A bloody shower, a vicious flock of birds, a cornfield chase by an airplane, a portly man sitting next to Cary Grant on a bus, all iconic images that can be attributed to the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock not only provided film lovers with classic films that occupy any enthusiast’s digital library (or DVD collection if you fancy physical collections), but he also shaped the way in which a viewer experiences any film. No longer is the theater a safe escape for someone to sit back and watch a story that occupies a fictional world before his eyes. With a Hitchcock film, one is never safe; at one moment, you could be Norman Bates thrusting a knife into Marion Crane’s naked body and the next you could be L.B. Jeffries helplessly watching a murder take place across the courtyard.
In honor of Hitchcock’s birthday (today he would have been 116), here is a look at some of cinema history’s favorite Hitchcock pictures.
What better way to start this list than with the film that caused actress Janet Leigh to take baths for the rest of her life as well as laid the groundwork for the beloved slasher film genre? “Psycho” marked the overturning of numerous film standards that had been embraced by a sheltered culture and that had been protected by the implementation of the Hayes Code. For example, “Psycho” shows the first ever toilet flush that occurs on camera, which was groundbreaking. Hitchcock was even reprimanded for the inclusion of the shot because the presentation of the bathroom feature was considered uncouth. Nevertheless, the flushing remains in the film because it is necessary for plot development. How else is Marion supposed to dispose of evidence?
“Psycho” also marks a daring feat by Hitchcock, which is killing off the leading lady halfway through the film, an unheard of decision. Marion is developed as a sympathetic character, and her death leaves viewers wondering what could possibly happen after she is killed.
But “Psycho” cannot be discussed without addressing its most famous scene: the shower scene. Let’s just say no one can look at hotel bathrooms, or Hershey’s syrup for that matter, the same way again. Not only is the actual murder shocking but the way in which the murder is committed is surprising as well. The scene marks one of the best examples of Hitchcock’s ability to place the viewer in the shoes of one of his characters, which, in this case, is the notorious Norman Bates. Each person that watches the experience can share in the process (and maybe share some of the guilt) because of the point-of-view shots Hitchcock uses to show the stabbing of Marion.
The 39 Steps (1935)
“The 39 Steps” is one of Hitchcock’s most successful films in terms of his early works, and according to “A Hitchcock Reader” by Charles L.P. Silet, introduces the pinnacle Hitchcock blonde. But, the film has a wonderful comedic tone that embodies the oxymoronic and morose sense of humor Hitchcock likes to employ in a film. A perfect example of a comedic moment in a tense situation involves a pair of handcuffs, a lone inn in the middle of nowhere in the countryside, and stockings. If you don’t understand this reference, definitely add “The 39 Steps” to your watch list on IMDB.com.
(If you are a fan of spoofs and of live theater, make sure to see “The 39 Steps” the play! The show pokes fun at moments in Hitchcock’s most famous films while following the storyline of the title film. The night promises to leave you with tears in your eyes from hysteria.)
Dial M for Murder (1954)
A desperate hand reaching toward the camera, hoping to cling to escaping moments of life. Such a description depicts one of the most iconic images in the Hitchcock portfolio as Grace Kelly reaches for some object to save herself from being strangled by an intruder. The shot from the camera’s point-of-view creates the sensation of Kelly begging for an audience member to run onto the screen and save her. Although active participation is a trademark of Hitchcockian cinema, “Dial M for Murder” embraces the style for an additional reason. As explained by Martin Scorsese in a brief video created for The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s YouTube page, “Dial M for Murder” was filmed for a 3-D release.
Another brilliant aspect of “Dial M for Murder” is that the film mostly takes place in a single room. The use of high and low angles throughout creates such a sense of space that claustrophobia from limited scenery is not even a thought. Paired with the Dutch angles and low lighting, the camera work is sure to leave you with a nervous sensation.
Rear Window (1954)
A perfect example of voyeuristic viewing at its best, “Rear Window” tells the story of what happens when you eavesdrop on your neighbors. Although the story takes a dark turn when one of the protagonist’s neighbors is supposedly murdered, a strong sense of comedy is seen at the film’s onset. A bit of Hitchcock’s humor shines through when a news helicopter voyeuristically gazes at two topless women sunbathing on a nearby roof.
