Saturday, 20 June 2015

Alfred Hitchcock's Greatest Film

Directors often do get the short end of the stick when it comes to fame. It seems like a director today must be extremely prolific or appeal to the masses in order to be remembered by audiences. Some of those prolific directors are honored as the greats; their work being both prolific and revolutionary in the history of filmmaking. One of those names, without doubt, is the great Alfred Hitchcock. In a list compiled by Entertainment Weekly, Hitchcock was named the best director of all time, his name appearing above such names as Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese.

Today, there aren’t many who dispute Hitchcock’s impact on modern film. If there is any director whose work is still analyzed in depth its Hitchcock’s. I am a huge Hitchcock fan, and have been ever since I stayed up late one night to watch Rear Window for the first time. Since then, I have come to not only appreciate Hitchcock’s work for its entertainment value, but its historical significance. The only problem – if you can even call it that – is that I simply like too much of his work. Aside from Saboteur (1942) and Lifeboat (1944), it’s not likely that I would pass up the opportunity to sit down and watch a Hitchcock movie.

Because I enjoy so much of his work, it becomes a lot harder to pick out his best movies. In fact, it seems to me to be a topic which is hotly debated among film fans in general: what is Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest film? In an effort to answer that question, I have narrowed down a list of my top five favorite Hitchcock films and from there hope to determine which of the five is my overall favorite. Now, this will be entirely subjective, so I’d like to just make two things clear from the start. First, picking my five favorite films does not mean that if it’s not on the list, I don’t like the movie. Picking just five was a difficult task, and I’d like to reiterate that I love almost all of Hitchcock’s movies. Second, the subjectivity of this post means that you may not agree with my pick. I am not claiming that my pick is Hitchcock’s best, it is just my opinion. So, without further ado, here are my top five favorite Hitchcock films (listed in chronological order based on release date).

First up is perhaps my most unorthodox pick, one which seldom crops up on lists of Hitchcock’s greatest movies: 1948’s Rope. Rope was Hitchcock’s first color film and there is something decidedly eerie about the movie’s washed-out color scheme. Based on a play by Patrick Hamilton, the movie is about two college students, who, poisoned by the ideals of their professor (James Stewart), murder one of their other classmates simply to see if they can do it. The murder is however only the beginning for they invite the victim’s family and friends to dine all the while hiding his body under their very noses.

Set entirely in one apartment, Rope betrays its stage-bound origins, but this never seems to hinder the film in any way. In fact, Hitchcock makes the most of the single setting and amps up the tension considerably. Rope is also well-known for being the film which appears to be shot entirely in one take, which also make the movie feel rather like a play. This too adds to the tension because there is no fancy camera trickery to distract the viewer from the plot and the performances. Rope is entirely driven forward by its actors and its story and is the perfect exemplification of the suspense of which Hitchcock was so clearly the master.

Speaking of performances, a word must be said about James Stewart, who cast against type here, is a pretty unlikable guy. Stewart, of course, specialized in American everyman characters like George Bailey or Elwood P. Dowd from It’s a Wonderful Life and Harvey respectively. Here, Stewart is a manipulator, his theories of superiority eventually leading to one of his student’s deaths. Stewart does manage to redeem himself by the end – he’s clearly learned the error of his ways – but he’s never the cuddly, ball of fun which I usually associate with Stewart on a whole.

Hitchcock himself wasn’t entirely fond of the finished product, agreeing with the overall negative reviews. Despite his belief that Stewart was miscast in the film, it didn’t prevent Hitchcock from using him again down the road – in a film called Rear Window.

As I noted above, Rear Window was my first exposure to Hitchcock and I have been a fan ever since. Once again starring James Stewart, here the actor stars as L.B. Jeffries, a wheelchair- bound photographer, who confined to his small apartment, takes to spying on his neighbors across the way and comes to believe that he has witnessed a murder. There honestly is not much I can say about Rear Window which hasn’t already been said (something which applies to most of Hitch’s films), and I’m not here to analyze it. But, what I love about Rear Window aside from its great premise and fine acting, are the characters. L.B. Jeffries is the perfect kind of character for the situation in which he finds himself and Jimmy Stewart was the perfect actor to play him. Far more comfortable in a down-to-earth role, Jeffries is instantly likable and identifiable. While she may not be as identifiable, Grace Kelly is perfectly cast as Jeffries’s girlfriend Lisa, and makes for a likable, sweet character.

