Hitchcock-a-thon: Final thoughts

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After a mad 52 days the Hitchcock-a-thon is at its end. It’s been great discovering some overlooking gems that I otherwise wouldn’t have sought out. But, like every artist, Hitchcock also made plenty of films worth skipping over. And there’s some that can truly be classified as awful. It’s time from one last big round-up. Here is my personal list of every Hitchcock feature film ranked from worst to best.


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52. Waltzes from Vienna (1934)

An unbelievably dreary period drama about Johann Strauss Jr that somehow manages to be both sickly and flavourless. Hitchcock was barely getting any other film offers at the time and it shows. By his standards, it’s uncharacteristically passionless.

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51. Number 17 (1932)

 At 63 minutes the nicest thing you can say about Number 17 is “as least it’s over with quickly.” Not that it feels like it. The jumbled story makes it hard to know what’s going on while the paper-thin, unlikeable characters will ensure you don’t care anyway.

topaz50. Topaz (1969)

There are tectonic plates with better pacing than this Cold War spy story. With hastily written scenes and multiple alternative endings, Topaz represents Hitchcock at his sloppiest and his most world-weary.

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49. Jamaica Inn (1939)

Hitchcock’s tale of Cornish smugglers is desperately limp. The only small enjoyment you might squeeze out of it is the ludicrously camp performance by Charles Laughton as the pantomime-ish villain, who takes overacting to new levels.

under48. Under Capricorn (1949)

Another failed period drama, this time in 1830s Australia. Bright colours and swooping camera shots can’t distract from the hopelessly melodramatic script. A complete waste of Ingrid Bergman and Joe Cotten. And one doesn’t simply waste Ingrid Bergman.

Cham147. Champagne (1928)

Hitchcock called Champagne the worst film of his career. It’s certainly difficult to defend. Betty Balfour manages to inject a bit of fizz as the millionaire’s daughter forced to learn the hard knocks of life, but everything else is flat.

mur146. Murder! (1930)

Who killed Edna Druce? More importantly: why should I care? This thespian-filled whodunit barely functions as piece of drama and stumbles even more as a murder mystery. Hitchcock was still finding his feet as silent cinema moved into talkies.

rich145. Rich and Strange (1931)

Possibly the of the most disjointed film in Hitchcock’s canon. Noël Coward style marital antics for the first half; a harsh seaward journey with rough sailors for the second. Problem is: neither half is great, thanks to the oafish main characters.

juno144. Juno and the Paycock (1930)

A compelling story and strong performances lie under the surface of this early Irish talkie. But you have get past horribly grating audio and stunted, theatrical pacing to uncover its merits. Only diehard Hitchcock fans should attempt.

secret143. Secret Agent (1936)

The great John Gielgud looks bored out of his mind in this early spy thriller. Madeleine Carroll and Peter Motherfuckin’ Lorre both try to liven things up and the script throws some interesting themes in play, but as a whole it’s underwhelming.

torn curtain42. Torn Curtain (1966)

Aside from one tense murder scene, this Cold War spy story is as dull as ditch-water. Paul Newman and Julie Andrews look lost as the leads and the two hour running time feels dragged out. Torn Curtain was one of Hitchcock’s most unhappy directing jobs. It shows.

harry41. The Trouble with Harry (1955)

Some laud Hitchcock’s off-kilter comedy as a success in dark deadpan humour. I find it tiresome. Pretty cinematography and the first of many great collaborations with Bernard Herrmann make it watchable. But only just.

skin140. The Skin Game (1931)

If you were generous you might call The Skin Game a slow-burner. If you were cruel you might say it never ignites at all. While this story of feuding rural families can’t be called thrilling, Phyllis Konstam provides the film with an essential dose of human drama.

virtue339. Easy Virtue (1928)

A smashing last 20 minutes aren’t enough to make up for an hour of faffing around. Isabel Jeans springs into life as the falsely-slandered heroine for film’s final act and gives a simultaneously witty and tragic performance. Why couldn’t we have had that earlier?

paradine38. The Paradine Case (1947)

While not as irredeemably awful as some have claimed, The Paradine Case takes an interesting idea about a lawyer’s infatuation with the woman he’s meant to represent, only to run it into the ground. Great actor Gregory Peck at his most uninteresting.

