Today marks the birth of the Master of Suspense himself, British filmmaking legend, Alfred Hitchcock. To commemorate this occasion, we at A Fistful of Film have chosen to examine some of our favourites out of his filmography, from his early silent films to his acclaimed latter-day output.
The Lodger: A Story of London Fog (1927): By Jacob Calta
If I were to recommend anyone a film to watch for those who wish to be a filmmaker, that motion picture would be Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 silent mystery The Lodger. It may not be the crème de la crème of the Master’s career, but it is not only the birth of modern Hitchcock, but one of the greatest films to study for visual storytelling. The tale told is that of “The Avenger,” a Jack The Ripper-type who has a penchant for slaying blonde women on Tuesday evenings.
Odd predilection, but fair enough.
His description, as passed out by the police, matches that of Ivor Novello’s eponymous renter, and what is set in motion is a classic Hitchcock yarn of guilt versus innocence. What makes this a must-see for filmmakers is that Hitch seems to be doing everything in his power to not use conventional intertitles, the typical way of disseminating dialogue, and therefore information, to the audience in silent cinema. Information about the killer and story is shown through signs, telegrams, images and just about anything else that does not involve actually talking about the killer amongst characters. Hitch also weaponizes a fabulous array of effects to illustrate various ideas, including a phenomenal glass floor shot that shows Novello pacing around the upper floor from the perspective of those beneath him. It also helps that Novello is blessed with these most piercing eyes that add to the ambiguous appearance of his character. His performance and appearance lend a somewhat spectral quality to the film, with several soft-focus shots and pale makeup giving him a ghostly aura.
If films like Vertigo and Rear Window are anything to go by, the groundwork upon which Hitchcock’s approach to filmmaking, one rooted almost exclusively in visual storytelling, can be found in his silent work. And if you want the best place to start seeking the genesis of the Master of Suspense’s genius, look no further than this terrific tale of murder in the London fog.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934): By Saoirse Selway
Yeah, I know the remake gets all the love but it is certainly worth seeking out this underseen little gem. The film is at the beginning of Hitchcock’s obsessions with globe trotting and glamour that would go on to inform the Bond films with works like To Catch A Thief. The film starts with a lovely ski resort set sports set piece before moving onto a dance where someone is assassinated, in one of Hitchcock’s earliest and best visual shocks. The plot is then set in motion when a British couple find and then attempt to hide their possession of a clue as to the villain. What follows is a super twisty, super taut kidnap thriller that evidently would inspire the likes of Akira Kurasowa with High & Low.
The film gives you shootouts, and tense set pieces set around uncovering murders, and kidnappings, but the real joy of the film is how uncanny and strange it is, especially as a film set around cult activity made in the mid 30s. The cult is headed up by none other than Peter Lorre himself. He’s already made a name for himself in chills with Fritz Lang’s 1931 serial killer chiller masterpiece M, but his performance is ever so subtly different here. In M the thing about his performance is the fact that what we see from him for most of the film are slight shadows and a creepy childish lilt, “that’s a pretty ball”, and all that, before he explodes into pure, unfiltered id in the climax. It’s chilling because we see a murderer reduced to his basest and most pathetic state. Here he is a proto-manson cult leader figure. He is somehow simultaneously charismatic, cool, repulsive, camp, perverse, and threatening, and it might just be his best performance. The moment when the cult gets revealed is one of Hitchcock’s paranoid, and uncanny, and eerie set pieces and it’s just so ahead of its time.
That is not to say that the movie doesn’t have it’s more mainstream moments of classic Hitchcockian thrills if that’s what you want, but if you want something that hits all those marks and is also a bit different, I can’t recommend this enough.
Rebecca (1940): By Amos Lamb
If Alfred Hitchcock is the “Master of Suspense” of cinema, then Daphne du Maurier is the “Mistress of Suspense” of the literary world. So when I realised that Hitchcock had adapted her novel, I knew I had to watch it, and from the very opening shot I was sold. The film opens with a tracking shot that follows a dirt path through a clearing of trees to reveal the beautifully monstrous Gothic mansion where the majority of the story is set. While the tracking shot, if done today, would seem fairly standard and expected, Hitchcock’s attempt is far smoother and more effective at conveying the tone than a lot of modern director’s usage of the technique, and is then only made more impressive by the fact this film is 80 years old and still looks so impressive.
