. Yes, Vertigo’s the last word in distilling Hitchcock’s voyeuristic obsessions, and those towards his leading ladies, but you ultimately need to be invested in the characters too. For me, that’s why Vertigo comes up short. And why the director’s other last-voyeuristic-word movie with James Stewart wins out.
(1972) In graphic terms, probably Hitchcock’s nastiest film, albeit there are more glaring examples of psychological degradation. Barry Foster’s serial killer is a straight-up, stone-cold psychopath, so there’s no wrangling for sympathy here. And very little for Jon Finch’s depiction of a Hitchcock go-to, the unjustly accused man; Finch wilfully makes him a difficult-to-like so-and-so, which ultimately unbalances Frenzy’s internal tension; mostly because it really needs that, amid the brutal rapes and strangulations. Nevertheless, this represents a twilight example of a director still delivering the goods, back in his home country and populating his cast with such inimitable presences as Bernard Cribbins, Jean Marsh, Billie Whitelaw and Anna Massey. There’s also some absurdist humour courtesy of Alex McCowen and wife Vivien Merchant, the latter serving her chief-inspector husband gourmet atrocities while advising him intuitively on his case.
(1930) The title, exclamation mark aside, is on the forgettable side, but this early sound effort has been rather unfairly neglected. Murder! is a – surprise! – murder mystery headed up by Herbert Marshall’s literary detective Sir John, one that revolves around the theatrical community. It’s true that the detective side is rather weak. There’s also an early example of the director embracing a transgressive element on the part of the murderer that is a little botched in the execution, becoming rather blurred and lost in translation from page to screen. But the real pleasure here comes with the preceding material, from the tableau of the murder to the depiction of the world of the stage to the jury’s deliberations that rouse Sir John to work. Often very funny, Murder! doesn’t quite come together, but it’s much more inspired than you might assume.
(1950) Gets a degree of stick, not least from the director himself, for lying to the audience. But there’s much to enjoy in this neglected and increasingly-rare-by-this-point England-set Hitchcock thriller. Richard Todd, pleading his innocence of murder to Jane Wyman, has been having an affair with Marlene Dietrich’s stage star. Wyman, besotted with Todd, begins her own investigation. This might be merely so-so were that the sum of it, but aiding and abetting Wyman is her eccentric father, played by Alastair Sim. Which, since it’s Alastair Sim, makes for a series of delightful comic sequences and lines. Jostling for pole position as the most underrated Hitchcock and nice to hear Laurent Bouzereau, maker of documentaries for most of the Hitchcock DVD releases, going to bat for it in that regard.
(1940) Foreign Correspondent might be up there with Hitchcock’s best spy thrillers were it not for one key failing. No, not the overt propaganda, which only really gets in the way at the conclusion. Rather, it’s Joel McCrea’s largely forgettable lead; he isn’t bad, but he needs to be a lot more than that to ensure the picture is truly memorable. What does make the movie memorable, rather like the entry above it in this ranking, is a supporting player: this time, the rather magnificent and much-more-charismatic George Sanders. He’s quicker, wittier, more heroic and more capable. And he’s called ffolliott! Foreign Correspondent boasts some memorable Hitch-signature set pieces (a windmill, Westminster Cathedral, a plane crash) but Sanders is the main attraction.
(1929) The director’s first sound film and a major hit. Anny Ondra kills her attempted rapist in self-defence, only to be blackmailed by cur Donald Calthrop. All this and her Scotland Yard boyfriend John Longden attempting to cover up for her too. It’s the kind of messy situation Hitchcock delighted in and so expertly filled with opportunities to milk that tension. The Lodger may have been the first sign of the director to come, but Blackmail is the one that finds him functioning in full effect.
(1944) Lifeboat ultimately takes the easy route with regard to its pronounced propaganda aspect, much more so than Foreign Correspondent, where you can take or leave it; here, the resolution requires setting aside petty disputes in order to confront the real enemy, so it’s fundamental to the narrative. That said, everything else about the director’s approach to the challenges of a limited setting and cast is consummate, while John Steinbeck’s screenplay is no slouch. Where the latter falls short, Hitch’s eye for tension invariably takes up the slack. Also features his career-best cameo.
The Man Who Knew Too Much
(1934) Vastly superior to the better-known and more widely seen remake, this gets the jump on even The 39 Steps as the progenitor of the episodic Hitchcock spy thriller formula. Leslie Banks and Edna Best’s daughter Nova Pilbeam is kidnapped by rotters in order to ensure their silence over vital information imparted by murdered Pierre Fresnay. They promptly decide to do their own detective work in a very witty screenplay that takes in a cult of sun worshippers, an assassination bid at the Albert Hall and Best calling on her sharp-shooter skills at a crucial juncture. A treat.
