Top Ten Most Underrated Hitchcock Movies

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope.” Courtesy of Universal Studios.

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope.” Courtesy of Universal Studios.

Thirty-four years after his death, Alfred Hitchcock is more popular than ever. One of his films (“Vertigo”) was hailed by critics worldwide as the greatest film ever made, dethroning “Citizen Kane” on the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, while another (“Psycho”) has provided the foundation for one of TV’s most buzzed-about dramas, “Bates Motel.” There was also a great deal of excitement about the 2012 release of fifteen films from the Master of Suspense on Blu-ray packaged together in a boxed set dubbed The Masterpiece Collection. And while it clearly is an impressive group, it is far from a comprehensive assembly of Hitchcock’s undisputed masterpieces.

Indeed, there are few filmmakers in cinema with as many great and influential films to their name. Before I reveal the top ten films I consider to be his most underrated, here is a brief rundown of the 15 pictures widely regarded as his masterpieces (and, yes, they would make a much better boxed set)…

“Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection.” Courtesy of Universal Studios.

“Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection.” Courtesy of Universal Studios.

The Lodger (1927) Hitch’s third feature is a visually striking silent thriller about a mysterious stranger suspected to be Jack the Ripper.

The 39 Steps (1935) The first truly Hitchcockian picture pairs handcuffed would-be lovers on a nail-biting race against time.

The Lady Vanishes (1938) A rollicking fusion of humor and suspense centering on the mysterious disappearance of a woman on a roaring train. 

Rebecca (1940) The only Hitchcock film to win the Best Picture Oscar, this Gothic melodrama is drenched in atmospheric unease epitomized by the deliciously malevolent Judith Anderson.

Saboteur (1942) A pleasing precursor to “North by Northwest,” this patriotic lark unforgettably concludes atop the Statue of Liberty.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) The Master’s personal favorite picture finds evil infiltrating a tranquil suburb in the form of slick ladykiller Uncle Charlie. 

Notorious (1946) Ingrid Bergman smolders as a reluctant spy who risks everything under the watchful eye of a smitten Cary Grant.

Strangers on a Train (1951) This intoxicatingly entertaining merry-go-round tangles two men in a web of murder and still elicits standing ovations from audiences.

Dial M For Murder (1954) Originally released in 3D, this talky effort is bolstered by its centerpiece scene of near-strangulation, a shocking instance of viewer manipulation.

Rear Window (1954) My own pick for Hitch’s best film, this brilliantly visceral opus encapsulates the voyeuristic allure of cinema itself.

Vertigo (1958) A deeply haunting exploration of the director’s own obsessions shot, paced, scored and performed to utter perfection.

North by Northwest (1959) From its infamous crop-dusting sequence to its climactic chase on Mount Rushmore, this was Hitch’s last impeccable exercise in pure escapist entertainment.

Psycho (1960) Among the film’s many triumphs, Anthony Perkins’s performance as the ultimate “momma’s boy,” Norman Bates, is one of the greatest in movie history.

The Birds (1963) A staggering effects picture that never once compromises its eerie apocalyptic implications or relentless sense of mounting dread.

Marnie (1964) Profoundly disturbing on multiple levels, this bruising psychodrama is anchored by Tippi Hedren’s brave work in an unimaginably difficult role.

Even Hitch’s less successful efforts have their noteworthy flashes of genius, from Alastair Sim’s hilarious supporting role in “Stage Fright” (1950) and Ingrid Bergman’s tour de force monologue in “Under Capricorn” (1949) to pretty much everything in “Suspicion” (1941), minus the awful, studio-assigned ending. The following ten films are the ones I feel are most deserving of being rediscovered. They range from infectious oddities and startling diversions to top-drawer artistry ranking alongside the very best of Hitchcock’s achievements.

10. The Trouble with Harry (1955)

Several quirky townsfolk have great difficulty disposing of a corpse they stumbled upon in an otherwise picturesque meadow.

Why It’s Overlooked: American audiences didn’t know what to make of this kooky comedy when it arrived in theaters, and it admittedly does play like an extended sitcom variation on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Why It Should Be Seen: It’s hilarious, sporting a deadpan attitude toward mortality that would later be inherited by classic black comedies such as “Harold and Maude.” The playful screenplay by John Michael Hayes (“Rear Window”) is bursting with witty one-liners, such as when Jennifer (Shirley MacLaine) surveys the body of her deceased less-than-loved one: “He looked exactly the same way when he was alive, only he was vertical.” This was MacLaine’s screen debut (after being spotted as Carol Haney’s understudy in “The Pajama Game”), and it’s one of the most assured in film history. Robert Burks’s cinematography is awash in autumnal beauty, while Bernard Herrmann’s marvelous score (his first for Hitch) nails the director’s distinctively oddball tone.

9. Torn Curtain (1966)

The plans of an American scientist (Paul Newman) to snatch a secret formula in East Germany are upended once his girlfriend (Julie Andrews) decides to tag along.