Down137. Downhill (1927)

1920s heart-throb Ivor Novello gives a strong performance as a falsely accused schoolboy in this a bleak depiction of “polite society”. Shame about the crudely stereotyped supporting characters and the clunky visual symbolism.

smith136. Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)

Hitchcock’s attempt at a wacky, screwball American comedy is harmless enough, but certainly can’t be described as “funny”. Carole Lombard is a fiery lead, but the script doesn’t give her (or anyone) much to work with.

farm135. The Farmer’s Wife (1928)

This placid, rural comedy is likely to bore many viewers to tears. While it’s neither funny nor suspenseful, it has a certain quaint charm that earns it a space in my heart. Also Jameson Thomas gives me serious mustache envy.

stage34. Stage Fright (1950)

Even the effortlessly cool Marlene Dietrich isn’t enough save Stage Fright from mediocrity. The film’s claustrophobic climax is an intense high note in an otherwise uneventful drama about deception in the theatrical world.

icon33. I Confess (1953)

A stone-faced Montgomery Clift ensures an unwavering solemnity in this tale of a falsely accused Catholic priest. It doesn’t fully captivate as a drama thanks to the by-the-numbers script. At least Quebec looks pretty.

sab132. Saboteur (1942)

Hitch’s first American take on his 39 Steps formula has some big blockbuster set-pieces and ticks the “innocent man on the run” boxes, but lacks flare. It needed a more compelling lead couple or a tighter script to push it into North by Northwest territory.

fam31. Family Plot (1976)

Even as one of his lighter films, the last project from the Master of Suspense lacks the the joyful corniness of To Catch a Thief or North by Northwest. As a mystery-based romp it serves it’s purpose, but as a final swansong we’re left wanting more.

corr30. Foreign Correspondent (1940)

This big budget blockbuster showcases what Hitch is capable of when handed an enormous paycheck and allowed to let his imagination run wild. There are a few flabby bits that don’t work, but overall it’s a rollicking wartime adventure with a strong sense of historical urgency.

spell29. Spellbound (1945)

They don’t come much pulpier than this. There’s a lot to enjoy in Ingrid Bergman’s Hitchcock debut, if you can get over the ludicrous plot devices. Hitchcock’s spun better mysteries in his time, but how many others have a fantasy sequence by Salvador Dalí?

ring128. The Ring (1927)

Hitchcock masters fast-paced editing and rich visual symbolism in The Ring, also notable for being the only original screenplay he ever personally wrote. It’s a masterpiece in technical terms, but the characters aren’t as well defined as in some of his other silents.

sus127. Suspicion (1941)

Cary Grant shows an unexpected dark side alongside Joan Fontaine in her Oscar winning performance. It’s a excellent examination of psychological entrapment and paranoia…right up until the end. Then it pulls a major cop-out. Shame.

frenzy26. Frenzy (1972)

A second wind for the aging director in the final stages of his career. With scenes of explicit sexual violence, there’s an underlying nastiness to Frenzy that makes it difficult viewing, but there’s no denying its brutal effectiveness.

manwhoknew25. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

A solid remake of Hitchcock’s own 1934 film.  While it lacks the off-the-wall zaniness of the original, it goes through the motions with gusto. And when you’ve got James Stewart as your lead the film’s always going to have a certain something.

m24. Dial M for Murder (1954)

The dialogue has a slightly mechanical quality in this 3D adaption of the successful stage play, but a suave performance from Ray Milland holds it all together. Grace Kelly isn’t at her absolute strongest in her Hitchcock debut, but she’s still a smash.

hitch223. The Pleasure Garden (1925)