But going further than the opening shot alone, the story of Rebecca proved to be the perfect way for Hitchcock to show his skills at building tension and suspense for American audiences, the story is ripe with uncomfortable tension and uncanny mysteries designed to make the audience squirm and question what’s going on. Psychology is a big part of Maurier’s work, and it works brilliantly in the film, the way Hitchcock surrounds the story in mystery places the audiences firmly in the second Mrs. de Winter, a character whose name we never fully learn, in her paranoia, confusion and fear. Joan Fontaine plays the unnamed protagonist, and her adoration of Laurence Olivier’s ‘Maxim’ de Winter, that soon turns to hysteria as she feels locked and confined in the claustrophobic house she feels alienated from. Speaking of, Olivier gives a tremendous performance as the mysterious aristocrat, his silence and reservation work well to present a sense of discomfort about his presence. The cinematography works well with these performances by utilising tighter shots when framing Olivier and wider more isolated looking shots for Fontaine’s character.
When people refer to Hitchcock as the Master of Suspense, it’s easy to think of his later, more well-known, films like Vertigo, Rear Window, or Psycho, but for me, Rebecca is a masterclass in everything that Hitchcock became known for. While on one hand it surprises me that Hitchcock didn’t win more Oscars, it doesn’t surprise me that Rebecca is his only film to win Best Picture, an aware I truly think it deserves. With both the charming qualities that only a film made so long ago can have, cars clearly driving in front of a green-screen is a personal favourite of mine, and having cinematography and shot composition that gives a lot of modern films a run for their money, I can’t recommend this film enough.
Rear Window (1954): By Saoirse Selway
What can be said about Rear Window that hasn’t been said already? Grace Kelly at her most iconic and charismatic, Jimmy Stewart playing with his image in fascinating ways, and just the amazing technical achievement of making a whole movie set in this one room so visually gorgeous and compelling. I could talk about the way the movie makes you complicit in voyeurism in a way Michel Haneke could only dream of, but that’s all been said. I could talk about the fact that Jimmy Stewart invites you into his charming persona just off the back of it being Jimmy fucking Stewart before proceeding to take you down the long and winding road of moral torpor and the corruptibility of ordinary people through obsession with the macabre while the film maintains this air of charming bounce. I could talk about how this movie speaks truth to the reality of city living to this fucking day, but all that’s been said.
I wanna talk about why this is my favourite Hitchcock movie, and I’m going to start it off in a maybe controversial way.
I’m not really a huge fan of Vertigo. I always call Vertigo, “the Hitchcock film for people who don’t actually like genre cinema”, which is damning with faint praise for a filmmaker so indebted to thriller movies. I just find it so concerned with being a drama movie with a thriller plot happening in the background and I often find that’s the reason a lot of people love it and I find that horribly annoying and pretentious, not that the film is, but I hate that attitude, and I hate that I feel like the film slightly buys into that attitude. Anyway, Rear Window is an all out taut as fuck, hard as nails, thriller. Psycho is also up there for me but even now Psycho feels slightly dangerous and it is maybe the most, or second most, influential horror film ever made, but it’s hard for it to be a favourite movie by someone. Rear Window is a comfort movie. It is a comfort movie, it is a tense as fuck thriller, and it has all of the substance of Vertigo, all of the style, all of the cinematic innovation, with none of the pretension, absolutely none.
It’s also the best single location movie Hitchcock ever made.
Vertigo (1958): By Jacob Calta
Whenever I speak of filmmakers who I adore and films I adore, Hitchcock and Vertigo are some of the first words out of my mouth. My fondness for Hitch’s work began on an afternoon where I had been channel surfing. I landed on TCM and had caught the tail end of a 1951 King Vidor potboiler, Lightning Strikes Twice. The film on afterwards: Strangers on a Train. Those 101 minutes of white-knuckled noir tension cemented me as a fan of the Master of Suspense’s work. After that came viewings of Psycho, North by Northwest, and plenty of Hitchcock’s numerous other opuses. And after years of repeated viewings, Vertigo has emerged as my all-time favorite.
It was the third or fourth time of my viewing Vertigo (on Hitchcock’s birthday as per my own custom) that made me realize what it is I love about this film. It was in the summer of 2019, and the day before, I had attended a local performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s ever-popular 1853 opera La Traviata. Like any Italian opera, it was a true, affecting, overpowering romantic tragedy. Lyrical melodrama, born of Man’s weaknesses, of the highest order. And it was with the potency and poignancy of Verdi’s masterpiece still on my mind that unlocked a certain key to my own understanding of Vertigo.
Vertigo is a romantic tragedy, a near-operatic tale of two people in love, bound by their part in a horrible death. They are victims of a cruel, orchestrated fate, with Kim Novak driven mad by the murder, and James Stewart guilt-wracked and love-stricken. The powerhouse chemistry and sheer acting chops of the two make the tragedy all the more devastating and engaging. Then comes Bernard Herrmann’s iconic Wagnerian fervor in scoring the film, the glorious cinematography by Robert Burks, and the intricately stylized vision of Alfred Hitchcock, realized through his precise direction, impeccable visual storytelling, and the exquisite art direction of Henry Bumstead & Hal Pereira, that make this all so clear. It is at once a piece of modern psychological mystery, and yet a type of tale almost as old as storytelling itself. As much a film that anticipated the complexities of the modern motion picture as it did reach back into the expressionistic toolbelt of the silent era of which Hitch himself was a part. It is unforgettable, heartbreaking, haunting, and suspenseful. Hitchcock is forever a master of his craft, and Vertigo is the true proof of this as far as I am concerned.