But Rear Window also succeeds in building up its minor characters. Even without much dialogue or screen-time, Jeffries’s neighbors Miss Torso, Miss Lonelyhearts, and others all become central and developed and we, the audience, become just as involved in the plight of Mrs. Lonelyheart as we are in Jeffries’s investigation.

Interestingly, James Stewart is the star of my next pick, Vertigo. Vertigo is perhaps the darkest and most brooding film on this list. In fact, it may be the darkest of all of Hitch’s movies. Stewart again plays an everyman, John “Scottie” Ferguson, a detective who is already fighting his conscious after a crippling bout of vertigo causes the death of a policeman. Following his recuperation, Scottie is hired to the tail the wife of an industrialist. He believes her to be possessed to a ghost.

Vertigo is a haunting film to watch; the elements coming together to create a disquieting air which is really indescribable. The beautiful San Francisco locations only heighten the sense of evil, mystery, and sadness which pervades the film. It’s an interesting juxtaposition which Hitchcock used in a number of films: that the strangest things (his greatest set pieces) can take place in the most recognizable locations, but it works perhaps its best herein. Despite all the ingredients coming together, Vertigo was a failure at the box office, Hitch unfairly blaming the failure on Stewart. It’s for that reason that Hitchcock chose his other famed leading man and collaborator for his next film.

When Hitchcock wasn’t making thrillers like Rear Window or Vertigo, he was helming “wrong man” films, and he showcased this subgenre best in North by Northwest. Starring Cary Grant, the film finds advertising mogul Roger Thornhill on the run after he’s mistaken for a spy by a group of enemy agents. Targeted by both the bad guys and the police, Thornhill crosses the country running into set-piece after set-piece. North by Northwest may just be Hitchcock’s most fun film. Sure, the characters are in constant peril, but the story is engaging and never without a touch of humor. The set-pieces are arguably the most famous in Hitch’s long career: from the assault by crop duster to the chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore.

Last, but certainly not least is the film which Hitchcock is without doubt known for today; the one which inevitably heads up the list of just about every “Best of Hitchcock List”: Psycho. It may be an unoriginal pick, but Psycho is one of those movies which changed film forever. It more-or-less gave birth to the slasher film sub-genre, but also pushed the envelope like no movie had done before that point.

The best thing about Psycho though is its longevity. Going into the movie knowing all the twists which were to come in no way inhibited my enjoyment. It is still an engaging movie, the performances are top-notch and the score by Bernard Herrmann is one of his finest.

So…the time has come. What is Hitchcock’s greatest film? Well, the obvious answer may be Psycho, but there is one thing about Psycho which a lot of people seem to overlook. Hitchcock always spoke of the importance of suspense in films and Psycho isn’t exactly known for its suspense. The film’s most memorable scene – the stabbing in the shower – is a shock not only as a scene, but also in the overall film. It was positively unheard of to kill off the central character so early in the film. As a bit of misdirection, it’s fantastic, but it sort of goes against Hitchcock’s mantra.

So, I’ll go the less obvious route with a film which is simply brimming with suspense and nominate Vertigo as the finest film from the master. Vertigo is a movie in which the viewer is, for most of the running time, kept in the dark as to what’s going on. It is probably the closest to a whodunit that Hitchcock ever directed, and just as craftily executes some slight-of-hand like the later Psycho.

Vertigo is one of those classic movies which needs a re-evaluation. As noted above, Hitchcock himself was disappointed by the film’s failure and yanked the film from re-distribution. It is, however, one of Hitch’s finest movies – eerie, moody, and very suspenseful. It is the perfect example of what a Hitchcock movie is like.

So, do you agree with my choice? If not, what do you believe to be Hitchcock’s finest film? Feel free to leave a comment below. 

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