"There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it," said Alfred Hitchcock, who proved that theory with dozens of the most witty and suspenseful movies of the 20th century. Here, to mark his birthday, are 20 of the legendary director's very best.
1. "Rear Window" (1954)
Confined to his apartment with a broken leg, photographer Jimmy Stewart kills time by spying on residents across the courtyard. Convinced that one of these neighbors (a menacing Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife, Stewart enlists his stunningly beautiful socialite girlfriend (Grace Kelly) to nose around, much to her eventual peril. "Hitchcock traps us right from the first," said critic Roger Ebert. "And because Hitchcock makes us accomplices in Stewart's voyeurism, we're along for the ride."
Hitchcock cameo: Winding a clock in one of the apartments seen from Stewart's rear window.
2 "Vertigo" (1958)
A box office failure on its release, "Vertigo" now stands as one of Hitchcock's crowning achievements. Jimmy Stewart stars as a retired San Francisco police detective who becomes obsessed with a woman he is hired to follow (Kim Novak) in this drama about shifting identities, deception and sexual tension. Dream-like, enigmatic and haunting, it's Hitchcock at the very top of his game. "Vertigo stands alone," said director Martin Scorsese. "It is essential."
Hitchcock cameo: In a gray suit, walking in the street with a trumpet case.
3. "Psycho" (1960)
Hitchcock's masterpiece about murderous mama's boy Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) caused a sensation with one of the greatest plot twists of all time. Leading lady Janet Leigh gets killed halfway into the film in a shocking scene that to this day reminds everyone to lock the door before stepping into the shower. "The original slasher film was 'Psycho,'" said "Halloween" director John Carpenter. "The big daddy of them all."
Hitchcock cameo: Spotted through an office window, wearing a Stetson cowboy hat.
4. "North by Northwest" (1959)
A roller coaster thriller with a sense of humor, starring Cary Grant as a bewildered advertising executive and the victim of mistaken identity. Amazingly suspenseful scenes like Grant ducking a crop duster and the climactic chase across the face of Mt. Rushmore still leave audiences gasping, even in the modern era of CGI technology. This is Hitchcock at his heart-pounding and playful best.
Hitchcock cameo: Missing a bus, just after his director's credit passes off screen during the title sequence.
5. "The 39 Steps" (1935)
One of Hitchcock's early classics is a diabolically clever Rubik's cube of a puzzle about an "everyman" (Robert Donat) unwittingly entangled in an international espionage plot. Packing the film with twisty reversals and witty humor, Hitchcock holds the pedal to the metal from beginning to end. At a mere 83 minutes, it's one of the director's fastest, most suspenseful rides. "It's not much of an exaggeration to say that all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with 'The 39 Steps,'" said Robert Towne, the screenwriter of "Chinatown."
Hitchcock cameo: The man tossing a white cigarette box as a bus pulls up.
6. "The Lady Vanishes" (1938)
On a train trip through a fictitious European country, an elderly woman mysteriously disappears. A young traveler (Margaret Lockwood) enlists another passenger (a charming Michael Redgrave) to help locate the missing woman. Along the way, Nazis and espionage come into play in a Hitchcock high-wire act that is a perfect blend of suspense, comedy and romance. "It is directed with such skill and velocity," said New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, "that it has come to represent the very quintessence of screen suspense."
Hitchcock cameo: In London's Victoria Station, wearing a black coat and smoking a cigarette.
7. "Strangers on a Train" (1951)
A chance encounter during a train trip leads to terror. Guy (Farley Granger), a championship tennis player, and Bruno (Robert Walker), a charming psychopath, pass time by jokingly concocting a plan to swap murders—except it's no joke at all in Bruno's deranged mind. Walker creates one of the most sinister characters in movie history, the stuff of chills and nightmares. Hitchcock's film is thrilling and frightening, full of dizzying camera angles and dazzling images, including a heart-stopping merry-go-round finale. Look for the scene where Guy scans the crowd during a tennis match and observes that all heads are swiveling back and forth to follow the action—except for one, Bruno, who is looking straight ahead…at him.
Hitchcock cameo: Boarding a train with a double bass.
8. "The Birds" (1963)
Long before "Jaws" petrified audiences with a giant shark, Hitchcock turned flocks of seagulls, ravens, crows, sparrows and pigeons into some of the most frightening bad guys of all time. "The Birds," starring Tippi Hedren in her first film role, takes horrifying flight as hundreds and then thousands of feathered creatures terrorize a small California bayside town. One sequence shows a growing number of crows slowly taking over a playground jungle gym, a masterful scene of slow-burn terror. "It's a quite different Hitchcock," said the always droll director. "Strictly speaking, this isn't a science fiction film, but something close. In addition, it's…romantic."
Hitchcock cameo: He leaves a pet shop as Tippi Hedren enters.
9 "Notorious" (1946)
A post-World War II spy thriller starring Cary Grant as a government agent who persuades a radiant Ingrid Bergman to infiltrate a group of Nazis living in South America. Not only is "Notorious" suspenseful, it is one of Hitchcock's most romantic films, with Grant and Bergman burning up the screen, particularly during a sizzling two-and-a-half-minute kiss that the director was able to sneak past the era's prudish movie censors, who had long mandated that a kiss could last no more than three seconds. "The whole film was really designed as a love story," said Hitchcock.
Hitchcock cameo: Drinking champagne at a party.
