In 2012, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo eclipsed Citizen Kane as the greatest film ever made on Sight & Sound‘s once-a-decade poll. Audiences didn’t fully embrace Vertigo when it premiered; the New York Times called it “clever” if “devilishly far-fetched.” But this movie has, unexpectedly, ascended to the top of the canon. When AFI’s Top 100 was released in 1997, Vertigo stood at a mere #61, then it vaulted to #9 for the 2007 list.
Of course, most of Hitchcock’s movies are esteemed today. When the BFI released their own Top 100 British films, The 39 Steps came in at #4, with The Lady Vanishes further down the list. Who knows if Hitch would be pleased by his deification, when in his life he was up for 5 director Oscars and never won? (His nominations came for Rebecca, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, and Psycho.)
For my favorite director, I hadn’t actually watched most of his early British films. I still need to watch all the silents—a future project. But I can finally offer my thoughts on each of his sound films, from 1929’s Blackmail all the way to 1976’s Family Plot.
Here is my—highly informed, entirely indisputable—ranking:
44. Jamaica Inn
As a whole, Hitchcock’s filmography is very watchable. Even his lesser movies have compelling set pieces and trademark Hitchcock touches.
But Jamaica Inn is unwatchable: a lethargic slog through a host of overacted, uninteresting characters and Charles Laughton grotesquely chewing the scenery. It’s a surprisingly awful Daphne du Maurier adaptation, which Hitch would rectify one year later with Rebecca. I give Jamaica Inn last place because it’s clear Hitch didn’t care, his sights set on moving to America and beginning the next wave of his career.
For a movie about communism and missiles and spies, the script is woeful and the actors unengaging. You wait for a hook, but nothing draws you in. I’ve seen it several times and can’t remember a thing about the plot. Topaz manages a sin uncommon to most Hitchcock films: it’s boring.
- Number 17
Hitch’s early British sound films have their ups and downs. He wasn’t yet able to develop his projects the way he wanted, and he was admittedly unenthusiastic about many projects he chose in these days. Number 17 barely runs an hour; there’s a lot of haunted-house mumbo-jumbo, and a high-speed train sequence, but it’s all kooky atmosphere without much else.
—41. The Skin Game
40. Waltzes from Vienna
39. Juno and the Paycock
Hitch’s early sound career finds the director handling a variety of genres. None of these three are suspense pictures, and though they have their charms, they’re mostly sufficient without much inspiration. The Skin Game and Juno feels like (because they are) filmed plays; Juno is at least a classic drama. Edmund Gwenn, who’d work with Hitch twice more, at least brings some interest to Waltzes and The Skin Game.
- Stage Fright
Hitch was on a roll in the 1940s, but then got bogged down with a streak of lesser movies after Notorious. Nothing in Stage Fright really grabs your interest except for Marlene Dietrich. An oddly dull paint-by-numbers thriller that feels much less British than it should.
- Mr. and Mrs. Smith
A capable romantic comedy that could use more screwball sensibility. Carole Lombard is enjoyable, but it’s relatively hijinks-free, without the inspired dialogue Hawks and Cukor brought to their comedies of the era. Read my longer appreciation here.
- Under Capricorn
As part of Hitch’s late ‘40s period, he experimented with longer shots and sweeping camerawork that made his movies feel more technical than gripping. This is a mess of a movie, where a stunning Ingrid Bergman has to act opposite a glum Joseph Cotton, who looks like he’d rather be anywhere else.
- Rich and Strange
A bored couple travels the world and grows closer during their adventures. It’s certainly not as riveting as most Hitchcocks, but the comedy of manners approach stands out from Hitch’s usual wrong-man travelogues. (Though I cringed when a Chinese crew served our leads cat for dinner.)
- Torn Curtain
With a significant edit and Bernard Herrmann’s unused score, Torn Curtain would fare better. Paul Newman and Julie Andrews aren’t a great fit for Hitch, and their escape from East Germany loses its tight footing in the third act.
- Secret Agent
Virtually forgotten alongside Hitch’s stronger British efforts. One of many attempts to squeeze different set pieces together without fully cohering, but it’s got a charming cast in John Gielgud, Madeleine Carroll, and an outlandish Peter Lorre that cheer up the proceedings.
- Young and Innocent
Well-liked by many, but I’m not as charmed. Everyone remembers the famous zoom-in on the drummer’s twitching eyes. The rest of the script is much sillier than it ought to be, with no real stakes.
A rough draft of North by Northwest, it’s not essential, but the movie picks up speed and energy as it travels the U.S., culminating atop the Statue of Liberty.
- Family Plot
The last Hitchcock. The villains’ story isn’t memorable, and that car chase pales in comparison to North by Northwest. But it’s a solid, comical send-off with fun work from Bruce Dern, Karen Black, and especially the one-of-a-kind Barbara Harris.