There’s a lot to admire in Hitchcock’s lively first feature film. There are some slight pacing issues, but there’s sophisticated themes in play about marital mistrust, helped along by a talented cast and an absurdly cute dog.

catch22. To Catch a Thief (1955)

It doesn’t come much flirtier than this. The dream pairing of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly is the biggest draw to this camp, frothy romp of a film. Both Grant and Kelly have given stronger performances, but rarely are they this unabashedly fun.

sab121. Sabotage (1936)

If you like your spy films unrelentingly serious, Sabotage might be the Hitchcock for you. It’s an emotion-driven drama that expertly plays off the political paranoia building in Europe before the outbreak of World War II with great effect.

bmail120. Blackmail (1929)

Britain’s first talkie also serves as a farewell tribute to the silent era. There are a few jarring editing moments as Hitchcock struggled to film his feet in the new world of sound, but the central story is gripping with a superb performance from Czech star Anny Ondra.

lod419. The Lodger (1927)

Many people consider The Lodger to be the first “true” Hitchcock film and it’s easy to see why. Ivor Novello is haunting as the mysterious visitor in fog-covered London and the film is first Hitchcock to explicitly make the thematic connection between sex and death.

marnie18. Marnie (1964)

The accusations of harassment surrounding the production of Marnie make it a tricky watch, not helped by the deeply problematic ending. But there are times where the film verges close to masterpiece territory, particularly with Tippi Hedren’s career topping performance.

life17. Lifeboat (1944)

The self-imposed restrictions of shooting the whole movie inside one small vessel work marvellously well towards creating a sense of claustrophobia in Hitchcock’s last wartime drama. As an examination of trust and human interaction it excels.

manx116. The Manxman (1929)

One of the most unfairly overlooked of Hitchcock’s films, partly because he himself dismissed as “banal”. But the love-triangle story is at its best here, taking the time to make you care about all three of the characters and not providing any easy answers.

inn15. Young and Innocent (1937)

Easy to dismiss as a beat for beat retread of The 39 Steps, but this deeply English thriller is just too damn fun to overlook. The subtly erotic dialogue between Derrick De Marne and Nova Pilbeam is easily some of the best from Hitchcock’s early years.

rope14. Rope (1948)

The “all in one take” gimmick doesn’t quite work in this cat-and-mouse murder thriller, but so much else is done right, it’s an easy flaw to forgive. James Stewart is solid in his Hitchcock debut, but it’s John Dall as camp killer Brandon who steals the show.

shadow113. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Hitchcock often maintained that this visually symbolic tale of evil creeping into tranquil suburbia was the greatest of his films.  There’s a few niggling plot points that trip up the story, but the mounting paranoia is well executed and Joe Cotton is a magnificent villain.

toomuch112. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

After five years of dud after dud in the early thirties, The Man Who Knew Too Much feels like a jolt of lightning in Hitchcock’s career. Peter Motherfuckin’ Lorre leads the strong cast through through Hitchcock’s first true voyage into pulp.

vertigo11. Vertigo (1958)

I’m of the minority opinion that the critical reception of Vertigo, initially dismissive, has now swung back too far in its unreserved adoration of this psychological mystery. Vertigo is still a great achievement, but I wouldn’t rank it as one Hitchcock’s absolute best.

3910. The 39 Steps (1935)

The quintessential “innocent man on the run” thriller that set the template for so many Hitchcock films to come. Often regarded as the best of Hitchcock’s British years, it captures a pure spirit of adventure better than almost any other film of the time.

wrongman9. The Wrong Man (1956)

A rare detour into neorealism for Hitchcock in his only film explicitly based on a true story. There doesn’t appear to be an easy way out for Manny, played superbly by Henry Fonda, in one of the director’s more overlooked masterpieces.

reb28.Rebecca (1940)

The only Hitchcock film ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture is a superb way to kick off the director’s Hollywood career. It’s Hitchcock’s most successful film about the theme of marital mistrust as well as his only collaboration with the great Laurence Olivier

north7. North by Northwest (1959)

One of the most ridiculous films in the director’s canon, but also one of his most flat-out enjoyable. This absurd spy fantasy is a joy from start to finish with several excellent sequences along the way: most famously, the crop duster chase scene.

