Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most famous directors in film history. His name is synonymous with the suspense genre and very few people would not recognize it. HIs artistry and mastery are legendary. I’m not here to discuss the finer details or technical aspects of his films. I will leave that to those more knowledgable. But I am a fan. While I’m still working my way through his filmography, I would like to share with you my personal favorites.
The 39 Steps (1935)
I won’t lie, Robert Donat is what drew me to this one. He’s an underrated actor who we don’t hear enough about. The 39 Steps was filmed towards the end of Hitchcock’s British career and his years of directorial experience are obvious . Many of Hitch’s trademarks are there; the mistaken identity, the train as a plot device, espionage and the icy blonde romantic interest. Although I’ve seen Madeleine Carroll in other films, this is her most memorable role. One of the things I really appreciate about Hitchcock films is they usually feature strong leading ladies who are more than a match for the hero of the film. Donat and Carroll play really well off each other. Unlike some of Hitch’s future leading men Donat really does seem like your average man caught up in something beyond his control. He is intelligent, yet his vulnerability and confusion come through loud and clear. As much as I love Cary Grant, he never really comes across as the everyman. And listen, the scene with Donat and Carroll handcuffed together in the inn, forced to spend the evening together is one of my favorites in all of Hitch’s films. It’s undeniably sexy, while still being fairly innocent. It shows how skilled Hitchcock is at showcasing two opposing moods at the same time.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
This is one of Hitchcock’s films which true aficionados usually rave about. Honestly, I had put off watching it simply because I wasn’t familiar with many of the actors in The Lady Vanishes. (Yes, I know that is utterly silly.) However, I finally made myself watch it recently and instantly regretted that I waited so long. Since I went in knowing almost nothing about the plot, I was kept guessing almost the entire time. I love being surprised and I certainly was. Even though we are introduced to the lady referenced by the title, I too started to second guess whether she actually exists. This film is a perfect example of gas-lighting, a term which hadn’t yet been introduced into American vocabulary at the time. It’s scary how quickly and easily a person can be made to question the evidence of their own senses. This is what makes many of Hitch’s films unique. He really knows how to heighten the tension and fear of a plot by threatening the psyche. He makes his characters and viewers doubt their own minds. While the main actors certainly did a great job, I loved the two side characters of Caldicott and Charters. From the beginning even when met with disaster and delay all they can think about is the outcome of the cricket match they are missing. They are delightfully self-absorbed, obtuse and the epitome of the British gentleman cliché.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)
While this isn’t generally lauded as one of Hitch’s best films, I’ve always loved it. When given the choice I will always choose a (romantic) comedy and I appreciate that Hitchcock challenged himself by stepping outside his comfort zone with Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Although the premise is silly, the battle between the sexes and the questions that raises is not. Hitchcock is famous of course for his mastery of suspense, but what is less discussed is how he carries that doubt and darkness into the romantic relationships in his films. There is no fairytale relationship in Hitch’s world but an honest and subtle appraisal of the delicate balance that exists between men and women particularly when they are faced with stressful situations. Surprisingly, Hitchcock displays fairly egalitarian views on the subject, using film to display how the differences between the sexes actually make for a great partnership. But aside from all this, I particularly love how Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard play off each other in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. They argue over mundane issues just like real life couples. But their repartee is more witty, biting and downright entertaining. I don’t feel Montgomery is given enough credit as an actor and here he more than holds his own with classic comedy’s screen queen Lombard.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Though a good story is ultimately what causes me to love a book or film, it is the characters/actors which will first attract me to it. I just can’t work up any enthusiasm for Joseph Cotton. Fortunately, I don’t feel the same about Teresa Wright. Thanks to her, I gave Shadow of a Doubt a chance and found that I enjoy Cotton in the role of villain. I have discovered that I actually prefer villains who are more ambiguous. In my opinion villains are much more threatening when their character traits don’t immediately identify them as evil. (i.e. Robert Montgomery’s villain in Night Must Fall gives me chills) Teresa Wright has just the right amount of maturity and innocence to portray a young woman who gradually comes to suspect her beloved uncle is not all that he appears. What kind of man uses and betrays those who love him most? Cotton’s ability to portray both pride and menace towards his name sake is straight up genius. It makes me question what my own actions would be if I were to find someone I idolized was not worthy of such devotion. Love will often blur the lines between right and wrong for the sake of its’ object when the accepted rules of behavior dictate otherwise. Once again Hitchcock displays his deep understanding of human nature by examining such difficult conflicts within the human heart.
To Catch a Thief (1955)
Confession -I love this film for the sheer beauty and pleasure of it. And of course because it stars my absolute favorite actor, Cary Grant. After making a couple of other films together, I kind of wonder if Hitch and his stars didn’t feel the same. To Catch a Thief does not display the usual tense undercurrents featured in Hitchcock films. But it still highlights his mastery and deft touch. This one is a feast for the eyes. Grant and Grace Kelly are at the height of their physical beauty, sophistication and poise. Their banter is delightful and full of innuendo. Their personal camaraderie is obvious. Edith Head’s costumes are gorgeously swoon-worthy and perfectly modeled by Kelly. Cary Grant is her equal sartorial match. Then of course there is the stunning cinematography which instantly transports me to the French Mediterranean, playground of the idle rich. While Audrey Hepburn was cute pursuing Cary Grant in Charade, Grace Kelly down right smolders in her seduction of him. What am I missing? Oh yes, the plot. Though the plot is interesting and fun, who really cares at this point? As the poet Keats wrote, ” A thing of beauty is a joy forever”, which accurately describes To Catch a Thief.
Although I’ve seen it many times, I can’t claim that Marnie is my favorite Hitchcock film. But like a train wreck it claims my interest. In fact, I’m a bit obsessed by it. So many things in this story are disturbing yet I keep finding myself drawn to the dysfunction of the characters. Tippi Hedren is my favorite of the Hitchcock blondes. Unlike the others, her strength is a façade. Outwardly she projects icy sophistication and poise, but when she cracks she reverts to a terrified child. This dichotomy makes me want to protect her, much like Sean Connery’s character Mark does. However, I am not convinced his protection is motivated by genuine concern, but more because he sees Marnie as a challenge. Mark proclaims he wants to help, yet his actions seem more controlling than affectionate. Despite her wishes, he basically forces his help, marriage and himself on a woman who clearly has a deep rooted fear of men. Though he does eventually help her confront her past trauma, I can’t help but wonder if he is less of a hero and more of a villain. He definitely acts more like a master than a husband. I also question whether he truly cares for Marnie and will quickly lose interest in her once he conquers the challenge of her past. And let’s not even get into the strangeness that is his sister-in-law Lil Mainwaring. Honestly, Mark and Lil are a perfect match with their manipulative Machiavellian tendencies. In all honesty, I feel Marnie is in much more danger living with Mark and Lil then if she had been left to founder with her criminal coping tendencies. She just trades the frying pan for the fire. I must say that Sean Connery is one of the few actors who could pull off a character like Mark. In the hands of most, his character would have become the personal threat he really is. Connery’s suave good looks provide the thin veneer necessary to make Mark palatable as a match for Marnie. Although Hitchcock is heavy handed in his foreshadowing techniques, his subtle explorations of deviant psychological behavior is pretty brilliant.
This has been my contribution to the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon hosted by Classics and Craziness. Head over here to read the other entries.
What are some of your favorite Hitchcock films?