Tony Lee Moral is the author of three books on Alfred Hitchcock: Hitchcock and the Making of Marnie, which has just been revised and published in paperback; The Making of Hitchcock’s The Birds, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Master Class. Here he gives a run down of the Top 10 Hitchcock films which inspired his new novel The Haunting of Alice May.
1.North by Northwest
The quintessential Hitchcock film, featuring a wrongfully accused man, a debonair villain, a duplicitous blonde, spectacular locations, and a story that never stops moving. The breathless chase culminates in one of Hitchcock’s finest set pieces when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint scramble over the presidents’ faces on Mount Rushmore. The sophisticated script is enlivened by Ernest Lehman’s memorable repartee dialogue. Who would have thought that a brook trout dinner could sound so sexy? Together, Lehman and Hitchcock wanted to make a picture to end all Hitchcock pictures and in so doing secured their place in cinematic history.
Cited as the number one film of all time, after finally toppling mighty Citizen Kane in the polls, Vertigo is a masterful study of male anxiety and obsession. James Stewart’s retired policeman, Scottie, pursues Kim Novak’s Madeleine around San Francisco, lovingly photographed in gorgeous Technicolor through the lens of Robert Burks. Kim Novak gives the best performance of her career in the dual role of Madeleine, the incarnation of Scottie’s romantic obsessions, while repressing the real persona of Judy, the tart shop girl.
A game changer in film history, Psycho is a tour de force, ushering in a new wave of cinema. Made on a television budget of $800,000, it soon became the legendary director’s most profitable film ever when Hitchcock killed off Janet Leigh, his marquee star, at the end of the first act. Joseph Stefano’s screenplay focuses on the sex, obsessions, and “mommy” issues of 1960s America. The shower scene alone is comprised of a montage of over 70 pieces of pure film made by the Master. The film begins with the ultimate MacGuffin, $40,000 of stolen cash, which the doomed Marion Crane takes to her grave.
4. Rear Window
James Stewart’s wheelchair-bound photographer plays Hitchcock’s celluloid counterpart and becomes a surrogate for the director’s voyeurism. Grace Kelly has never looked more ravishing and memorable in a succession of Edith Head’s outfits. The supporting actors are pawns in the Master’s dollhouse, with each apartment window resembling a movie’s miniature screen, revealing the resident’s own story. Raymond Burr impresses as the traveling salesman who plots to kill his wife, unaware that he is being watched across the courtyard by Stewart.
The finest of Hitchcock’s films from the black-and-white period, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman fall in love against the backdrop of Rio. The whole film was designed by Hitchcock as a love story, as it explores the conflict between love and duty. Hitchcock wanted to make a film about a man (Grant) who forces a woman (Bergman) to go to bed with another man (Claude Rains) because of his professional duty. One can’t help but feel sympathy for Rains’s villain who has been duped into marrying the beautiful American spy.
6. The Birds
Hitchcock’s finest technical achievement and an avant-garde masterpiece that kick-started the wave for disaster films, The Birds was pioneering in its use of a purely electronic score. With gorgeous production design and location work by Robert Boyle and aided by a top-notch crew, Hitchcock showers nightmarish visions upon the sleepy town of Bodega Bay. Rod Taylor and Hitchcock discovery Tippi Hedren battle the avian marauders with able support from Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Pleshette. Hitchcock ratchets up the tension in a textbook example of suspense building when crows gather silently on a jungle gym behind an unsuspecting Hedren.
A compelling psychological drama about a frigid, compulsive thief, Marnie was universally despised by the critics when it was first released, claiming that it was old-fashioned and out of step with the 1960s. Today, many see Marnie as one of Hitchcock’s finest works. Sean Connery is at his best as the sardonic Mark Rutland who tries to tame Tippi Hedren’s titular character into marriage and submission. The film’s obvious artifice demonstrates Hitchcock at the peak of his powers as he presents an abstract portrait of a woman with a terrible secret in her past.
8. The 39 Steps
Based on the John Buchan novel of the same name, this early film from the 1930s set the template for Hitchcock’s man on the run, wrongfully accused of a crime he didn’t commit, who is then caught up in a web of international intrigue. Robert Donat, who Hitchcock once said was his favorite leading man, not only because of his grace but also his good theatrical training, elegantly fills the shoes of the wronged man. Pure joy and comedy ensue when Donat is chased across the Scottish moors while handcuffed to the hapless but beguiling blonde Madeleine Carroll.
9. Shadow of a Doubt
A personal favorite of Hitchcock, this gem of a film captures the ordinary, humdrum life of small-town America. Teresa Wright’s Charlie, living in Santa Rosa, is thrilled when her Uncle Charlie, played by Joseph Cotton, comes to visit. But is he visiting or hiding something? Niece Charlie’s dreams become nightmares when she discovers that her beloved uncle is really the merry widow murderer! Hitchcock lifts the façade off American suburbia to reveal the rottenness of humanity, and his acute observations become a forerunner for films like Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.
Two button-down students murder a friend for the intellectual thrill of it. With a taut script by playwright Arthur Laurents, Rope was inspired by the Leopold and Loeb murders of the 1920s and is Hitchcock at his most audacious. Imploding with repressed tension and sexual frustration, the film features a scene-stealing turn by John Dall as the murderous Brandon, who has been tutored by James Stewart’s housemaster. Hitchcock’s experimental long takes only add to the claustrophobic nature of the set as the film plays out in real time over 90 minutes. For Hitchcock, the best suspense involves contrast, as the macabre dinner party that follows the murder takes place in a beautiful Manhattan apartment.