Rating: The Good – 87.7 Genre: Thriller Duration: 101 mins Director: Alfred Hitchcock Stars: Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Ruth Roman
Hitchcock’s totally original tale of a “criss-cross” murder where one man proposes to take care of another man’s problematic wife if he’ll do the same with his meddlesome father has inspired generations of crime writers and involves some of the cleverest cinematic devices in the history of the medium. Farley Granger plays the tennis pro (what was it with Hitchcock and tennis pros?) Guy Haines, who unwittingly enters into the aforementioned pact with Robert Walker’s unusually charming yet quite mad Bruno Antony. Ruth Roman is given less to do compared to typical Hitchcockian female leads but what she is given she does well. Watch out also for the director’s daughter Patricia as her sister. Strangers on a Train is a cracking story brought to life with the precision timing and sumptuous innovation of a master film-maker. The result is a thriller of breathless tension and suspense and maybe even the defining movie of its genre.
Rating: The Good – 90.3 Genre: Thriller, Mystery Duration: 80 mins Director: Alfred Hitchcock Stars: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger
Alfred Hitchcock’s cerebral thriller is strangely compelling given its disturbing subject matter. Loosely based on the real life Leopold and Loeb case, it begins with the murder of a young man by two killers who proceed to throw a dinner party immediately afterwards to which, amongst others, the victim’s parents and girlfriend have been invited. John Dall and Farley Granger play the two murderers who are eager to put into practice Nietzsche’s ideas that murder is justified when the victim is an intellectual inferior. The action is shot in real time and involves ten long cuts (with a few sneaky ones hidden in between) disguised as one and the major effect the then revolutionary technique had (along with the off-screen/off-mike conversations) was to immerse the audience in the apartment’s atmosphere as the two men’s intelligent former mentor (James Stewart) picks his way through the clues. Dall gives a chilling portrayal of a sociopath with delusions of grandeur as his every word and in particular every gesture reflects his inner cold blooded precision. Granger provides a decent foil to that cold calmness while Stewart is in his typical scene-stealing mood. Rope concludes in a highly satisfying fashion given that the action never leaves the apartment. Moreover, the sense of time passed and internal disquiet you’re left with is testament to the genius of Hitchcock’s unparalleled ability to manipulate our perceptions and generate that darkest of tension.
Rating: The Good – 81.1 Genre: Thriller, Mystery Duration: 99 mins Director: Alfred Hitchcock Stars: Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Cedric Hardwicke
Suspicion is a minor triumph on Alfred Hitchcock’s CV and one that plays as both a romance and a thriller shifting genres (in typical Hitchcockian fashion) somewhere around the midpoint. Cary Grant is in fine form as the charming playboy who catches the eye of would-be spinster Joan Fontaine and sweeps her off her feet. Things go well until shortly after they’re married, when she begins to suspect her new husband of ever darkening deeds as he attempts to avoid his massive gambling depths.
Suspicion is a beautifully photographed picture full of innovative devices the type of which Hitchcock typically uses to elevate tension and sink the hook deeper into the audience’s subconscious (check out that glass of warm milk!). Grant is excellent in a role that required some subtle contradictions and Fontaine doesn’t skip a beat. The two work off each other well to give what could have been an unappealing dynamic some proper zest, accessibility and, at the right times, a dubious warmth. It all pays off in a satisfying manner making this one of the Hitchcock’s more original films not to mention one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films of all time.
Rating: The Good – 78.7 Genre: Film-Noir, Thriller Duration: 108 mins Director: Alfred Hitchcock Stars: Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright, Hume Cronyn
Alfred Hitchcock’s slow-burning thriller about a young woman Charlie, who’s delight at the visit of her favourite uncle takes a dark turn when she begins to suspect he may be on the run for a serious crime. This one really shouldn’t work that well. Many of the clues are sign posted early on to the extent that it comes off less as a mystery. However, Hitchcock plays wonderfully with the audiences’ ambiguity by channeling our perceptions through the initially idealising eyes of the bright and insightful Charlie. Thus, we sway to and fro with her as she waivers between suspicion and denial that her loving uncle could be so evil. Teresa Wright is excellent as the young Charlie and Joseph Cotten is hugely impressive as the complicated Uncle Charlie. Proper Sunday afternoon fare.
