The Countdown

Alfred Hitchcock’s 20 greatest films, from Rebecca to The Birds

Alfred Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense, but he didn’t win a single Oscar. Graeme Ross chooses his top 20

Friday 26 August 2022 23:31 BST
Hitchcock promoting his film ‘The Birds’
Hitchcock promoting his film ‘The Birds’ (Rex)

The Oscars don’t always get it right. There have been many notable injustices since the first ceremony took place in 1929, but surely none more surprising than the absence of Alfred Hitchcock’s name from the list of winners.

The man responsible for some of the greatest films ever made, and who committed many of cinema’s most deathless images to celluloid, never won an Academy Award despite being nominated for best director on five occasions: Rebecca in 1940, Lifeboat in 1944, Spellbound in 1945, Rear Window in 1954 and Psycho in 1960.

However, these five movies represent just a small percentage of Hitchcock’s magnificent oeuvre of 52 films. To counteract this injustice, here is my selection of his 20 greatest.

20. Blackmail (1929)

A young woman kills a man who tries to rape her and then finds herself caught between the investigating policeman, who happens to be her fiance, and a blackmailer. Generally considered to be the first British talkie, although there is some debate about this, Blackmail began life as a silent movie with Hitchcock given permission to shoot a few sound sequences. Instead, he shot both a sound and a silent version, with the latter actually holding up best. The film’s most memorable sequence is the climatic chase through and across the roof of the British Museum, but Hitchcock expertly sustains the tension throughout.  

19. Rope (1948)

Two young men murder a friend just for the thrill, conceal his body in a trunk and then hold a macabre dinner party to test whether any of their guests suspect their crime. Based on a real life murder case, Hitchcock’s first colour film, and his first collaboration with James Stewart, was an ambitious but not wholly successful experiment shot in 10-minute takes (the maximum amount of film held in a camera). The aim was for the finished movie to look like one continuous shot, giving the audience the impression that everything on screen happens in real time.

18. The Lodger (1927)

Hitchcock’s first example of his “wrong man” theme stars Ivor Novello as the innocent suspected of being a serial killer. The Lodger was a sensation – a huge hit with critics and audiences alike – and Hitchcock himself considered it his first proper film. Many of his signature motifs were established with this film, including a memorable climax with Novello almost killed by a bloodthirsty mob, and Hitchcock’s first trademark cameo appearance. Aged just 27, Hitchcock was already an imaginative innovator, filming from below a plate glass ceiling to capture Novello anxiously pacing the floor.

17. Dial M For Murder (1953)

Expertly mounted adaptation of the stage classic with Ray Milland brilliantly cast as the husband who plots his wife’s perfect murder, and then tries to frame her when it all goes wrong. Filmed in 3D which added immeasurably to the experience, particularly when Grace Kelly’s outstretched hand reaches towards the audience.

16. Saboteur (1942)

Often dismissed as minor Hitchcock, but in reality much better than that, Saboteur is basically a reboot of The Thirty-Nine Steps and a road movie of sorts, allowing Hitchcock to shoot extensively on location as the wronged man (Robert Cummings) traverses America from California to New York seeking to prove his innocence. It all leads to one of the greatest of all Hitchcock climaxes atop the Statue of Liberty.

15. Spellbound (1945)

Psychoanalyst Ingrid Bergman falls for amnesiac Gregory Peck, who may also be a murderer, and tries to unravel the mystery of his past. However, the real murderer is the head of the sanitarium where she works, played by Hitchcock’s favourite actor, Leo G Carroll. Of course, Spellbound is full of ludicrous psychobabble but the Salvador Dali dream sequences and evocative Oscar-winning score from Miklos Rozsa, combined with twists and turns typical of the master, make for an essential Hitchcock movie.

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14. Lifeboat (1944)

Only Hitchcock would have considered taking on this typically daring single-setting exercise about shipwrecked survivors from a U-boat attack adrift in the Atlantic. The fly in the ointment is the sole Nazi on board who insidiously asserts his influence on the survivors, allowing Hitchcock to examine all aspects of human nature as the protagonists do whatever they can to survive.  