North By Northwest (1959): By David Alkhed
Hitchcock famously said that some films were slices of life whereas his films were slices of cake, and that’s a fair way to put it actually. Hitchcock didn’t care for realism, he cared for making entertaining suspense thrillers that relied on visual storytelling and psychology as opposed to cinéma vérité, but they also tended to be quite dark, even his comedies like The Trouble with Harry. After the mediocre reception to his magnum opus (and my personal favorite of his) Vertigo, he decided to make a film that was pure entertainment devoid of themes. Although he wasn’t successful in the latter he was most successful in the former as North by Northwest stands as one of the most purely entertaining films of Hitch’s career and indeed of all time.
Writer Ernest Lehman set out to write the “Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures,” and in many respects he succeeded as this stands as the purest example of the term hitchcockian in a general sense. We get Cary Grant in his most suave and charismatic (and also funny) mode as the everyday man thrown into an extreme situation, the classic icy blonde in the shape of Eva Marie Saint (who is a gift from the gods in this film and clearly having fun), a fitting Bernard Herrmann score that immediately gets your attention, glamour, suspense, brilliant visual storytelling and morbid humor. Most of this is surface level stuff, and one could therefore perceive North by Northwest as a rather empty affair, in many ways as Hitchcock intended. Yet the classic Hitchcock themes are still there; mistaken identity, a growing sense of paranoia, overbearing mothers and dangerous yet extremely attractive femme fatales. Sure, they’re not explored in-depth as Hitchcock usually does, but they’re still there and one can always have fun picking it apart to see how it plays out compared to his other films. I should also briefly discuss the crop duster sequence and it’s brilliance. What struck me about it on this most recent rewatch was how clearly and how well Hitchcock, through the cinematography and editing, creates the geography of the location early on so once the action starts, it all makes sense and the viewer is constantly aware of what’s going on. It did actually remind me of the train station shootout from Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, which similarly takes its time to build suspense and geography before going all in on the action stuff.
Is North by Northwest my favorite Hitchcock movie? Well obviously no since I’ve already said it’s Vertigo, but it’s still darn entertaining and makes for a fun film night (probably with your dad). So if Hitchcock’s films are slices of cake, then North by Northwest is one of his most delicious cakes in his filmography.
Psycho (1960): By Amos Lamb
Only a handful of films could challenge the image of Janet Leigh screaming as the shrouded figure threateningly holds a knife high above her head, for the title of most iconic image in film. This alone is a testament to this film’s timeless quality, infecting generations with fear through the image of Norma Bates. But when you delve into the history of the film, like Hitchcock using a TV crew to film it, shooting in Black and White to save costs, and taking a reduced pay and 60% share of the negative (a move that probably paid off in abundance), it seems unheard of that the studios kept resisting the making of this film when we look at how successful it ended up being. But against all odds, Hitchcock’s talent and prowess shined through to create one of the greatest horror films of all time.
Revolutionary in both it’s boundary pushing portrayal of on-screen violence and sexuality, the film would not be what it is today without the terrifying performance by Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates, the eerie and yet vulnerable motel owner. While Janet Leigh and Vera Miles cemented their own place in history with their performances, Perkins became the template for horror movie villains. But speaking of the two female leads, while Leigh has more room to move in films like Touch of Evil, she perfectly captures the paranoia, hysteria and innate desire that comes with her good-girl gone rouge arc. As I said before, her iconic death scene, a real groundbreaking move to kill off such a famous leading lady at the end of the first act, has cemented her talent and place in film history; after all, her piercing scream is something you’ll never forget. Vera Miles, who takes over the leading role in the second half, relishes the challenge of Leigh’s performance and presents the scared and worried sister, determined to track down her now-missing sister. Playing off of Perkins brilliantly, and purposefully different than Leigh, as well her on-screen chemistry with John Gavin’s Sam Loomis, her performance creates a gripping second half that serves as a great follow-up to the tension of the first half.
Psycho will remain a forever important cornerstone of film history, and rightfully so. Hitchcock revolutionised cinema as a whole and horror as a genre that influenced, inspired and directly led to so many great films following its release. If you only ever watched one Hitchcock film in your life, you’d be making a very safe bet watching Psycho, even so many years later the film holds up remarkably well and retains the chilling tone that keeps you completely on edge the whole time.