August 13th is the birthday of one of the most gifted filmmakers the world has ever seen: Alfred Hitchcock! From his humble beginnings as a title card designer in the silent films of the early 1900’s, Hitchcock went on to direct over 50 of Hollywood’s most celebrated films. Always up for a macabre tale of murder or mystery, Hitchcock’s films traveled through a world of the seedy underbelly in our own backyards. Known for surprising twists and turns, Hitchcock also popularized the use of the term ‘Macguffin’; a plot device central to some of his most iconic films. Hitchcock explained the term “MacGuffin” in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University:
It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin’. The first one asks, ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well,’ the other man says, ‘it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers, ‘Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!’ So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.
To celebrate the master of suspense, we are presenting you with our list of the Thirteen best Hitchcock films. Feel free to kindly disagree with me in the comments if I left your favorite off – let’s dive in!
13. The 39 Steps (1935)
Many of Alfred Hitchcock’s early films are overlooked – he didn’t join the Hollywood club until the 1940s with Rebecca. Don’t sleep on films like The 39 Steps, though; Hitchcock weaves an intense and dramatic mystery throughout its runtime. The story focuses on an ordinary man named Richard Hannay (Academy Award winner Robert Donet) who gets caught up in an international spy ring. Soon, the police are after him for a murder he didn’t commit, and the race to clear his name and stay one step ahead are tense. Hitchcock often doesn’t get enough credit for his humor, and The 39 Steps also contains some genuinely funny moments.
12. Dial M for Murder (1954)
This suspenseful thriller has all the hidden, salacious details you come to expect from Hitchcock, all wrapped in a tight thriller about adultery, murder, and betrayal. Grace Kelly is in top form here, but one of the most fascinating aspects of the film is that it was filmed in 3D and is widely considered one of the best examples of the medium from its era. Alfred Hitchcock worked some technical wonders in his day, and Dial M for Murder may be one of his most impressive.
11. Rope (1948)
Another of Alfred Hitchcock’s experimental films, Rope is notable for not only being one of his “single setting” films (it is based on a play that takes place, essentially, in a single room), but also for attempting to be filmed in real-time. It is shot to look like the entire movie is one long, continuous take, and its slow burn plot about two people attempting to commit the “perfect murder” will keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.
10. North by Northwest (1959)
One of Hitchcock’s most iconic films, this mistaken identity thriller starring Cary Grant has a few of the most recognizable scenes in all of film. You can clearly see that Alfred Hitchcock wielded some serious influence in this film – the casting, set design, and sheer size of the film are some of the biggest he ever put out there. It’s telling that a film this well made and culturally significant is only “one of his best.”
9. Spellbound (1945)
Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman? Yes, please. An insanely fun mystery about guilt, mistaken identity, and amnesia, Peck’s character in Spellbound is a perfect way to examine how people deal with trauma. This one has twists and turns throughout, and a few of the swerves will surprise even the most jaded moviegoer. Hitchcock also got to experiment with surrealism in Spellbound – watch for the trippy dream sequence created by Salvador Dali.
8. Strangers on a Train (1951)
The premise for this one is just so darn creepy. Two men meet by chance on a train, and one of them proposes his idea of “the perfect murder” (Hitchcock sure seemed fascinated by this idea, huh? ); they will exchange murders, both killing someone the other wants dead. That way, they are both killing a total stranger with no motive, and thus cannot be caught. The other man humors him, laughing it off – which causes problems when the first assumes this means they have agreed to execute the plan. Strangers on a Train is crazy tense throughout, building towards an adrenaline-fueled finale.
7. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
The reason this one strikes such a chord is because of how relatable it is (not the exact circumstance, mind you, but the idea). How often have you known something is off, someone is lying, a situation is dangerous, etc., but couldn’t figure out what to do with it? That’s exactly where Charlie (Teresa Wright) finds herself in Shadow of a Doubt. Her uncle, who is also named Charlie (played with perfect sleaze by Joseph Cotten), comes to stay with her family, and she very quickly starts to figure out that he may not be who he says he is. Shadow of a Doubt is an extremely unsettling film, and Wright is phenomenal as the suspicious main character.
6. Rebecca (1940)
I may be a bit biased with this one, as the Daphne du Maurier novel the film is based on is just so darn good. Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film is a strong interpretation, however, utilizing some excellent casting like Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, and Judith Anderson as the super-creepy Mrs. Danvers. Rebecca is also another film where Hitchcock takes a relatable situation to very uncomfortable levels – in this case, a new wife who cannot seem to escape the shadow of the first.
5. The Birds (1963)
This was the first Hitchcock film I ever saw, and it holds a place near and dear to my heart. Even watching it as a kid, I remember being as fascinated by how Hitchcock was able to accomplish the cinematic feats on-screen as how he was able to tell his story. The Birds has been marred a bit by recent revelations of Hitchcock’s onset behavior, but it is a visceral and terrifying experience if you can set that knowledge aside. Jessica Tandy is s-o g-o-o-d in her supporting role here, and the final scene is one of Hitchcock’s most haunting images.
4. Vertigo (1958)
It’s tough to talk about Hitchcock and not mention Vertigo, one of his most technically impressive masterpieces. His ability to successfully juggle multiple characters and storylines, all while maintaining the narrative sleight-of-hand necessary to keep you guessing, is some of his best work as a filmmaker. Hitchcock’s technical wizardry is unmatched; he pioneered the “dolly zoom” technique for Vertigo to help audiences visualize the main character’s fear of heights. It’s a technique that you may have seen in, essentially, every major film since. And you can’t mention Vertigo without highlighting Kim Novak’s brilliant performance.
3. Psycho (1960)
We’ve talked a lot about performances in Hitchcock films, and the casting in Psycho is top-notch. We’ve talked about Hitchcock’s innovative techniques and ability to impart information with the camera, and few of his films do it as well and with such voyeuristic, perverse joy as Psycho. What about the music? It would be tough to point out a movie soundtrack more instantly recognizable than the screeching strings that play as the film’s infamous shower scene play out. There aren’t a lot of films out there that get a shot-for-shot remake, as this one did (to limited success) in 1998. It just shows you how well made and influential Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece is.
2. Notorious (1946)
Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, and Claude Rains, all at their best in Hitchcock’s most romantic film. Notorious is also a tight spy thriller, using all of Hitchcock’s cinematic techniques to tell a tense mystery full of breathtaking scenes. Notorious also features Hitchcock’s most well-known moment of skirting the uptight movie rules of the time: on-screen kisses could not last longer than three seconds, but Grant and Bergman kiss for almost three minutes. He accomplished this by having them kiss for three seconds, stopping and whispering to one another, then starting again. On top of ticking all the Hitchcock boxes, it’s one of his tightest bits of storytelling.
1. Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window is such an amazing film, with Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly absolutely killing their roles, that I think you could watch it every week of your life and never get tired of it. It just works on so many levels, with it ultimately being Hitchcock’s treatise on the power of film. As Stewart looks in on the various homes of his neighbors, imagining their lives, watching their secrets, and filling in the blanks with his own details, we can put ourselves into his shoes. We do the same thing when we watch characters on film: we pause scenes, wonder about backstories of characters, and elevate random bystanders to legendary levels. Watching Stewart slowly descend into (possible) madness and paranoia is a fascinating experience, and it solidifies Rear Window as Hitchcock’s best. Don’t forget that it also made for one of the best Simpsons episodes of all time.