Strangers6. Strangers on a Train (1951)

A superb concept about “swapping” murders expertly delivered in this tense thriller, helped by the powerhouse performances by Farley Granger and Robert Walker. It has been argued that Strangers on a Train heralded in the Golden Age of Hitchcock. Agreed.

birds5. The Birds (1963)

Tippi Hedren dazzles in her first feature film and Hitchcock’s only example of paranormal horror. Hitchcock keeps the terror alien by never fully revealing the reason behind the feathered fury and with a chilling use of sound effects.

van14. The Lady Vanishes (1938)

A film I could watch every week for the rest of my life. There hasn’t been a more sparkling lead Hitchcock couple than Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. The central mystery is exciting and the wonderful array of supporting characters is icing on the cake.

notorious3. Notorious (1946)

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman give the performances of their career in what is Hitchcock’s most elegant film. As fusion of romance and spy drama, it finds the balance perfectly. But it’s Claude Rains who holds the film together with his understated performance.

window2. Rear Window (1954)

James Stewart and Grace Kelly are at the top of their game in Hitchcock’s best exploration of voyeurism and mounting suspicion. The confines of a New York apartment, stagnating in the summer heat, prove the perfect setting to one of his most suspenseful scenarios.

psy1. Psycho (1960)

An obvious choice for the number one slot, but there’s no escaping just how outrageously good Psycho is. The balance Hitchcock strikes between what he reveals to the audience and what he keeps concealed makes his most famous film also his best.

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Hitchcock-a-thon: Vertigo (1958)

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As Vertigo opens with a hypnotic credits sequence – the camera panning from a pair of woman’s lip to her open eye before zooming into her pupil with psychedelic spiralling effects – you know that Hitchcock has returned to his pulpy origins after his detour into neorealism.

Like all Hitchcock’s best pulp, the plot is pure hokum. But beneath its surface lies a gripping examination of escalating obsession.

Detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) retires from policing force after nearly falling to his death in a rooftop chase, striking him with acrophobia. An old college friend (Tom Helmore) hires him to investigate his suicidal wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who appears to be possessed by the spirit of her great-grandmother. As his own feelings for her grow, is Scottie able to get to the bottom of this supernatural mystery, Scooby-Doo style?

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Hitchcock was always superb at bringing out the darker side of actors usually famed for their whiter-than-white roles (think Cary Grant in Suspicion) and in his final Hitchcock collaboration James Stewart gives an intense performance. Vera Miles was initially lined up to play Madeleine, but became pregnant just before filming. While she would have no doubt been superb, Novak makes a beguiling lead.

Visually the film is outstanding, most notably for the use of “dolly zoom” shots (invented by the uncredited second-unit cameraman Irmin Roberts) used to convey the sense of vertigo with great effective. The technology was so revolutionary that just one dolly zoom lasting no more than a few seconds reportedly cost $19,000.

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The film’s momentum briefly dips after the Big Twist is revealed with still a third of the movie to go (a decision Hitchcock agonised over). It picks up again when it shows the tragic futility of holding on to guilty memories, but if you’re watching the film for the first time there’s a whiplash effect as you have suddenly drop your investment in the central mystery.

Upon its release the reviews were lukewarm. None of the critics berated it, but it was only from the late ‘60s onwards that people began to rank it as one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, or even one of the Greatest Films of All Time. As for me, I think it falls somewhere in the middle. It’s an extremely engaging film that’s worthy of attention, yet I wouldn’t call it one of Hitchcock’s absolute best. But I admit that’s a minority opinion.

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Hitchcock-a-thon: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

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Don’t you just hate remakes? Yeah, everyone does.