Why It’s Overlooked: Hitch was in a bad mood after the box office failure of “Marnie” and resented being saddled with two studio-approved stars (this is apparent in their joyless performances). When Herrmann failed to give Hitch a “commercial” score, he was fired. And on top of that, no one liked the script.

Why It Should Be Seen: It may stand as a missed opportunity in many ways, but this Cold War-era curiosity is unexpectedly chilling, undercutting its standard espionage adventure with moments of sobering humanity. The ensemble is peppered with potent supporting performances, from vibrant Lila Kedrova as a desperate countess (whose tearful desire for America resonates long after the upbeat finale) to owl-eyed Wolfgang Kieling as the doomed German security officer Newman is forced to kill. Hitch wanted the shower scene in “Psycho” to be bereft of music (a poor choice, to say the least), but he was absolutely right in having Kieling’s protracted death play out in utter silence, accentuating the tragedy of a life getting excruciatingly snuffed out.

8. Frenzy (1972)

The fearsome necktie murderer (Barry Nelson) hunts down female prey in London while framing his disgruntled pal (Jon Finch).

Why It’s Overlooked: Breaking with his “less is more” philosophy, Hitch embraced the on-camera nudity and violence that typified films of the period, alienating many of his longtime fans.

Why It Should Be Seen: Aside from some charming comic relief provided by an inspector and his wife, a chef whose lack of talent is rivaled only by her enthusiasm, this gritty riff on familiar Hitchcockian themes is brutally bleak. When the killer rapes and strangles a helpless victim (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) to death with his tie, the scene is so abhorrent that it’s still difficult to watch. Its residue haunts every subsequent scene, including the emotionally shattering moment when the killer entraps another woman in his room, and the camera glides slowly backwards down the staircase of his apartment—as quiet as a tomb—and into the bustling crowd outside. Even the surly man wrongly accused is far from a likable model citizen. He’s not guilty but he might as well be.

7. Spellbound (1945)

A lovestruck psychiatrist (Ingrid Bergman) struggles to cure the amnesia of her tormented patient (Gregory Peck), while concealing his identity as a murder suspect.

Why It’s Overlooked: A critical and commercial success during its initial release, this film’s reputation has faded throughout the decades, perhaps due to its dated psychoanalyses

Why It Should Be Seen: Sure it’s all rather hokey, but darned if it doesn’t cast its delectable spell anyway, thanks to the chemistry between its two immensely photogenic stars, a captivating score by the great Miklós Rózsa and arresting dream imagery based on original designs by legendary surrealist painter Salvador Dalí. Only a few minutes remain of the Dalí-inspired footage, which would’ve taken up 20 minutes of screen time and remains one of the most enticing lost sequences in cinema. The existing scenes, however, are as vivid and eye-popping as any abstract wonder ever to be etched on his canvas. This film provided much of the fodder for Mel Brooks’s affectionate Hitchcock parody, “High Anxiety,” with its Professor “Little Old Man” resembling Bergman’s beloved Dr. Brulov (Michael Chekov).

6. Blackmail (1929)

In the middle of an attempted rape, a young woman (Anna Ondra) kills her attacker (Cyril Ritchard) and later tries to cover up the crime.

Why It’s Overlooked: Renowned as a landmark in British cinema, this thriller was one of the country’s first feature-length talkies. My biggest gripe is simply that not enough people know about it.

Why It Should Be Seen: Here’s a film that deserves to be as infamous as “The Jazz Singer.” Not only is it an infinitely more accomplished picture than that rather embarrassing Al Jolson biopic, it marks perhaps the first truly sophisticated use of sound design in film history. To amplify the poor woman’s paranoia, Hitchcock takes us inside her head, dialing down nearby voices to a mere murmur with the exception of the word “knife” (the woman’s circumstantial weapon of choice) which juts out of the murky ambience like—well…a knife, causing the guilt-ridden lass to jump along with the viewer. Best known (to me, anyway) as Captain Hook in the TV broadcast of “Peter Pan” featuring Mary Martin, Ritchard is sublimely creepy as the seductive rapist, a recurring villain in Hitch’s filmography.

5. The Wrong Man (1956)

Police mistakenly accuse an innocent jazz musician (Henry Fonda) of robbery, sending his wife (Vera Miles) over the edge.

Why It’s Overlooked: Based on a true story, this deeply serious docu-drama disappointed audiences seeking the director’s signature brand of entertainment.

Why It Should Be Seen: In his extraordinary review, Jean-Luc Godard wrote, “Hitchcock is right to claim that ‘The Wrong Man’ is not a suspense film like his previous ones, because it is the reverse. The suspense no longer even stems from the fact what one knew would happen does happen […] but on the contrary from the fact that what one was afraid of happening does not finally happen. The terror arises because suspense itself is the phantom.” By meticulously examining every step that led a decent everyman to become cruelly imprisoned, Hitchcock concocts a nightmare that is all the more unsettling due to its unflinching realism. Fonda delivers one of his best performances, but it’s Miles who rips the viewer’s heart out, as her own cocktail of guilt and confusion spirals into madness.

4. Sabotage (1936)

With threats of sabotage ringing throughout London, a detective (John Lodger) tracks down the suspect (Oscar Homolka), and befriends his wife (Sylvia Sidney) in the process.