13. Sabotage (1936)

One of Hitchcock’s darkest dramas, this compelling version of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent about a terrorist cell in London is most famous for the incredibly suspenseful and horrific sequence when a bomb-laden package explodes on board a packed bus. Hitchcock later called it a grave error and bad technique to allow the bomb to go off because it killed the suspense, but the scene was undeniably powerful and was required in the context of the film.

12. The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Bookending Hitchcock’s golden English period is this celebrated blend of comedy and suspense that some interpreted as a comment on appeasement as the Second World War loomed. On a transcontinental train in a ficticious central European country, the elderly Miss Froy suddenly disappears. Only a young woman admits to having seen her and she enlists a young Englishman to help her find said lady, who it later transpires is a British spy. Hitchcock managed to fit in plenty of observations on human nature with even those passengers not involved in the kidnapping lying about their knowledge of Miss Froy for their own selfish reasons, such as the cricket-loving silly Englishmen who are anxious to get home for a test match.  

11. Foreign Correspondent (1940)

Newspaper reporter Joel McCrea is caught in the middle of a Nazi spy ring during WW2. The film features several set pieces in the Hitchcock mould including an assassination on rain-lashed steps amid a cavalcade of umbrellas, an amazingly suspenseful sequence in a windmill, and a spectacular plane crash viewed from the cockpit. Wonderful entertainment and, unusually for Hitchcock, there’s a message included that can be viewed as a plea for the United States to enter the war.  

10. Rebecca (1940)

Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock's Rebecca
Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock's Rebecca (Rex Features)

Hitchcock was forced to cede to producer David O Selznick for his first US movie and as such, Rebecca has Selznick’s fingerprints all over it. Despite this, Rebecca is unmistakably a Hitchcock picture, a typically deft psychological thriller showing he was the right choice to bring Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic melodrama to the screen. Selznick took the Oscar for best film, but Hitchcock lost best director to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath.

9. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Joseph Cotten excels as prodigal uncle Charlie who is hero worshipped by his niece, also Charlie (Teresa Wright), in this noir-ish slice of Americana with a bitter aftertaste. Gradually, however, she realises that all is not what it seems and that her beloved uncle is a serial killer of women. Hitchcock, aided by a screenplay from Thornton Wilder, masterfully exposes the dark underbelly of small town America in a film often cited as his own personal favourite  

8. Strangers on a Train (1951)

A chance encounter on a train between two men results in one of them suggesting that the two swap murders – each will kill someone for the other to ensure that neither is suspected. Unhappily married Guy laughs off the proposition from charming waster Bruno, but it turns out that Bruno (a terrific Robert Walker) is a psychopath and when he duly murders Guy’s wife – in a stunning scene the victim’s strangulation is reflected in her glasses – Guy is expected to return the favour by murdering Bruno’s father. Hitchcock’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel is a thrilling ride from start to finish full of dizzying camera angles and dazzling images, with a literally explosive finale on a merry-go-round.

7. The Birds (1963)

Hitchcock promoting his film 'The Birds',
Hitchcock promoting his film 'The Birds', (Rex)

One of the master’s greatest accomplishments has been tainted somewhat by recent revelations over his treatment of star Tippi Hedren. However, Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novella remains a terrifying, brilliantly conceived and executed horror film with a number of fantastic set pieces that live long in the memory. There is no reason given for the bird attacks: Hitchcock invited the viewer to theorise whilst rejecting any unimaginative suggestions of a virus or disease. In another masterstroke, the director famed for his use of thrilling and evocative music didn’t use any at all on The Birds’ soundtrack, relying on the clamour from the creatures themselves to heighten the tension and horror quotient.  