Rating: The Good – 87.7 Genre: Mystery, Thriller Duration: 128 mins Director: Alfred Hitchcock Stars: James Stewart, Kim Novak
Hitchcock’s timeless mystery delves deep inside the psyche as private detective Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) is called into investigate the strange behaviour of his friend’s wife but ultimately develops a dangerous obsession with her. Hitchcock’s films are always remembered for his ground-breaking direction and edge-of-your-seat action but Vertigo is the finest example of both. It’s also his most aesthetically plush film where colour and theme play off each other in dizzying manner wrapped up warmly in Bernard Herrmann’s ultra audacious and seminal score. Stewart responds with a haunting performance that more than anything else grounds the often surreal story in reality while Kim Novak is a picture of ambiguity with the voice and poise to match and it’s difficult to imagine a more suitable Madeleine.
Though the movie has ascended to top of many people’s all time great movies list in recent years, there are some who believe that it’s not even Hitch’s best. It could be argued that the story is too drawn out in parts and that there is a tendency to disengage especially from the final act of the film. This renders it less enjoyable than many of Hitchcock’s other classics which never once lose the audience. That said, Vertigo is still head and shoulders above the vast majority of thrillers and the fact that so many back it as the greatest film of all time must count for something.
Rating: The Good – 80.3 Genre: Thriller Duration: 105 mins Director: Alfred Hitchcock Screenplay: Frederick Knott Stars: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings
One of the master’s best offerings sees Grace Kelly playing the once unfaithful wife to Machiavellian husband Ray Milland who attempts to have her murdered in a seemingly perfectly planned crime. The build-up is as patient as you’d expect from Hitchcock and subtly chilling as Milland methodically plans the crime with self-satisfied precision. Things get interesting when those plans are thwarted and Milland must contend with two other elements, his wife’s former lover Robert Cummings and John Williams as the clever inspector. Dial M for Murder is a thinker as opposed to a shocker but it’s perhaps more satisfying because of it. Similar to Strangers on a Train, this movie is all about devious minds and tricks of fate.
Rating: The Good – 90.2 Genre: Thriller, Mystery Duration: 112 mins Director: Alfred Hitchcock Stars: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter
One of the most innovative and entertaining of all films, this Alfred Hitchcock classic tells the story of an apartment-bound photographer who spends his days following the lives of his neighbours from the window at the rear of his apartment. However, while peering in on the intimate goings on the various personalities, he begins to suspect that one of them has done away with his wife. James Stewart is as usual eminently watchable as the laid-up free-spirit and he brings an enjoyable air to the proceedings. The excellent Grace Kelly is the love interest who hails from wealthy stock and for whom Stewart has mixed feelings. The real star of the show is of course Hitchcock, who’s meticulous crafting of the often explorative courtyard scenes (the area Stewart is peering out into) is a lesson in framing, tracking, lighting, and pacing. Notice how he lures one into the voyeuristic world that Stewart’s character is inhabiting by soundtracking the action with the various sounds and music that the neighbours produce as they go about their daily business. And how he uses that soundtrack to contrast the screaming of the victim against the natural hum of the real world. Rear Window is a fascinating watch because of this technical mastery but it’s also one hell of an enjoyable thriller thanks to a combination of it, John Michael Hayes’ perceptive script (based on Cornell Woolrich’s short story), and the acting from all involved.
Rating: The Good – 83.6 Genre: Horror Duration: 119 mins Director: Alfred Hitchcock Stars: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette
Hitchcock outdoes even himself with one of the most effective and masterful of all horror films. Okay, so it’s not as scary as some of the films we would more intuitively describe as horror but that’s not the point. The point is that Hitchcock took something we have no natural fear of and with one astonishingly conceived sequence after another slowly imbued it with a sense of primordial danger. Tippi Hedren stars as a San Francisco socialite who tracks a big city lawyer to his weekend home in Bodega Bay to settle a playful score. Shortly after arriving, she is attacked by a gull, an incident which precipitates a seeming ornithological uprising. Hedren and Rod Taylor are very good in the title roles and hold the viewers attention in the earlier parts of the film. Their playful game of cat and mouse is well written and a treat to watch. Jessica Tandy as his slightly needful mother and a young Veronica Cartwright as his sister do well also during the more frightening half of the film. The Birds is replete with moments of ingenuity and downright genius on the part of Hitchcock from the monkey bar sequence to the aerial bird’s eye shot of the town right before they attack but it’s the entire package that makes it such an enjoyable watch.
