Take THAT Sight & Sound!
Alfred Hitchcock’s films have been a long passion of mine, so much so that I spent an awful lot of time at film school studying them. Since Sight & Sound saw fit to declare Vertigo the greatest film of all time – which it most assuredly is not – I feel like weighing in with my list of 10 Hitchcock films I like better than Vertigo. In truth, almost all of Hitchcock’s films I like better than Vertigo. Since ranking these is like a mother ranking her favorite children, I just randomly put them up there. Because I’m limited to ten films (and that’s harsh, man, really harsh), I point out that these are not necessarily Hitchcock’s ‘best’ films, but rather the ones that I return to time and again because they’re just so damn good/fun. And better than Vertigo.
There are a few spoilers, methinks, so be warned.
10. JAMAICA INN
Better then Vertigo?! Now you see how much I dislike Vertigo. I would never claim that Jamaica Inn is among Hitchcock’s best. But it’s one of my personal favorites. For all its flaws, up to and including Charles Laughton’s eyebrows, it’s one of Hitch’s few adventure stories, set in the 18th Century on the Cornish coast. Maureen O’Hara is a great heroine and spends most of the film being remarkably resourceful and feisty. Laughton is an excellent, if over-the-top, villain. The last twenty minutes of the film are absolutely harrowing, as Laughton goes from being a humorous caricature to a truly terrifying madman. I also have an abiding affection for young Robert Newton as the dashing ne’er-do-well smuggler. So despite being somewhat slow-burning and a little anti-climactic, I still advocate for Jamaica Inn.
9. YOUNG AND INNOCENT
One of the earlier manifestations of the ‘wrong man’ narrative that Hitch would use so effectively in later films like North by Northwest. In this case, the wrong man is a twenty-something young writer accused of murder, rescued by the daughter of the chief of police. A tentative, puppy-ish romance develops during the dash across the English countryside. This one has all the hallmarks of Hitchcock’s humor: bumbling policemen, a slew of British character actors, charming repartee, a dead body. It also contains one of the best crane shots committed to celluloid, right up there with Orson Welles’s opening of Touch of Evil. It’s very light and frothy when all is said and done, but you see the deft touch of the master in every shot.
Speaking of camera tricks: Rope! Rope is far more than just an attempt at a continuous shot (there are several cuts, but Hitch disguises them quite well). There’s not a wasted movement in the whole film, but we tend to overlook the abilities of Hitchcock’s actors. John Dall and Farley Granger are excellent as the self-centered, self-serving murderers – Dall in particular ranks up there as one of the finest Hitchcock villains. He’s charming and erudite and sickeningly likable, even as he espouses nihilist sentiments and strangles a man to death. Hitchcock draws out the suspense as only he can, macabre humor heightening the horror as the audience is forced into collusion with the murderers. It’s 80 minutes of pure suspense, as Dall and Granger serve dinner from a chest containing a corpse. It might seem like an exercise in camera work, but you quickly forget about the roving eye and find yourself immersed in the story.
7. FAMILY PLOT
So. Much. Fun. Kidnapping, extortion, diamonds, psychics, murder, arson and Karen Black. A light, circuitous narrative with some great set-pieces – the runaway car in the California mountains, the opening jewel heist among them. Again, just a good bit of fun and a great way for the Master to go out.
6. TO CATCH A THIEF
I’m realizing that many of these films are among Hitchcock’s ‘lighter’ fare. To Catch a Thief might very well be the lightest. Grace Kelly is among my least favorite actresses, but here she’s wonderfully cold and blond and sexy by turns. Very much helped by Cary Grant with wisecracks and dinner clothes and some light fingers. The famous fireworks scene is ridiculous yet somehow incredibly sexy (‘Even in this light I can tell where your eyes are looking’). The undercurrent of sex and sadism is palpable, with a healthy perverse overtone in Kelly’s attraction to Grant’s jewel thief. In the end, there’s nothing better than Cary Grant climbing through your window. Just a well-done caper film.
5. THE 39 STEPS
The film that Criterion likes so much they keep on releasing it. Widely considered his best British film, The 39 Steps does everything that North by Northwest does, only with greater simplicity and, I would argue, better results. Another entry in the ‘wrong man’ genre, this time with an ascerbic hero played by Robert Donat. Hitchcock was an excellent critic of his native land, and here both the love and the criticism of Britain as a nation are brought to front. There are villains, but there are also heroes, mostly among the working class. There’s also some good old fashioned bondage: when Hitchcock handcuffs his two leads together halfway through the film, you know it’s about to get interesting.
4. THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY
I’m surprised by how much criticism has been levied at this film. It’s beautifully photographed – the Massachussetts countryside in the fall in glorious color – and the stream of character actors handle their parts admirably. This is an ensemble, not a star-driven film, and everyone has a part to play. Luckily, the parts are played by John Forsythe, Shirley Maclaine, Edmund Gwenn, Jerry Mathers, and Mildred Natwick. The whole plot revolves around a dead body that, for one reason and another, just won’t stay buried. It’s incredibly funny and optimistic for a film so steeped in death.
Vertigo has a damaging love affair, unhealthy sexuality, an unsympathetic hero and all kinds of nasty manipulation. Guess what? So does Notorious! But it’s better. So much better. Nigh unto a perfect film, from the opening courtroom scene, to the infamous extended kiss that Hitch only just got away with, to the tense final rescue, there is nothing – nothing! – wrong with this film. A masterpiece of cross-cutting and chiaroscuro. Cary Grant plays against type as a real sonofabitch, Bergman is positively luminous and tough as nails. And Claude Rains? Don’t even get me started on Claude Rains, a man born to play likable villains. In Vertigo, I never understood why a woman would sacrifice herself for Jimmy Stewart. But for Cary Grant? Yeah. I get that. Almost Hitchcock’s best black and white film. Almost.
And this is the almost. Psycho is not only Hitchcock’s masterpiece; it is one of his most influential films. It goes far beyond the well-known shower scene. How many films murder their leading lady half an hour in? How many establish a paradigm of audience sympathy, only to have it rudely snatched away at the end? How many linger on the aftermath of a vicious murder like it’s spring-cleaning? And how many do it all with a sense of masochistic delight? Psycho is a funny film, particularly on second viewing. It’s also scary as hell. The next to final shot of Norman’s face says it all. There are some forms of monstrosity that we cannot explain.
1. THE LADY VANISHES
But in the end, Psycho is not my favorite Hitchcock. It might be his best, but it’s not my favorite. The Lady Vanishes, his next to last British film and arguably his best from that period, is simply delightful. The first twenty minutes of the film plays like a screwball comedy, such that you’re almost surprised when the Hitchcockian elements begin falling into place once all your characters board the train and the lady vanishes. A lot of the credit goes to Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood as Gilbert and Iris, a screwball couple trading barbs even as they investigate the disappearance of a sweet old English nanny. Again, British character actors abound, there’s an action sequence on a train, a nun in high heels, vanishing cabinets, magic tricks, and a young lady who may or may not be insane. All in all, charming, sexy, suspenseful and great fun.
Remember, we here at Man, I Love Films don’t do definitive lists. We do our favorites and we want to hear yours. So, make sure and tell us about them in the comments section below.