At the same time, “Rear Window” touches on the important discussion of gender roles in cinema. After all, the main character, played by Jimmy Stewart, is wheelchair bound for the entire film, which begs the question of what happens when the male lead cannot be the active character. Instead, Grace Kelly’s character, assumes the role of the active man by conducting the murder investigation. Don’t be alarmed though; since the film is a Hitchcock one, Grace Kelly still looks as glamorous as ever despite the fact that she is digging up flowerbeds and climbing fire escapes. The film does signify a defiance of the stereotypical gender roles seen in films of the ’50s. And it also has one of the best closing lines of any film, which is “Oh, no thanks. I don’t want any part of her.”
The Trouble with Harry (1955)
If you were channel flipping and randomly landed on “The Trouble with Harry,” you may not recognize it as a member of the Hitchcock collection. Aptly labeled a sleeper hit, “The Trouble with Harry” flopped when it was initially released because it completely abandons typical Hitchcockian ideals of suspense. The film is a light-hearted, comedic one that stars a young Shirley MacLaine. And while there is a dead body present in the story because, let’s face it, it is still a Hitchcock film, the story’s focus is not to bring the murderer to justice or to prevent another death from occurring. In short, the film is more about how the characters react after finding a dead body and how they carry on with their lives. Expect some vivid colors and dainty scoring.
“Rebecca” marks the first Hitchcock film to be made in the U.S. despite starring British actors Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. As noted on IMDB.com, the film was very well received, winning two Oscars, including Best Picture (the only Hitchcock film to do so, which should be reason enough to see it and for it to be in this list!). The movie also provides great support for the notion that the maid “did it.” We can all agree that Mrs. Danvers is one crazy lady.
But despite her insanity, Mrs. Danvers addresses an important issue in the film that absolutely pertains to a modern audience and causes the film to be a risky creation during the time of the Hayes Code. Mrs. Danvers is clearly in love with the deceased Mrs. de Winter, allowing the film to touch on homosexual themes, a frowned upon topic at the time. Nevertheless, “Rebecca” allows an audience of the ’40s to witness different types of women as opposed to just the blonde bombshell. Today, “Rebecca” is a cinematically and socially significant film because of its brave decision to provide Mrs. Danvers with such a strong characterization.
The Birds (1963)
“The Birds” definitely made viewers think about nature in a slightly different and admittedly terrified way. Although some of the imagery looks a bit outdated, the film is still frightening. We can all agree that even our goose bumps had goose bumps when the house is filled with crows at the end of the movie or that we let out embarrassingly high-pitched shrieks when crows in the attic attack Tippi Hedren. Even if you aren’t scared that easily, we can all agree that we wanted to scream, “leave the lovebirds behind!” Although their significance is never explicitly stated, we all know the lovebirds are bad news. Not to mention the film also has one of the best Hitchcock cameos, which is when he exits the pet shop with two huge poodles.
Like every Hitchcock film, the viewer is forced into an active role through the camera’s point-of-view, but “The Birds” provides an interesting twist to this Hitchcockian trademark. Instead of assuming the role of a human killer, the audience becomes a member of a murderous flock that soars across the sky about to peck people’s eyes out. If anything, this type of camera work can be identified as a precursor for the underwater scenes in “Jaws” where the viewer becomes the shark.
Last, but certainly not least, is “Vertigo.” Of course, this Hitchcock film has to find its way into this list simply because it, as stated by “Sight & Sound,” is considered the greatest film ever made. Enough said.
And let’s not forget the man himself!
Time and time again, Hitchcock is celebrated as a titan in the film industry. Both aspiring and established filmmakers share their love for the director and his outstanding body of work. He is a pillar of film culture even today, with biopics being released as recently as 2012. His silhouette has become an iconic image and finding his cameo in a film has become the “Where’s Waldo” of film. Not to mention the fact that his twisted sense of humor has created some of the greatest director quotes ever uttered, such as “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder” (IMDB.com).
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