Rating: The Good – 88.7 Genre: Thriller Duration: 96 mins Director: Alfred Hitchcock Stars: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Paul Lukas
One of the great mystery thrillers, The Lady Vanishes is an impeccably constructed tale of suspense set on board a train in continental Europe during the heightened climate of suspicion that preceded the outbreak of WWII. Margaret Lockwood stars as a young woman who wakes up from a knock she received to the head and notices that the kind and elderly lady who had helped her right before she passed out has disappeared. On insisting as much to the other passengers, she encounters one curious denial after another. However, with the help of Michael Redgrave’s charming but mischievous musician she presses the issue and begins investigating what if anything happened to this lady.
It seems like a simple premise and there’s not a whiff of complexity in how it comes across but this is as intricate a story as Hitchcock has tackled. But so accomplished is its execution and so enjoyable is its unfolding, that we barely stop to notice it, never mind appreciate it. The set-up is unusually protracted as the various soon to be passengers are introduced and fleshed out in one humour-filled (and not in any way suspicious) sequence after another as they hold up overnight in a hotel while the track is cleared of snow. Even when things take a turn for the strange, and that familiar Hitchcockian genre shift happens (along with the concomitant switch in leads), the film doesn’t skip a beat and so the experience feels quite singular.
Balancing a breathless tension with the essential British comedy of the 30’s, would not seem the easiest of tasks but thanks to Hitch’s fearlessness, he makes it look that way. Thus, as Lockwood and Redgrave make their way through the train dealing with philandering judges, mistresses, quintessential English cricket fans, magicians, wives of propaganda ministers, and a world famous neurosurgeon, their steady stream of wisecracking interchanges are interrupted only for the most thrilling of incidents. The pinnacle of those also just happens to be one of the best external train scaling shots ever thanks to a seamless use of rear projection and sound. Lockwood and Redgrave are wonderful together and due to a nice pretext, they have all sorts of romantic tension to play with. May Whitty puts in a delightful turn as the eponymous lady and adds richly to the whimsical tone of the film. The shot of her belting through the forest handbag in tow on its own makes the film worth watching. Best of all are Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne’s double act as the upper-middle class cricket fans who seem awfully put out by the search for the lady lest it delay them from their match.
It’s the characterisations that make this story so special, not only for how those characters are acted but for how they are written. Each character has their own unique motivation which ties in deviously with the overall plot and in the process adds substance to the unusual mystery at the centre of the film. Combined with the maestro’s sublime technique and overall delicacy, this makes The Lady Vanishes one of the very best mystery thrillers, if not the best. Truly.
Rating: The Good – 90.8 Genre: Horror Duration: 109 mins Director: Alfred Hitchcock Stars: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam
In many ways, Psycho is Alfred Hitchcock’s most audacious film. Not content with the controversial shower scene, he gloriously defies two major cinematic conventions with one fell swoop. One involves the switching of leads and the other, the switching of genres right at the end of the first act. The film starts off with Janet Leigh hightailing it out of the city with her boss’ money to start a new life with her man. Weather interrupts her journey and she takes shelter in the isolated Bates Motel tended by good old boy Norman Bates. Whether you’ve seen the rest or not, you know what happens but in getting there, Hitchcock brings us on a completely enthralling and original trip. Janet Leigh is perfect as the decent but desperate criminal on the run. There was always an alluring maturity to the way she carried herself on screen and it adds real substance to her character’s sudden capitulation to whimsy. Anthony Perkins does an outstanding job as the quietly charming motel attendant with a dark streak about a mile long. There’s a chilling believability to his character’s personality swings and of all the crazed murderers we’ve seen on screen, it’s fair to say his seems one of the most realistic. Martin Balsam pops up as he does in nearly every classic from around that time while Vera miles and John Gavin round off the cast nicely. Ultimately, however, Psycho is all about Hitchcock’s understanding of film, his innovation, and one of cinema’s most memorable scores courtesy of the equally legendary Bernard Herrmann.
