Alfred Hitchcock is intimidating. There, I said it. Has there ever been a director with more positive baggage associated with them? Take a look at just about literally every list of “Greatest Directors in History” and he will likely show up in the Top 5. That is a lot of pressure for a new viewer pressing play for the first time on one of his movies. I can almost hear the incredulous response as people read “new viewer.” Especially in film communities, admitting to being a Hitchcock virgin is tantamount to personal insult or an invitation to mockery. I know this from experience. That’s right, just 18 months ago, I was a Hitchcock virgin myself! I made countless tasteless jokes about how he is probably overrated to protect myself from the derision that was sure to come. Privately, however, I reached out to some trusted cinephile friends, wondering how I should go about attacking this behemoth. In terms of output, the man was a machine. A quick glance at the internet finds nearly 70 directorial credits from 1922-1976. And they are not all alike! He is, of course, known as the Master of Suspense, but many different genres are represented in his extensive filmography. Add in the fact that there are at least five films that regularly appear on Best of lists themselves and it’s easy to see why some might throw up their hands altogether. Like I said, intimidating!
Unfortunately, when I reached out for advice, things became even more confusing. Ask 10 different “experts”, and you will get ten different answers. So, I am here to share my own experience and give my two cents on one possible way to help newbies access Hitchcock. As a note, this is NOT a Top 5 list. This is merely an introduction to the world of one of the very best directors in the history of film. Don’t be afraid if you’re inexperienced. Dive in with us!
This is the one. This is the hook. Vertigo is on many “best of all time” lists, despite not being well received on initial release. To me, it offers everything that people think of when Hitchcock is mentioned. The psychology of the protagonist Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), focused on his acrophobia and, you guessed it, vertigo, has ramifications throughout the story. The mystery surrounding Hitchcock’s blonde (a recurring trope in his work), played by Kim Novak, haunts the frames of the film. Despite some legitimately terrible behavior as Scottie slowly unravels, we never lose sight of his pain and his own struggle. Importantly, not only is the story engaging and the performances incredible, but the viewer gets to see Hitchcock’s talent behind the camera. The scope, colors, and cinematography of this film will stick with you long after the end credits roll. This is the film that will keep you coming back for more Hitchcock.
In many ways, there is a natural transition between these two films. They are both accepted classics and they both feature the same star in James Stewart. Rear Window is both an intriguing experiment in limitation and a huge risk. Not only is the main character confined to his apartment due to an off-screen injury, but his window looking out on his apartment complex creates our window to the world of intrigue and possibly murder. Hitchcock proves here that he does not need an expansive world to create a mystery and a love story all within the confines of one room. Using his ultimate blonde, Grace Kelly, serving not only as the ultimate fantasy partner, but also as his arms and legs given his physical limitations. Rear Window will keep you guessing. Are we following a antsy, nosey neighbor, or is something truly nefarious happening? One thing is for certain, you will keep watching.
The 39 Steps
Alright, let’s pump the brakes. You’ve been introduced to some classics, so now you should see some of Hitchcock’s roots. Like many of his later films, it is based on a novel of the same name. The 39 Steps is a classic story of a normal man, accidentally involved in a complicated tale of espionage. A much simpler film aesthetically, The 39 Steps is an excellent gauge of Hitchcock’s earlier work when he had less freedom, as it was prior to much of his box office successes. Additionally, if you are a fan of more modern cinema, you may spot a similar escape from our frazzled protagonist. The 39 Steps shows Hitchcock’s ability to maintain a complicated storyline without losing his audience along the way. Although this film may be a bit more challenging to access after the original double feature listed, it is absolutely a rewarding watch and proof that he can work without established movie stars.
The Trouble With Harry
Remember, one of the goals here is to capture a wide breadth of Hitchcock’s work. The great thing about him is that he is not limited to psychological thrillers or murder mysteries. The Trouble With Harry is a legitimately light, enjoyable comedy. Ok, so, if I’m being honest, much of the comedy is surrounded by a corpse. But seriously, it is in essence, a romantic comedy. Hitchcock’s touch is so light on this film, that it is likely forgotten when compiling lists of his work. He coaxed some wonderful performances out of his cast, including a young Shirley Maclaine, all the while keeping up that quick and jaunty pace needed in a comedy. This may be a film that is unseen by both Hitchcock experts and newbies, but is well worth the watch, if for no other reason than seeing just how far outside of genre convention this director can travel.
Suspicion is right in the Hitchcock wheelhouse. The romantic psychological thriller in which the audience is not sure for whom to root. It stars Hollywood legend Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine in an Oscar-winning role (the only Oscar-winning performance in Hitchcock’s filmography). Suspicion deftly explores the effects of dishonestly and where it can lead. If a man lies about his past and his present, what will he be suspected of in the future? Having the charming Cary Grant play this role is a stroke of genius. An actor who can play comedy, romance, and drama is integral to how Suspicion plays out. We can see why she trusts him at the start of the film, and the script certainly keeps us guessing as his true nature is slowly revealed. Today, this would probably be referred to as a slow burn thriller, but those performances and eventual climax should keep you riveted and wondering what is next.
There’s your starter pack. And yes, I know, I can hear the tortured screams already. No Psycho, no North by Northwest, no The Birds, no Strangers on a Train! But that’s alright. This is just the beginning of the Hitchcock journey. Mine isn’t over, and yours shouldn’t be either. And honestly, I think Hitch would love the fact that people are upset! Remember, “always make the audience suffer as much as possible.”