I think this is the best of Hitch’s forgotten British movies. Herbert Marshall investigates the innocence of a woman he’s voted to convict at trial. Livelier than most of the early sound films, this shows Hitch’s predilection for telling a good, solid thriller.
- The Paradine Case
Hitchcock at a lower key, with Gregory Peck and a very good Ann Todd as his neglected wife. Uneven, but Hitch here is a master of mood and emotional understatement. It’s a shame most of Oscar nominee Ethel Barrymore’s scenes are lost forever. The beginning of Hitch’s long-take period, revolutionized a year later in Rope.
Satisfying without ever being more than that. Hitch must have enjoyed the restrictions of a confined set. Tallulah Bankhead proves her acting chops in a way she rarely got to on screen.
So many striking elements, from Miklos Roska’s hypnotic score to the Salvador Dali dream. But the movie’s 1940s psychotherapy hasn’t aged well, and I’m not as entranced by the central love story or the key to Gregory Peck’s mental state.
- To Catch a Thief
Lush and spectacularly photographed, this is one of Hitch’s most lightweight movies, like a puff pastry. It gets by on its insistent charm, but there’s nothing we haven’t seen in his other work.
The first British sound film, and a major success in its day. It’s well-paced and suspenseful (much more than many of the movies that follow), and the premise is provocative: a young woman frantically stabs a man who’s trying to rape her.
Love it or hate it, Marnie is endlessly fascinating. Hitch’s creepy (abusive?) treatment of Tippi Hedren lingers. Critics have reclaimed the shoddy matte paintings and rear projection as deliberately artificial; but to me they’re evidence that Hitch’s attention to detail was slipping. Still, this movie echoes the eerie sexual power of Vertigo, and Marnie is hard to shake even when it’s preposterous or upsetting.
- The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
More polished than the 1934 original, with a confident dramatic performance from Doris Day. By this point, Hitch was working with good screenwriters who could string his ideas for set pieces together into a logical plot structure. The film’s tourist attitude toward Morocco has dated poorly, and it all goes on too long.
Joan Fontaine won an Oscar for her forlorn housewife, taken in by Cary Grant’s murderous charms. Suspicion feels like a Rebecca sequel without the same richness or sexual playfulness. But it’s a gripping story of a woman’s neurosis, and even after the wan ending, I still believe there’s something sinister in store.
More of an experiment than a film operating on all cylinders. The gay subtext is pretty blatant for 1948, thanks to Arthur Laurents’s script and Farley Granger’s performance. It’s all good fun and philosophizing, even though it doesn’t achieve the tension or claustrophobia it wants to.
- I Confess
I Confess is often dismissed, but Hitch’s work is wonderfully expressionistic, capturing the stark drama of Quebec City streets as a backdrop to Montgomery Clift wrestling with his conscience. Fine work from Karl Malden, too. The romantic plot and final showdown aren’t as interesting as the rest.
I don’t enjoy Frenzy as much as I used to. There’s an unwelcome prurience: take the horrifying rape scene contrasted with a “gotcha” shot of the victim’s tongue sticking out. But it’s far and away the best direction of Hitch’s later years, and it shows him adapting to a brand-new film landscape.
- The Wrong Man
The anti-Hitchcock movie, grim and cheerless. Meticulously researched from the true story of a man wrongly accused. Henry Fonda and Vera Miles offer sensitive, subtle work as the weight of these accusations take over their lives. A bit too understated, but this one stays with you.
- The Trouble with Harry
I have a soft spot for this offbeat comedy about a corpse everyone confesses to murdering. With its vibrant autumnal New England setting and plaintive Bernard Herrmann score, it was always one of Hitch’s favorites, too.
- The 39 Steps
Many rank The 39 Steps among Hitch’s best. There’s something a little too neat about this one; I don’t find it as electrifying as other British pictures. But it set a template many future Hitches would follow, and it showed Hitch’s ability to discard the plot of a novel and make the story uniformly his own.
Hitch thought the bomb on the bus was a mistake. It’s a savage act, but so is the murder that follows it. Sabotage is more violent, more disturbing, than the lighthearted British capers surrounding it. And it’s that perverse, nastier side of Hitch that makes this movie stand out. Unlike The 39 Steps, this is faithful in many ways to Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent.
- The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
If The Lodger was the first movie to earn the Hitchcock reputation, The Man Who Knew Too Much launched Hitch into another plane as a director. It’s the before-and-after movie of Hitch’s career. From here on, he was unstoppable. The rest of his career, with a few rare exceptions, found many ways to reinvent the thriller. This is a tightly controlled, nimble effort, with the sharp editing of the Albert Hall climax and a marvelously weird Peter Lorre as the baddie.