6. The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935)

John Buchan’s novel famously has a rather anti-climatic ending and there are no female characters, so Hitchcock ingeniously put his own personal stamp on it, virtually reimagining the whole story. There’s not a wasted second with many of the Hitchcockian tropes present and correct – famous locations, the glacial blonde, the innocent man on the run and the memorable (literally) climax. It also features one of Hitchcock’s first uses of the MacGuffin, his celebrated plot device (in this case military secrets being taken out of the country by a foreign power) that drives the film, but is actually of little relevance to the outcome. The result is one of the greatest British films of all time and Hitchcock’s first true classic, with a dream pairing in dashing Robert Donat and icily beautiful Madeleine Carroll.

5. Rear Window (1954)

James Stewart is the photographer confined to his apartment with a broken leg who spends his time spying on his neighbours. He becomes convinced that one of his neighbours has murdered his wife and it falls to his impossibly regal girlfriend Grace Kelly to investigate. She is soon placed in peril as the photographer’s suspicions are proved correct, but he is as powerless to intervene as the audience themselves. The camera never leaves Stewart’s apartment in another of the director’s single-setting masterclasses that racks up the suspense notch by notch. Hitchcock’s study of voyeurism is a masterpiece in audience manipulation, turning all of us into a bunch of peeping toms.

4. North by Northwest (1959)

How I envy anyone viewing this rollercoaster tongue-in-cheek comedy-thriller for the first time, with its implausible but glorious set pieces and marvellous performances from Cary Grant as the bewildered advertising executive mistaken for someone who didn’t even exist in the first place, and James Mason as the impossibly urbane villain. The crop-dusting scene and Mount Rushmore sequence have entered movie folklore. This is Hitchcock on top form and at his most playful, managing to hoodwink the censors who objected to some of the more risque lines between Grant and leading lady Eva Marie Saint, but missed the implication of the train entering the tunnel at the climax of the film.

3. Notorious (1946)

FBI agent Cary Grant ruthlessly and dispassionately uses his lover Ingrid Bergman to flush out Nazis in South America in the aftermath of the Second World War. The fullest articulation of Hitchcock’s dazzling visual style contains a number of memorable scenes, including a stunning tracking shot from the top of a stairway that eventually pans downstairs into a key held in Bergman’s hand, and the incredibly suspenseful finale as Grant rescues an ailing Bergman from the clutches of the Nazis. There is also a passionate kiss between Grant and Bergman that circumvented the Hollywood production code edict that no kiss should last more than three seconds. The MacGuffin here is uranium ore stored in champagne bottles, but as Hitchcock maintained, nobody was really interested. Notorious is also noteworthy for a fascinating portent of things to come, with one of Hitchcock’s earliest domineering mothers.

2. Psycho (1960)

Legendary, notorious, reviled, revered, much imitated and infinitely influential, Hitchcock himself described his first horror film as a shocker and, even after all these years, the master’s supreme achievement still has the power to shock and awe in equal measure. Psycho cost just $800,000 to make, has now grossed $32m in its lifetime, and is still compulsively watchable today even after umpteen viewings. Hitchcock shamelessly manipulates his audience with Psycho’s flawless first act, purposely disarming them before blindsiding them by shockingly killing off his leading lady less than halfway through the movie. Helped immeasurably by Bernard Herrmann’s score, Hitchcock teases his audience throughout Psycho, confident that when the blood-chilling moments came, they would indeed scare the pants off everyone watching.    

1. Vertigo (1958)

James Stewart and Kim Novak in 'Vertigo'
James Stewart and Kim Novak in 'Vertigo' (Rex)

A critical and public failure on its release, no Hitchcock film has enjoyed such a complete critical turnaround as Vertigo, which in 2012 took pole position in Sight and Sound’s greatest movie list and remains the foremost example of the master’s dark genius. Hitchcock’s most enigmatic and haunting film is a sleeper about obsession and deception that demands multiple viewings to appreciate its many nuances. It’s also the film that is said to reveal more about Hitchcock’s own complex personality than any other. The soft-focus photography and Bernard Herrmann’s deathless score invest the whole film with a dream-like quality, and the hypnotic Saul Bass title sequence is, in Martin Scorsese’s words, “a mini-film within a film”.

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