Rating: The Good – 78.5 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 101 mins Director: Alfred Hitchcock Stars: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains
Terrific Hitchcock spy-movie starring Ingrid Bergman as the daughter of a convicted traitor who is asked by government agent Cary Grant to spy on her father’s German associates living in Rio de Janeiro. Films-noirs enjoyed the South American setting quite a lot for obvious reasons. Many of the cities were new and the influx of American money during the early part of the 20th century as well as the ports many of them were built around proved rich and vibrant feeding grounds for racketeers. They also offered to shelter to shady sorts who were looking to lie low and combined with the exotic location and ambiance, it seemed ready-made for the types of dark and seedy motivations full of murder and betrayal which the great films-noirs played on. Notorious is one of the best examples of such given that you have a bunch of nazis with typically nefarious plans, a complicated love affair, and bags of betrayal both real and perceived.
Cary Grant is not the type of actor one might immediately see as a good fit for the edgier roles but he proves more than up for it as he uses his smooth exterior to inveigle and seduce anyone who proves useful. When that anyone turns out to be someone he has feelings for his professionalism allows all sorts of complications to arise. However, good as he is, Notorious remains Bergman’s film and she’s utterly superb as the less manipulative of the two but not all together transparent. Her movement through the gamut of emotions which her character experiences is seamless and she offers a strength and radiance around which the film orbits.
The inevitable layers to the relationship which emerges between her and Grant are all handled as deftly by Hitchcock as it was by the two stars and though this is one of his more restrained projects from an innovation standpoint, it’s as solid, smoothly, and lusciously shot a thriller as the era (or genre for that matter) offered up. He uses all the tantalising qualities of the setting to give the plot and relationships a vibrant and original feel from the opulent dinner parties to the days out at the races. He also ensure the story hits the ground running which is something Hitchcock seemed to realise (more than most) was a hugely effective way of lacing the story with a powerful sense of mystique. Therefore, just as he did in Rope, Shadow of a Doubt and any number of films before or since, he has the audience in his hands from the first frame and like those films the experience remains intact and, if anything, grows as the plot becomes clearer. This of course, is made easier by Ben Hecht’s (he who penned Scarface) delicate script that captures all the nuances of the great drama-driven thrillers. Overall, Notorious is a wonderfully contained film that rises above most through its meeting of impeccable standards and the soft energy the story generates.
Rating: The Good – 77.9 Genre: Thriller Duration: 141 mins Director: Alfred Hitchcock Stars: Jon Finch, Barry Foster, Alec McCowen
Hitchcock uncut is an interesting premise but such was the power of his earlier more censor friendly films that even with the added violence and nudity, Frenzy is no more powerful than Psycho or Rope. That said Frenzy is up there with the aforementioned as being one of Hitchcock’s most disturbingly affecting. As usual it’s also populated with fascinating characters with a host of top English actors of the time playing them. Jon Finch heads the cast as a quick-tempered bar man who finds himself the police’s prime suspect in a series of grizzly murders targeting women. Barry Foster is terrific as the wide boy self-labelled ladies man and Alec McGowan adds a comic touch as the detective in charge of the investigation who goes home every night to a meal which seems just as disturbing to him as the crimes he’s investigating. In fact food becomes a recurring motif in this film as the crimes and circumstances of the main players seem inextricably linked to it. It’s a subtly disturbing link which amongst other things, allows the notions of “taste” and “murder” to resonate with one another in a very Hitchcockian manner. It also reflects the depths to which the great film-maker goes in this film in his investigation of murder and its motivations. In this respect, Frenzy surpasses even Psycho in daring and perhaps most other thrillers with the exception of a small few like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. This inward focus ensures that the set pieces are slightly more subdued than in Hitchcock’s more celebrated works but they are present, just with a more atypical structure and conception. Frenzy is a tremendous psychological thriller which places a cold eye on the killer and his motives but even without that added element it’s still a cracking popcorn thriller. It’s also a reminder that the master of suspense was capable of hitting them out of the park right up to the end.