Why It’s Overlooked: Often mistaken for the Hitchcock films “Saboteur” and “Secret Agent” (the name of the book upon which it is based), this downbeat drama tends to get lost in the shuffle.

Why It Should Be Seen: Hitchcock always regarded this film’s best sequence to be a mistake, since it results in a bomb going off and tragically killing innocent lives. Yet that’s precisely what makes the scene so potently stomach-churning. Once the explosion occurs, the film abruptly cuts to the laughter of characters who haven’t yet received the terrible news. The theme of amusement provoked by violence runs throughout the film, as the devastated heroine later comes upon a theater full of kids giggling at the morbid cartoon, “Who Killed Cock Robin?” (foreshadowing the avian imagery in “Psycho” and “The Birds”). Hitchcock’s films routinely inspire viewers to laugh at ghastly sights, and this picture sheds light on the darkness that resides within us all. Only this time, we’re not laughing.

3. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

After their son is kidnapped on a family vacation in Morocco, Ben (Jimmy Stewart) and Jo (Doris Day) set out on a desperate search that leads them to England.

Why It’s Overlooked: Though it was a big commercial hit upon its release and garnered an Oscar for its iconic song, “Que Sera Sera,” many critics have argued Hitch’s original 1934 version of the film was superior, with a speedier pace and a typically diabolical turn by Peter Lorre. 

Why It Should Be Seen: Not only is this remake vastly superior to its predecessor, it includes what may be the Master’s most exhilarating sustained exercise in pure cinema. Stewart was bewildered by Hitch’s decision to remove the dialogue from the climatic concert scene in the Albert Hall, where Day (in one of the great unsung performances in any Hitchcock picture) must choose between preserving her son’s safety and preventing an assassination from taking place. As conducted by Herrmann (in a cheeky cameo), Arthur Benjamin’s “Storm Cloud Cantata” provides the pulse-pounding rhythm for Hitch’s peerless visual montage, an astonishing sucker-punch that serves as both the suspenseful and emotional peak of a hugely enjoyable picture, one of the Master’s very best.

2. Foreign Correspondent (1940)

A New York reporter (Joel McCrea) is appointed as a European correspondent to track down spies in Britain on the eve of WWII.

Why It’s Overlooked: Upstaged by the real-life Battle of Britain that eerily began around the time of its initial release, this film is highly praised but has never acquired the attention it deserves.

Why It Should Be Seen: “Jaw-dropping” would be an apt description for this film’s standout sequences, of which there are a great many. Consider the assassination that sets the action into motion, punctuated by a close-up so jarring and gruesome that it has nearly as much impact as Mother Bates’s bread knife. Or how about the viciously funny would-be assassination that ends very, very badly for the assassin? Or the indelibly ominous image of a windmill turning suspiciously against the wind? Or the climactic disaster that stands as an indomitable example of old-fashioned movie magic? It’s humbling to observe how water tanks, rear projection, a couple of chutes and rice paper can have every bit as much impact as all the modern digital effects money can buy. Once you see it, you’ll never forget it.

1. Rope (1948)

Two friends (John Dall and Farley Granger) kill a former classmate they consider “inferior,” stuff his body in a chest and throw a dinner party for his friends, family and the housemaster (Jimmy Stewart) who inspired them.

Why It’s Overlooked: Dubbed a failed experiment by Hitch himself, this slow-burn thriller was an exercise in technique, confining the action to a single set and shooting nearly the entire film to resemble one uninterrupted take. The portrayal of the killers as homosexual caused the film to be banned in some theaters, including those in Chicago, former home of Leopold and Loeb.

Why It Should Be Seen: To Hitchcock, there was nothing interesting about explosions that suddenly erupted out of nowhere. What he liked was the tension generated from the audience’s knowledge that a bomb has been placed beneath the table where characters are seated, oblivious to its presence. That was, in his mind, the essence of suspense, and this unfairly dismissed marvel strips the Hitchcock technique down to its bare essentials. For 80 gloriously agonizing minutes, Hitch winds the audience around his finger, teasing us with how the freshly stored corpse may be discovered or if the psychos will indeed be caught. The innovative visual technique conveys a claustrophobia that ups the visceral anxiety tenfold, while making every twist feel organic, as if it were unfolding right in front of the viewer’s eyes.

The portrayal of Dall and Granger’s sexual orientation was bold for its day and never resorts to caricature, while the dialogue by Arthur Laurents (based on the play by Patrick Hamilton, adapted by Hume Cronyn) is loaded with darkly amusing double entendres. The duo’s performances are excellent, and Stewart (cast against type as a smug intellectual) finds the perfect melancholy note for the fiery finale. Yet no sequence rivals the impact of when Hitch simply rests the camera in front of the chest as a maid takes one object off after another, walking down the hallway to put them away before returning for more. As a cautionary study of mankind’s arrogant tendency to dehumanize fellow members of their species, “Rope” is a transcendentally powerful triumph. It’s also Hitch’s most overlooked masterpiece.

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