Known as the ‘Master of Suspense’, visionary English director and filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) is widely regarded as one of the most significant and influential figures in the history of cinema. Over the course of his six decade long career, he directed over 50 feature films such as The Birds, Psycho and Vertigo, all of which are widely enjoyed and studied today, in part because Hitchcock was an expert at, in his own words, ‘mak[ing] the audience suffer as much as possible.’
Hitchcock himself was well-known because of his many interviews, cameo roles in most of his films and for hosting and producing television anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65).
Originally a title designer and art director for silent films in the 1920s, Hitchcock’s directorial debut was The Pleasure Garden in 1925. Just a decade later, he directed one of his most famous films, The 39 Steps, which enjoyed commercial and critical success. Hitchcock was widely celebrated, receiving a BAFTA Fellowship Award, the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, the Directors Guild of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award. In addition, he received two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1980, received a knighthood.
Here are 10 of Alfred Hitchcock’s most significant films.
The 39 Steps
Based upon a 1915 adventure novel of the same name by John Buchan, this film is widely considered to be Hitchcock’s first masterpiece. The film stars Robert Donat as an innocent man unwittingly entangled in an international espionage plot, who is then thrillingly pursued by both spies and the police after being accused of murder.
A smash hit, The 39 Steps was one of the first of many during Hitchcock’s career to feature a character who had been wrongfully accused of a crime. The film firmly established Hitchcock as a master of the thriller, and earned him attention from US film studios. In 1999, the British Film Institute ranked it as the fourth best British film of the 20th century.
The Lady Vanishes
Based upon novel The Wheel Spins (1936) by Ethel Lina White, The Lady Vanishes is about an English tourist travelling in a train in Europe, who wakes up from a nap to discover that her elderly travelling companion has vanished. The thrilling, suspenseful film is the last that Hitchcock ever made in Britain before he was snapped up by Hollywood producer David O. Selznick and moved across the pond. At the time, it was the biggest hit in British box office history.
Hitchcock’s detective mystery Hollywood debut, based upon Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel of the same name, is also a thrilling romance and psychological melodrama. Starring both Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, the film follows a heroine who is nearly pushed to psychological madness and suicide as a result of the looming ‘presence’ of her husband’s late wife.
The film won Best Picture and Best Cinematography Oscars, which, surprisingly, was the only Best Picture Oscar that Hitchcock received in his whole career.
Shadow of a Doubt
Hitchcock’s personal favourite of his films, Shadow of a Doubt follows a young woman who slowly discovers that her supposedly beloved uncle is a serial killer in a small, suburban US town. Accompanied by a near incestuous attraction between the lead two characters, the film is particularly notable for its heady, sinister subject matter in contrast to seemingly comfortable middle-class America.
The screenplay for Notorious was nominated for an Oscar with good reason: featuring performances by Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, the film is known for its extraordinary love story, intricate study of human psychology and nerve-shattering climax. It is far from being one of Hitchcock’s most action-packed, flashy films; instead, its slow-burn approach is all the more satisfying because of its masterful handling of suspense.
Strangers on a Train
A charismatic sociopath and a famous tennis player share a train carriage, and through a sinister error in communication, appear to agree to swap murders: the sociopath will kill the tennis player’s estranged wife, while the tennis player will kill the sociopath’s father.
As with all Hitchcock films, there’s a backfire and a twist, and a delightfully tense finale that takes place on an out-of-control carnival ride. Though critical reviews were mixed – many found the narrative to be overly sick and twisted – it is nonetheless a fascinating study of the human mind.
This suspenseful classic follows a man who witnesses a murder when gazing out of his window. Notably, the film features Grace Kelly in one of the best roles of her career as we witness her transform from a glamorous but perhaps unadventurous young woman into a risk-taking, dynamic heroine. A perfectly-paced film, Rear Window remains a classic.
Perhaps one of Hitchcock’s most famous films, Vertigo was a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release, but is now considered to be a masterpiece. It’s perhaps one of the director’s most personal films, since it comments upon masculinity and obsession at length through lovable but deeply troubled Jimmy Stewart. It frequently tops polls on the best films ever made, in part because of its swooning score and searing use of colour offer an insight into the psychological despair that the protagonist feels.
North by Northwest
Following the commercial failure of Vertigo, Hitchcock opted for a crowd-pleaser that contains all of the ‘right’ elements: humour, romance and suspense. Featuring an outstanding performance from Cary Grant, the film follows a suave hero as he has to survive assault from many unexpected directions, and is ridiculously entertaining as a result.
It has been argued that Psycho marks the point where the modern horror movie begins. Antony Perkins is pitch-perfect as Norman Bates, with iconic moments such as the shower murder scene paired with quick-cut editing hugely re-writing many of the pre-conceived ‘rules’ that accompanied the making of thrillers at the time. A cultural landmark, Psycho is still as nerve-wracking and shocking today as it was six decades ago.
Based upon a very short story by Daphne du Maurier, The Birds is another masterclass in Hitchcock’s famed slow-burn terror, with a flock of pigeons and a murder of crows forming ultimate, terrifying on-screen villains that viciously attack people in a quaint seaside town, seemingly without any reason. Though there are talks of a remake, it is undeniable that Hitchcock’s classic isn’t going to budge from the top of best film lists any time soon.