Except me, actually. Many films held up to be untouchable classics are in fact already remakes or unfaithful adaptions of pre-existent source material. Nothing is sacred. And no one understood this better than Hitchcock. The majority of his films were adapted from novels or plays and he had no qualms about altering any details he felt stood in the way of a good story.

Now in his mid-fifties he decided to remake his own film. The one that pulled out of his career rut 22 years earlier: The Man Who Knew Too Much.

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There are basic story similarities between the two. A man and wife (this time, James Stewart and Doris Day) hear the dying words of a spy while on holiday (this time, Morocco), but their child (this time, a small boy) is kidnapped by a gang of assassins to prevent them from revealing what they know to the police. With only the name “Ambrose Chapel” as a lead, they head to London to rescue their boy and stop the assassins’ nefarious scheme.

How does the remake compare to the original? Well, for my money I pick the 1934 version over the remake any day. That’s not to say that they don’t share common flaws (both plots hinge upon the bewildering belief that a clash of symbols would drown out the sound of a gunshot) or that the remake is in any way a bad film; actually it’s extremely good. But which you prefer over the other boils down to a matter of personal taste. Maybe it’s a British vs. American thing. Who knows?

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But if I tally up either film and hold them side by side this is what I find: Peter Motherfuckin’ Lorre > Bernard Miles; evil dentist > suspicious taxidermist; a Sun-worshipping cult > pretty much any other evil gang; a tightly structured 75 minutes > a flabby 120 minutes; and, I’m gonna get stick for this one, Edna Best > Doris Day. Admittedly, James Stewart > Leslie Banks because James Stewart > Just About Everything. But still. My ultimate conclusion is The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) > The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). I’m so, so sorry Jimmy…

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Hitchcock-a-thon: Rear Window (1954)

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In the mould of Lifeboat and Rope, Hitchcock placed another physical limitation on his own work in Rear Window. The camera remains almost entirely within the confines of a small New York apartment, gazing out into a courtyard overlooked by other apartments in the largest indoor set Paramount had ever produced.

Photographer Jeff (James Stewart) is unable to leave his flat as he recovers from a broken leg. During his resentful idleness, he passes the time peering at his neighbours. What beings as a bit of nosiness, takes on a more suspicious tone when Jeff suspects that one of his neighbours (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife. With the help of his stylish girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and his insurance company nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), they dig further into this menacing mystery.

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Right from the start of his career, voyeurism has been a favourite Hichcock theme and it’s applied here expertly. As Jeff observes his neighbours he gives them his own titles – the Songwriter, Miss Lonelyhearts , Miss Torso, the Newlyweds etc. – and infers things about their personalities and lives based on the little he sees. These characters have their own small narrative arcs throughout the film, but there’s always the possibility that we, like Jeff, have imposed our assumptions on their lives.  “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” says Stella disapprovingly. Everybody’s guilty. None more so than the avid cinemagoer.

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Rear Window is a damn near flawless film. The casting is sublime, with Stewart and Kelly giving the best performances of their entire careers. If there was one role Kelly could absolutely hit out of the park it was the ice-queen with a heart of fire. Lisa initially appears voguish and picture-book perfect, but once she gets caught up in Jeff’s murder theory she’s as excited about it as he is and doesn’t shy away from getting her hands dirty. Indeed, thanks to Jeff’s injury, he relies on Lisa and Stella doing all the actual investigating for him.

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The cinematography is also magnificent. There are more iconic and sinister shots than you could shake a stick at and the use of diegetic sound – occurring naturally from within the world of the film as Jeff would hear it – is the most effective use of sound in Hitchcock’s entire career, apart from maybe The Birds.

It’s simply one of the best films Hitchcock ever made and one of the best films of all time.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Rope (1948)

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Hitchcock loved creating his own technical boundaries only to overcome them. In Lifeboat he set out to shot a riveting drama within the confines of one small, cramped location. In Rope he now goes one step further: to create a riveting drama within a small, cramped location…in one single shot. An incredibly ambitious undertaking. Too ambitious, in fact.

