Without even trying, you can probably name several Alfred Hitchcock movies off the top of your head: Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, Rear Window, The Birds. The master of suspense is among the most influential filmmakers of all time, and one whose quality wasn’t undermined by the sheer quantity of movies he made. Hitchcock directed more than 50 features between 1925 and 1976, including nine silent films and more than 20 in black and white, as well as several shorts that have since been lost.
Mixed in with the greatest-of-all-time contenders and Academy Award nominees (not-so-fun fact: Hitchcock never won a competitive Oscar) are a number of lesser-known gems that have never quite gotten their due. Here are five of the best.
Hitchcock directed four movies that take place entirely in one location. Lifeboat was the first of them, with Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder (1954), and Rear Window (1954) all following it. He excelled in that mode from the beginning, as this thriller about a group of survivors floating in the North Atlantic can attest. Based on a story by John Steinbeck, Lifeboat follows a mixed crew of American and British survivors — some civilians, some servicemembers, and a journalist played by Tallulah Bankhead — whose vessel sank during an encounter with a Nazi U-Boat. To add to this fittingly tense scene, the German captain who torpedoed their ship is pulled aboard.
Lifeboat was marked by a difficult production process that saw several cast members fall ill, and oddly featured no musical score outside of the opening and closing credits. ("Where would the music come from?" Hitchcock jokingly asked; Hugo Friedhofer, who composed what little musical accompaniment there is, responded, "Where does the camera come from?") True to form, Hitchcock made the most of Lifeboat’s seeming limitations — he even managed to make one of his famous cameos. The result is a taut thriller that earned him his second Academy Award nomination and remains a favorite of the director’s die-hard fans.
Jimmy Stewart's first collaboration with Hitchcock is lesser known than their highly acclaimed later work in Vertigo and Rear Window, but there's no reason not to get tied up in the intrigue of this tightly wound yarn. Rope is presented as one continuous long shot, which is to say that the 80-minute running time depicts just 80 minutes of action, leaving little time to catch your breath as the plot unravels.
A pair of young men (actors John Dall and Farley Granger) are so taken by Thomas De Quincey's essay "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts" and Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of the Übermensch that they decide to commit a murder — not out of malice or vindictiveness, but because the idea of the perfect crime compels them on an intellectual level. Stewart, as the former prep-school housemaster who first introduced them to those great thinkers, becomes the inadvertent detective and accidental hero.
None of this would be as thrilling were it not for the technical mastery behind it: Though made to look like one long take, Rope actually consists of 10 different shots lasting between four and 10 minutes each. Hitchcock masked the cuts by panning in on various characters or objects in the penthouse apartment where the action unfolds, and even though you already know who did it in this whodunit, the execution leads to a very satisfying conclusion.
The Trouble With Harry (1955)
The Trouble With Harry was a box-office disappointment that quite literally almost killed Hitchcock during production — at one point an 850-pound, crane-mounted camera snapped off and fell, grazing his shoulder. But somehow, The Trouble With Harry manages to be Hitchcock’s funniest movie by far, and he once named it as his personal favorite. Set in an idyllic Vermont village whose changing leaves were stunningly captured by that falling VistaVision camera, Harry is ostensibly a murder mystery: No one involved is sad to discover that the title character is dead, but everyone is concerned they were at least partly responsible for his passing.
That may not sound like the premise of a romantic comedy, and in the hands of a less gifted director it probably wouldn’t be. But Hitchcock, ever subversive, managed to make the discovery of a corpse and the circumstances surrounding his death into one of his patented MacGuffins — i.e., what initially appears important is merely a plot device to initiate the story. Whether you want to see Shirley MacLaine’s debut screen performance or evidence that Hitchcock’s range extended far beyond traditional thrillers, The Trouble With Harry is worth getting into.
Hitchcock never shied away from controversy, but Frenzy took things pretty far even by his standards. Not only was it the first of his movies to feature nudity, it features what one film theorist described as “one of the most repellent examples of a detailed murder in the history of film.” If that piques your curiosity rather than repelling it, there’s a good chance you’re Hitchcock’s ideal viewer.
Frenzy follows a serial killer responsible for a spat of “necktie murders” in London; it was based on the 1966 novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square. With references to Jack the Ripper and a lesser-known serial killer named Reg Christie, Frenzy is familiar territory for Hitchcock insofar as it centers on an innocent man implicated in a crime he didn’t commit.
Family Plot (1976)
You can name Hitchcock’s most famous films, but can you name his last? Family Plot was the perfect swan song, and not just because its clever title has a double meaning alluding to both cemeteries and schemes. Blending laughs and thrills as only he could, Hitchcock worked with North by Northwest screenwriter Ernest Lehman on bringing Victor Canning's novel The Rainbird Pattern to life. The result was lighter and less dramatic than Lehman would have liked, but it's hard to argue with the master on this one — Family Plot works so well precisely because its tone vacillates between humor and tension.
The film starts with a missing person, and a self-proclaimed medium (Barbara Harris) and her private-eye boyfriend (Bruce Dern) who are tasked with finding him. The effort is stymied by the fact that the man in question doesn't want to be found. In his final film, Hitchcock managed to showcase one of his most underrated skills: making his movies fun. Psycho and The Birds will scare you more, but there’s a sense of joy while watching Family Plot and Hitchcock’s other underseen classics that shouldn’t be overlooked.
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