Ranking the Greats: The 10 Best Films of Alfred Hitchcock

He began his career making silent films in Britain. It was there where he met, and eventually married, the woman who would become his greatest supporter, creative partner, and critic. Hollywood eventually came calling, but even with success both commercially and critically, few in Tinseltown knew what to do with him. Today, he’s considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Yet he doesn’t even have an Oscar for his main cinematic contribution — directing (he did ‘win’ the 1968 Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, if that’s any consolation). Instead, all Alfred Hitchcock owns is a legacy so far superior to any of those within his peer group that to consider him anything less than the undisputed maestro of the thriller is incompetence. Among the old school set, he’s the king.

In a few weeks, director Sacha Gervasi (responsible for the terrific documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil) will release his take on Psycho period Hitchcock, complete with Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins as the portly Master of Suspense and Academy Queen Helen Mirren as his faithful (?) wife Elma. As with the recent HBO effort The Girl (which centered on the filmmaker’s rumored unhealthy fixation with Tippi Hedren during The Birds), these behind the scenes biopics offer little about the moviemaking process and, instead, focus more on the personal politics involved in Hitchcock’s artistic auteurship. For us, no amount of TMZ tabloiding can destroy what is a truly remarkable filmmaker. Over the course of four decades, her delivered a myriad of memorable titles. For us, these ten are his very, very best.

#10: Saboteur

As the master of the mainstream thriller, war and espionage were boons for Hitchcock. Here, he even manages to make the mostly comedic actor Bob Cummings into a believable hero. The story centers around a factory worker who is accused of setting a fire which killed his friend. He blames a mysterious man named “Fry.” The rest of the film is spent trying to find the truth with a final confrontation taking place at, and ON, the Statue of Liberty. While it was mocked by everyone who he pitched it to, the film eventually went on to be a major hit.


#9: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Believe it or not, this was a remake, with Hitchcock revisiting a project he first made way back in the early ’30s. With one more picture owed to Paramount, the studio thought this action adventure would benefit from an update. The director agreed. Bringing along favorite leading man Jimmy Stewart and pop chanteuse Doris Day, the international assassination plotline really did appeal to post-War audiences. So did the theme song by Ms. Day (“Que Sera, Sera”). It went on to win an Academy Award and become the popular singer’s theme for the rest of her career.

#8: The Birds

All tussles with Tippi Hedren aside, this remains Hitchcock’s last great shocker (sorry, fans of Frenzy), a film so frightfully simple (our aviary friends turn into murderous fiends) but an execution so complex that scholars are still dissecting its many secrets, both in production and underlying themes. Via a combination of puppeteering, live animals, process shots, stock footage, and the standard Hitchcock flair, the director did for our fine feathered friends what he did for showers a few years before. Today, the movie has its many detractors, including those who complain about the filmmaker’s onset cruelty toward his leading lady. True or not, the final product is a minor masterwork.

#7: Notorious

First of all, the casting is just amazing. Cary Grant. Ingrid Bergman. Claude Rains. Who could ask for a better espionage triangle. The story centers on the daughter of a convicted Nazi spy and the US government agent who tries to recruit her for the cause. Her job? Seduce another former member of the Third Reich and figure out what his post-war plans are. The ending centers around a key, a wine cellar, and some very special ‘vintages’. Long beloved for its acting components, the film also finds Hitchcock experimenting with his new found love of suspense expressionism, where suggestion and cinematic sleight of hand would, hopefully, lead to thrills and chills.

#6: Rear Window

For many, this was an unknown quantity. As one of the few films for which Hitchcock retained the copyright, he removed it from distribution shortly after its 1950s release. Many would only hear about the so-called lost masterpiece from those lucky enough to see it during its initial run. Once Universal took over the property in the mid-’80s, home video exposed everyone to what the rumors and innuendo were onto. This is perhaps the ultimate expression of Hitchcock’s aesthetic — a simple idea (a bedridden man may or may not have witnessed a murder from his apartment window) expertly… and experimentally… told. It remains a top notch thriller.

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#5: Shadow of a Doubt

Few will ever forget this serial killer in new suburbia masterpiece. Teresa Wright is the naive young girl who believes her beloved Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) is the greatest guy in the world. Such halting hero worship is challenged when it looks like said relative is actually a slick serial killer known as the Merry Widow Murderer. The rest of the film is a fantastic “is he or isn’t he?” From the Oscar worthy performances to the final confrontation on a moving train, Hitchcock draws us into this seemingly safe white picket fence world and shows us the ugly, and the evil, underneath. Just terrific.

#4: Strangers on a Train

As he would throughout the late ’40s and early ’50s, Hitchcock experimented with style and approach. Even this story of crossed killings (one consensual, the other far from it) couldn’t escape his cinematic tinkering. Thus we get the amazing murder at the carnival, the lens from a fallen pair of glasses capturing the act in all its noxious cruelty. Even better is the finale which returns to the fair and finds our reluctant hero taking on the wicked villain while riding an out of control carousel. From its homoerotic undercurrents to its splash and spectacle, it remains one of Hitchcock’s most astonishing artistic statements.

#3: Vertigo

For many, this is Hitchcock’s masterpiece, and that’s saying a lot when you consider that filmmaker has made more than one movie that could be called same. For us, the films at three through one could easily be switched around, their effect both as art and as genre benchmarks beyond reproach. Here, Hitchcock is working personal… very personal. While accused of putting his fetishes and perversions onscreen for all to see, this story of a detective trying to decipher a mysterious murder remains a hypnotic and romantic stunner. We can see the source’s psychological complexity in every frame, and the results are beyond spellbinding.

#2: Psycho

Still smarting from the rejection of Vertigo and angered that North By Northwest was embraced instead, Hitchcock wanted to push the boundaries of his filmmaking acumen once again. So he settled on a story inspired by serial killer Ed Gein, gussied it up with a name cast, and then handled the entire project like an auteur’s version of a B-movie. Studio executives might have hated it, but it’s now cited as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. Better still, it’s effect on the public psyche was almost immediate. Let’s just say that showers have never been as popular since.

#1: North by Northwest

While he may have dismissed it as the kind of movie he could do with one hand tied behind his back, this remains Hitchcock’s ultimate statement. It’s the reason his resume reads “The Master of Suspense.” For the Mount Rushmore finale alone, the director deserves a few dozens film school courses in his name. With another stellar cast — Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, an incredibly Martin Landau — and a terrific mistaken identity plot, the film flies by on wings of well-honed cinematic craftsmanship. Not only has it stood the test of time, it belittles any attempt to match its forward thinking brilliance.