Dial M for Murder (1953)
Ray Milland is wonderfully cast as a husband who plots the perfect murder of his wife (Grace Kelly) and then tries to frame her when it all goes wrong. The first of Kelly's three consecutive Hitchcock movies is a model of claustrophobic, tension-inducing direction and a sophisticated, chillingly sinister thriller. The original 3-D version, said Hitchcock aficionado and director Martin Scorsese, is "a revelation."
Hitchcock cameo: In a class reunion photograph.
11. "Rebecca" (1940)
Hitchcock's first film after relocating to Hollywood from his native England, this adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's gothic novel is a masterful psychological thriller. Joan Fontaine's unnamed character is haunted by the memory of her new husband's (Lawrence Olivier) deceased former wife. "Rebecca" won the Academy Award for Best Picture and earned Hitchcock the first of his five nominations for Best Director.
Hitchcock cameo: Strolling near a phone booth.
12. "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943)
Hitchcock called this film his personal favorite, the story of a teenage girl (Teresa Wright) and her beloved uncle (Joseph Cotton), who is eventually exposed as the "Merry Widow Murderer. "Our Town" playwright Thornton Wilder's screenplay examined the underbelly of small-town America decades before David Lynch followed suit with "Blue Velvet." "Love and good order," said Hitchcock, "is no defense against evil."
Hitchcock cameo: Playing cards on a train.
13. "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956)
In the Hollywood remake of Hitchcock's own 1934 British film, an American physician (Jimmy Stewart) and his wife (Doris Day) are on vacation in Morocco when their son is kidnapped by assassins planning to execute a foreign prime minister. During the climactic showdown in London's Royal Albert Hall, Hitchcock lets the tension build for 12 minutes as an orchestra plays and the actors remain silent—until Doris Day screams as cymbals crash and the assassin's gun goes off. The thriller features Day singing "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)," an intricate part of the storyline. The Oscar-winning song became Day's signature tune.
Hitchcock cameo: He appears in a Moroccan marketplace, hands in his suit pockets.
14. "Lifeboat" (1944)
A departure for Hitchcock, this non-thriller is set entirely in a lifeboat set adrift after a German submarine attack. The nine passengers are played by an amazing cast, including Tallulah Bankhead, Hume Cronyn, William Bendix and, most notably, African-American actor Canada Lee in a non-stereotypical role, highly unusual for the era. Released during World War II, "Lifeboat" sparked some controversy because of its semi-sympathetic portrayal of a stranded German sailor. But the film is lauded today for its astute examination of human nature under duress.
Hitchcock cameo: A newspaper ad shows the director in head-to-toe profile in before-and-after photos for "Reduco Obesity Slayer."
15. "Saboteur" (1942)
In the midst of World War II, an aircraft factory worker in California (Robert Cummings) is framed for an act of sabotage that killed a fellow worker. The accused man goes on the run from California to New York to prove his innocence in this road movie of sorts, shot extensively on location. The climax takes place on top of the Statue of Liberty, one of Hitchcock's biggest and best finishes.
Hitchcock cameo: Standing in front of a drugstore, talking to a woman.
16. "Frenzy" (1972)
After two near-flops ("Torn Curtain" and "Topaz") Hitchcock returned to the U.K. for his second-to-last film, a thriller about a London serial killer who implicates a friend in the murders. Although it's more explicitly violent than any previous Hitchcock film, critic Roger Ebert called "Frenzy" "a return to old forms by the master of suspense, whose newer forms have pleased movie critics but not his public."
Hitchcock cameo: Wearing a bowler hat in the center of a crowd shot.
17. "To Catch a Thief" (1955)
"Hitchcock on holiday," as one critic wrote, "To Catch a Thief" is a romantic caper set on the French Riviera, starring two of the most charming and glamorous actors in movie history. Cary Grant plays a reformed jewel thief implicated in a new string of robberies; Grace Kelly is a moneyed beauty in possession of some very coveted jewels. Romance ensues, of course, literally setting off fireworks.
Hitchcock cameo: Sitting next to Cary Grant on a bus.
18. "Rope" (1948)
Loosely based on the real-life 1920s story of Leopold and Loeb, two wealthy Chicago college students who decided to commit the "perfect murder." Seemingly shot in one continuous take, "Rope" gives the impression that the story takes place in real time, with the dead body in an ever-present trunk throughout the film. John Dall and Farley Granger star as the youthful, possibly homosexual, killers. Jimmy Stewart plays the former teacher who uncovers the crime.
Hitchcock cameo: Walking next to a woman just after his name appears in the opening credits.
19. "The Trouble with Harry" (1955)
Hitchcock's comic touch is evident throughout this story about a bucolic Vermont village's reaction to the discovery of a man named Harry's body on a hillside. Especially notable for three reasons: the film debut of Shirley MacLaine, the appearance of a pre-"Leave It to Beaver" Jerry Mathers, and Hitchcock's insistence that a live actor play the role of the deceased title character. "He chose an actor by the name of Philip Truex," said producer Herbert Coleman. "And he played the part of the dead body very well."
Hitchcock cameo: Seen outside a window.
20. "The Lodger" (1927)
Hitchcock was only 27 when he directed this silent film loosely based on the Jack the Ripper murders, introducing themes that would run throughout much of his later work—particularly the notion of an innocent man on the run for a crime he didn't commit. The legendary director always referred to his third movie as the first true "Hitchcock film." With "The Lodger," Hitchcock helped shape the thriller genre as we have come to know and love it. Thank you, Hitch.
Hitchcock cameo: Appears in a mob scene.
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