The short reels of the time wouldn’t allow Hitchcock to shoot the film as one take. As such, the finished film consists of nine shots cut together to give the appearance of a single take. Unfortunately, the illusion doesn’t always work; some of the cuts are jilting obvious and serve as a bit of a distraction.

Regardless, Rope is an extremely engaging story. Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger) are two friends who decide to commit a murder as an intellectual exercise. After throttling their mutual friend, David (Dick Hogan), in their New York apartment they hide the body in a trunk and throw a party with a bunch of clueless party guests as David’s still warm corpse lies stored just out of sight. All part of the fun, really.

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It’s all fun and games until someone gets murdered

What they don’t count on is the observant eye of their old school teacher Rupert (James Stewart) who starts to suspect that something truly dreadful has happened.

Rope was Hitchcock’s first colour picture as well as his first collaboration with the great actor James Stewart. Although Stewart gives a strong performance (when does he not?) he’s still not yet at the absolute top of his game as the sleuthing school teacher.

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On the case

The real stand-out is John Dall, who gives plays the more suave – and creepy – half of the murdering duo. He’s a slick screen presence and always fun to watch.

The real achievement of Rope is that, despite the clunky cuts, Hitchcock keeps the camera in nearly constant motion. He’d learnt from Juno and the Paycock that shooting a one room drama like a static stage play simply wouldn’t do. In contrast, all of Rope is always visually interesting, not least of all the beautiful addition of the New York skyline backdrop designed to slowly shift from dusk to nighttime.

Hitchcock later dismissed his “one-shot” approach as a stunt. Maybe so, but it’s a stunt which gives an engaging and suspenseful film, even if it’s slightly frayed at the edges.

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Geddit? It was a rope pun! God, I’m so alone…

Hitchcock-a-thon: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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How on earth did this happen? In the same year Hitchcock gave audiences the one of worst films of his career (so far) and one of the greatest: The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Why is it so good? Three words: Peter Motherfuckin’ Lorre. After displaying his phenomenal acting talent as a tormented child killer in Fritz Lang’s M three years earlier, Lorre came to Britain to escape the rise of the Nazi party. Hitchcock cast him almost immediately as the antagonist.

Here his character doesn’t have room for the kind of psychological complexity Lorre delivered in M, but he’s still entertaining as Hell to watch! Everything in his performance oozes creepy. He was, and always will be, a truly magnetic actor.

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But maybe not babysitter material

Lorre plays the leader of a terrorist group who kill a secret agent in a hotel in Switzerland. The agent dies in possibly the most British way imaginable – apologizing for the inconvenience. With his last breath he tells Jill (Edna Best) and Bob (Leslie Banks), a couple in the wrong place at the wrong time, to pass on urgent information to the British Consulate.

Bob and Jill quickly learn that Lorre’s gang are planning to assassinate a foreign diplomat in London, but they’re forced into silence when their daughter is kidnapped as a hostage. Unable to speak to the police, they take it upon themselves – with the help of their bumbling friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield) – to fight through devious dentists and creepy cults to get her back. The clock is ticking to find her before the diplomat is killed and Europe is thrust into a second World War. Wouldn’t it be terrible if that ever happened? Ahem.

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Fuck dentists

Banks is compelling as the jaw-clenching father desperate to find his daughter, but Best is the wittier and more energetic of the pairing. She’s also responsible for the most euphoric “fuck yeah!” moment of the film. It really should be called The Couple Who Knew Two Much. But that sounds like it might be a Swinger movie.

Hitchcock remade The Man Who Knew Too Much two decades later starring James Stewart and Doris Day. With a larger budget and big name cast it’s probably the better remembered of the two. But his earlier version is tenser, classier, wittier and has 100% more Peter Lorre.

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“Bitch, please”