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Examiner.com (08/Sep/2009) - Appreciating Alfred Hitchcock: His 7 essential films

(c) Examiner.com / Carroll Conklin (08/Sep/2009)

Appreciating Alfred Hitchcock: His 7 essential films

Few Hollywood directors become more famous than their films. Alfred Hitchcock was well known as a film director, but he earned celebrity status thanks mostly to his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Many of his films have become famous in their own right. Psycho and The Birds have remained enduring pop culture landmarks, movies whose impact persists even four decades after their premieres. Films like Foreign Correspondent and Vertigo have grown in critical stature over the years, as well as constantly expanding their audience of admirers as new generations discover Hitchcock’s mastery.

Early on, when he was directing films in England, Hitchcock aligned his professional “brand” with suspense. It’s what he did well, and he knew it.

But he also understood human foibles and motivations, and he leveraged that understanding in how he built his stories and how he manipulated his audience. That’s why his films still work. It’s why we can watch a Hitchcock “suspense” film again and again and be drawn into the story, even though we have repeatedly seen how things are going to turn out. It’s not the events of the plot that fascinate us, but how his characters respond to those events … because those characters are always us.

Here are Hitchcock’s seven “gotta see” films. If not his seven best, they are seven films that show us what Hitchcock did best: manipulate us gladly.

  1. Psycho (1960)
    The famous shower scene adds new meaning to the idea of invasion of privacy. Not many 50-year-old films hold up as well as this one has.
  2. North by Northwest (1959)
    Cary Grant is superb as the archetypal Hitchcock hero: the innocent man thrust into the wrong place at the wrong time who finds in himself extraordinary strength and ingenuity to overcome the bad guys. How do you survive an attack by a crop duster? Just ask Hitch ... and Cary.
  3. The Birds (1963)
    Mother Nature wreaks havoc on a sleepy California fishing town ... without warning or explanation. Irresistibly creepy. So many birds, so much anger.
  4. Vertigo (1958)
    This time, another everyman hero (played by James Stewart), finding himself caught in another web of deceit and danger, relies on haunted sexual obsession to reveal the truth. No wonder critics 50 years ago were perplexed with Hitchcock’s most complex and, ultimately, intense drama. And why is it that when you find a woman as beautiful as Kim Novak, she has to come with so much psychological baggage?
  5. The 39 Steps (1935)
    Still the most entertaining of Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood films, The 39 Steps is perfectly cast (with delightful chemistry between Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll) and almost perfectly paced. A roller coaster ride that’s engrossing throughout.
  6. Rebecca (1940)
    Far from a perfect film, but the supporting actors (most notably, Judith Anderson, George Sanders, C. Aubrey Smith, Reginald Denny and Leo G. Carroll) make this mystery about the first Mrs. DeWinter a delight to watch ... and re-watch. Oh, by the way, Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, in the lead roles, are pretty good, too.
  7. To Catch a Thief (1955)
    Cary Grant, Grace Kelly and Monaco all look marvelous. This story of a framed cat burglar almost doesn’t deserve to be believed, but Hitchcock and his cast (plus Robert Burks’ Oscar-winning cinematography) pull it off.

Did you know...
that Jessie Royce Landis appeared in two Hitchcock films during her career, both of which are on this list? She played Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest, and was Grant’s future mother-in-law in To Catch a Thief. She also made one guest appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.