The Lady Vanishes
(1938) Launder and Gilliat furnish Hitchcock with a delightfully witty screenplay that doesn’t necessarily rank too highly on the plausibility scale. But then, how many such yarns do? Positioned as a warning against ignoring encroaching fascism, some of The Lady Vanishes’ messaging isn’t exactly subtle, yet there’s also a strong element of self-conscious buffer-ishness to the immaculate Englishness of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne’s Charters and Caldicott. Mostly train bound, the proceedings find Margaret Lockwood attempting to ferret out the fate of Dame May Witty, aided and abetted by an initially sceptical and at-loggerheads Michael Redgrave. One where the writing shines every bit as much as the direction, which wasn’t always the case.
(1948) In some respects, a technical exercise: Hitchcock adapts Patrick Hamilton’s play through a series of long takes, ten in all and lasting up to ten minutes. The conceit may be somewhat arbitrary, but it avoids adversely impacting the quality of the material. Leopold-and-Loeb-esque murderers John Dall and Farley Granger throw a dinner party at the scene of their just-committed crime, taunting their guests with their own superiority but not reckoning that their old professor James Stewart may sniff them out. If Rope finally stumbles through attempting to excuse Stewart’s own culpability as a blithely intellectual influence on his ex-students, it is nevertheless one of the director’s smartest and most considered pictures.
Dial ‘M’ for Murder
(1954) Hitch called this “coasting, playing it safe”. Maybe it is, but Dial ‘M’ for Murder’s also the best of his stage-play adaptations, as he mischievously plucks the sympathy-for-the-devil string that’s common to several in the Top 10. Ray Milland is hugely charming as the schemer who must contend with attempted ensnarement from both the man (Robert Cummings) carrying on with his wife (Grace Kelly) and the fuzz (John Williams) after his attempt on his other half’s life goes wrong. That scene is a classic piece of Hitchcock suspense in itself, but the picture as a whole finds the auteur at the height of his powers. Which may be why he found it so easy to dismiss it as a trifle.
(1940) Daphne Du Maurier’s novel was recently remade, but let’s not dwell on that. This is a gothic masterpiece, one that finds the director, in his first Hollywood venture, exulting in the potential for lavish opulence and atmosphere. A ghost story without a ghost, as innocent Joan Fontaine finds a distinct lack of wedded bliss with Sir Larry; all around her, Manderlay is infused with the lingering presence of the late Mrs De Winter. Fontaine may lack agency and Olivier tends to overplay, but there’s superb support from blithering Nigel Bruce, rakish George Sanders and most of all Judith Anderson as the fearsome Mrs Danvers. Gorgeous deep-focus black-and-white photography casts a bewitching spell, and it’s more than likely you’ll observe Rebecca’s influence on Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which came out the following year.
Shadow of a Doubt
(1943) Welles collaborator Joseph Cotten makes a compelling and unnerving sociopath in Hitchcock’s dismantling of small-town idylls. He had the drop on David Lynch there, and if anything, the psycho family member infiltrating his sister’s nest is even more insidious. The real spell of Shadow of a Doubt is weaved from the relationship between uncle and niece, however, with Teresa Wright more than capable of standing her ground against Uncle Charlie as she comes to realise the relative she idolised is rotten to the core. Hitch has a lot of fun contrasting the oblivious family with the twisted mind games Charlie (Cotton) plays with Charlie (Wright). The highlight, however, is the dinner scene in which the revered relative offers an unadorned treatise on the contempt he holds for his victims.
(1963) Not, perhaps, quite as assured as the picture immediately preceding it – the casting isn’t as satisfying, and the slow build up isn’t entirely well used – but still a dazzling final illustration of the extent of the director’s powers. The Birds is a modern effects blockbuster, one in which withholding is everything. The silences between attacks are every bit, if not more, as important the attacks themselves. The sound design is expert (there’s no score), and the lack of clear motivation for what is going on ensures the picture remains haunting long after the apocalyptic ending.