- Foreign Correspondent
One of two Best Picture nominees in 1940, this Joel McCrea spy whodunit is yet another blueprint on the way to North by Northwest. But it’s just as enjoyable, and classic Hitchcock touches abound: Edmund Gwenn’s cameo, the windmill turning the wrong way, the dramatic plane crash into the sea.
- Dial M for Murder
Hitch’s best filmed play adaptation. Dial M works every time because the play is so smartly crafted. The business with the keys never fails to impress me, and the whole company from Ray Milland and Grace Kelly to crafty inspector John Williams make this far more immersive than you’d expect from a one-set movie.
- The Lady Vanishes
Even before the search for the missing Miss Froy on the train, we’re eased into the mystery with a comic cast of characters crammed into a hotel. The whole movie is full of wit and playfulness, with an agility Hitchcock would bring to many of his American movies.
- The Birds
A marvel of slowly building terror, in a world that grows increasingly bleak and senseless. There’s little hope by the end except the shrinking possibility of survival, and it ends without resolution. The whole time, you feel Hitch firmly in control, the master puppeteer.
Two du Mauriers, back to back! Rebecca lags when it spends too much time away from Manderlay. But as Hitch’s only film to win Best Picture, it’s an exquisitely striking blend of Victorian romance and ghost story, with the spectre of the first Mrs. De Winter hovering around Joan Fontaine. Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers, so haunted by the memory of the dead Rebecca, may be the ultimate villain—though she has stiff competition in the movies below.
- Strangers on a Train
Just about a perfect movie, one that veers sharply from Patricia Highsmith’s novel as it goes along. Robert Walker continues the tradition of mesmerizing Hitchcock villains—so urbane and charmingly murderous—opposite Farley Granger as the innocent man taken in by Walker’s vile plan.
- Shadow of a Doubt
Joseph Cotton brilliantly overturns his “aw shucks” persona as the menacing visitor Uncle Charlie, well-matched by Teresa Wright as she becomes aware of her uncle’s dark side. Shadow of a Doubt takes a brutal spin on Our Town, revealing the dark underbelly of human nature while also affectionally chronicling the life of a small town. Another one of Hitch’s confessed favorites.
Cary Grant. Ingrid Bergman. Claude Rains. Three superlative stars, giving what may be their best film performances. Notorious introduces Bergman as a party girl, only to reveal the degrading humiliation she submits herself to by these men and by her country, until she’s no longer in control of her own body. Don’t worry about the uranium subplot (the ultimate MacGuffin)—this is all about our three stars and the ruthless, romantic ways they manipulate each other.
- North by Northwest
It’s increasingly tough to rank these! There’s no denying the craft or the exhilaration in watching this one. North by Northwest perfected a genre Hitch remade over and over again, always refining the man-on-the-run story with increasingly audacious adventures (like a climb down Mount Rushmore). Ernest Lehman’s screenplay is one of the best in its class; the dinner conversation between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint could be the sexiest scene on film. And Grant proves his worth as the ultimate Hitchcock star; I think Hitch would have made every movie with him, if he could.
- Rear Window
One of the most quotable movies ever made. “We think Thorwald’s guilty.” “No one ever invented a polite word for a killing yet.” Grace Kelly is her loveliest and most gutsy, and Thelma Ritter is indispensably salty. A masterwork of technique filmed on an enclosed set, this may be the most representative Hitchcock movie. It’s the one I’d recommend first if you haven’t seen Hitchcock before.
Hitchcock only made two real horror movies: Psycho and The Birds, back to back. But like much of his work, the psychological horror of Psycho is what really gets at us today. Beneath Anthony Perkins’ brilliant, eerily likable portrayal of Norman Bates, is a tortured soul crying out, like one of his stuffed birds. Hitchcock’s fingerprints are deliberately visible; we’re supposed to notice the camera as it slinks through the hotel room, like another character watching over, unable to spare these people from their fates. Psycho completely changed how we went to the movies. And it’s still an endlessly watchable movie of shocks and gruesome humor, with those savage cellos and basses sawing away at the ugliness inside us all.
I just watched Vertigo on the big screen, for the first time, and it remains a transcendent experience. So is it really the greatest movie ever made? If we honor it that way, I worry we’ll lose sight of how strange this movie is, so ethereal and obsessive. People gasped in the theater when Jimmy Stewart asks to change Kim Novak’s hair. Look at the degree to which Hitchcock subverts Stewart’s persona and pushes Novak as she never was before. It’s an unshakable movie—the sweep and bellow of Bernard Herrmann’s Wagner-esque horns, as the harp glissandi lure us into a state of heightened romanticism, love and death equals battling each other for supremacy. I’m not even sure Hitchcock understood the power of Vertigo; something deep in his subconscious made its way on screen, in all of its creepy, mesmerizing power.