(1946) With WWII in his rear-view mirror, Hitchcock is already playing with sympathies. Claude Rains wasn’t the director’s choice – that would be Joseph Cotten – but he’s an inspired one, sympathetic despite his Nazi-ness and arriving with that Hitch evergreen in tow, the overbearing mother. Whilst Notorious is a spy thriller, its thrills derive from the love-triangle structure, and substance from blurring the lines between good guys and bad; Grant, the spy master, is morally culpable as he induces Ingrid Bergman to prostitute herself patriotically. It’s also a picture that, with its Nazis-in-South-America premise, had the drop on a whole subgenre to come.
(1960) There’s nothing very artful about the material, but the execution – and indeed, executions – elevates Psycho to the nth degree. Psycho maybe somewhat atypical in the sheer shameless of the pulp it purveys – this is very much the horror genre, even given the first fifty minutes’ extended red herring – but the sureness of the delivery is masterful. The shock murders are staged with finesse, the reveals have become legendary – and both homaged and mocked since – and the performances, Perkins and Leigh especially, walk precisely the necessary line in offering sympathy towards wrongdoers (even given the gulf in severity of their respective crimes). And then there’s Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score. It’s easy to respond to Psycho in a jaded fashion because its reputation precedes it so pervasively. But then you go and watch it again…
The 39 Steps
(1935) You might push it back further to The Man Who Knew Too Much (as I did above), but without The 39 Steps, there’d be no North by Northwest, no Bond, and in many respects you’d thus lose the template for the modern action movie. Because this is a chase in which an unjustly accused man – yes, that’s right – and an obscure but vital objective – the McGuffin, of course – are linked through a series of haphazardly strung-together scenes. Or set pieces, if you will. Hitchcock makes this look like the most confident, well-serviced, tried-and-tested formula ever, and he even manages to insert romantic comedy – bordering on screwball – for good measure. Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll are blessed with boundless love-hate chemistry, and the picture has the hell directed out of it. The 39 Steps stands up every bit as well as it did at the time, so you can comfortably forget the copious remakes and bask in the glory of the best Richard Hannay.
Strangers on a Train
(1951) Criss-cross. One of Hitch’s most irresistible premises and perhaps his most charismatic antagonist in the form of Farley Granger’s erudite, witty, mother’s boy psychopath Guy Haines. Notably, the devil’s deal is only ever in the mind of its instigator (Robert Walker’s Bruno has no intention of holding up his end of the “bargain”, much to Haines’ dismay). Hitchcock is operating at peak powers. He delivers a succession of mesmerising scenes and sequences, from the initial train meeting, to the amusement-park murder, to a remarkably well-shot tennis match, to the cigarette lighter drama, and finally, the insanely OTT destruction-derby climax. The best might be the dinner party, though, in which a playfully cocky Guy, demonstrating how to commit a murder, is caught off balance by the resemblance of Patricia Hitchcock to his victim and begins actually strangling a guest.
North by Northwest
(1959) So peerlessly confident, it matters not a jot how little sense North by Northwest makes. It was, after all, the director feeding Ernest Lehman odds and ends of scenes he wanted to put on film, with the latter somehow required to fashion a coherent screenplay from them. Everyone knows the crop duster sequence, a masterclass in slow-building suspense, and the climax on Mount Rushmore (leading to probably the most efficient and concise conclusion to a movie ever). But there’s also, for good measure, Cary Grant’s first meeting with James Mason, the hilarious auction scene and Grant’s fake-out murder. Grant is at his most indelibly Grant-ish, the signature of the movie star simply showing up and it being more than enough. Mason’s villain almost out-smooths Grant, which is saying something. The film that (most directly, but also see above) paved the way for Bond, and the modern blockbuster besides.
(1954) The most perfect and digestible encapsulation of the Hitchcock the voyeur put on screen (Perkins’ shower scene peek in Psycho, or Stewart stripping the unconscious Kim Novak in Vertigo representing the less palatable side). Jimmy Stewart, laid up with a broken leg, is tended by fantasy girlfriend (and wife wannabe) Grace Kelly while idly spying on the neighbours in his tenement. Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes ensure each of these form engrossing vignettes in themselves, from comedic to tragic and somewhere in between. But what really gets Stewart’s pulse racing – rather than Kelly – is the thought that Raymond Burr across the way has killed his wife, cut her up and removed the evidence in a large suitcase.
Rear Window is a masterpiece of character work and, when the time comes, set-piece tension (Kelly imperilled, the injured Stewart at the mercy of the murderer). Stewart makes his character’s grubby interests seem justified and even respectable, while Kelly sprinkles class and Thelma Ritter lubricates the proceedings with laughs. Most of all, though, this is Hitchcock’s show, and he makes his control of the frame, and the results, seem effortless.