Top 10 Greatest Overlooked Hitchcock Films
As one of the most influential directors of all time, many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films have become permanent classics of the cinema. Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and The Birds are just some of his most popular titles. Audiences all over the world know his movies, but few people know just how many movies he actually made. If you ask the Average Joe or Jane on the street, they can probably name three or four Hitchcock films. A reasonably literate film lover could probably name between 12 or 20. But that doesn’t even come close to how many films Hitchcock actually made. The truth is that over his career he directed 54 feature length films. With such a prolific career, it only stands to reason that some of them have been forgotten.
I have tried to compile a list of ten Hitchcock films that have generally been forgotten about by the general public and by many devoted film lovers. Far be it for me to designate a rank for his films, so the list is composed chronologically. Some may be peeved to see that I haven’t included films like Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, Rope, Spellbound, Rebecca, and even the 39 Steps. My answer is that those films are just too well known to be included on this list. I haven’t forgotten about them, I just think that they are too famous.
10. Blackmail (1929)
Originally a silent film, Blackmail was converted to a sound picture during production, making it the first “talkie” British film. Aside from its obvious historical importance, it also represents one of the defining moments of Hitchcock’s career. It was here that he would first begin to experiment with the cinematic devices that would later become his trademarks: the beautiful leading blonde, the final scene taking place on a famous historic landmark, and bold experimentation with filming techniques (it wasn’t the first time he had experimented in an early film, but this was one of the most important). Most importantly, Blackmail was the film that defined Hitchcock as a director of the suspense/thriller genre. He had dabbled in the genre before in The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, but this was where it became apparent that he was destined to be a director of thrillers. The plot concerns a woman named Alice who killed a man in self-defense when he was trying to rape her. Another criminal witnesses the crime and begins to blackmail her. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Frank, a member of Scotland Yard, has been assigned to the murder case and has fingered Alice as the primary suspect. Can Alice prove her innocence? Can the blackmailer be stopped? Will justice be done? You’ll have to watch to find out. While the film hasn’t aged very well, it remains one of the most important films of Hitchcock’s career. It is a must-see for fans of Hitchcock and cinematic history.
Blackmail is part of the public domain and is available for free download.
9. Young and Innocent (1937)
One of the last films that Hitchcock would make in England before moving to the States, Young and Innocent is a surprisingly satisfying film. Part melodrama and part thriller, it starts with the body of a young woman washing up along some seaside cliffs. A man named Robert Tisdall discovers her body one day as he walks along the beach. Next to her body is a belt from a trench coat. Unfortunately for Robert, he is seen by two young female swimmers who report him to the police. He is quickly arrested and tried for her murder. Embroiled in a classic Hitchcockian Mistaken Man plot, Robert escapes with the help of Erica Burgoyne, the daughter of the local police Chief Constable. Finding themselves on the run, they set out to find the coat that the belt is from and discover the true murderer. Today, the liberal use of black-face entertainers in the final scene distracts from the Master of Suspense’s great ending- a tight confrontation in the ballroom of the Grand Hotel.
Young and Innocent is part of the public domain and is available for free download.
8. Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Nominated for six Academy Awards, Foreign Correspondent is one of Hitchcock’s most deliriously enjoyable films. It was one of his few films to find that perfect balance between suspense, comedy, and action. Following Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) as a foreign correspondent for the New York Globe, the viewer is taken along on the hunt for a kidnapped Dutch diplomat named Van Meer who may, or may not, have been assassinated. We watch as Johnny and another reporter named Scott Ffolliot (George Sanders) travel from Amsterdam to England while being chased by spies. Full of plenty of twists, Foreign Correspondent will constantly keep you guessing. It is also a technical marvel, featuring some of Hitchcock’s greatest set pieces: the rain soaked Amsterdam political conference that was in reality built on a lot in California, the group of windmills with one rotating in the opposite direction of the rest (a signal that it is the villains’ hideout), and the final airplane crash sequence in the mid-Atlantic. They represent Hitchcock at his best. Hailed by some as a simple B-movie and by others as a masterpiece, Foreign Correspondent is guaranteed to keep you entertained until the final frame fades.
7. Saboteur (1942)
This movie is just pure fun from beginning to end. Released during the same time period as Foreign Correspondent when Hitchcock first left England, it demonstrates the unbridled creativity and lustful joy of filmmaking that accompanied his first nine American pictures. It focuses once again on the Mistaken Man story arc where a man is subjected to a case of mistaken identity, flees the law, somehow hooks up with a dame who initially doesn’t like him, and manages to clear his name after exposing the real culprits. Even though Hitchcock used this formula in dozens of films, this was one of its best incarnations. It follows aircraft factory worker Barry Kane who was wrongfully accused of starting a fire in his plant. He becomes a fugitive only to stumble upon the real saboteurs, an organization working to blow up the Boulder Dam. With reluctant billboard model Patricia Martin in tow, they manage to foil their plans only to discover that they intend to sink a new U.S. Navy ship in the Brooklyn shipyard in New York City. It all ends with a frightening final confrontation on top of the Statue of Liberty. It seems to foreshadow Cary Grant’s struggle on top of Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest, yet it has an intensity all of its own. Don’t miss it.
6. Lifeboat (1944)
This film actually has quite a following among hardcore Alfred Hitchcock aficionados, but enough of the general public hasn’t heard of it that I felt that it warranted inclusion on this list. Hitchcock may be primarily known for horror and suspense, but he was also capable of creating films that were much more subtle and thoughtful than the likes of Psycho and Vertigo. Take his 1944 film Lifeboat. Filmed entirely in a single lifeboat, it is essentially a character study of several survivors of a German U-boat attack. Despite using one of the smallest sets in film history, Hitchcock created a film that is engaging all the way through by focusing on the characters and their different interactions. Each character is a unique individual that only adds more stress and strain to the atmosphere of the boat. Things only get worse when Willi, a German survivor who was in the U-boat before it was destroyed, is pulled aboard. Tempers flare as they try to figure out what should be done with him. As the food and water rations begin to run out, the survivors get more desperate. Can they make it Bermuda before dying? What should be done about Willi? Can the survivors work together or are they destined to destroy each other? A masterpiece of economic filmmaking, Lifeboat should be studied by modern filmmakers so they can learn how to properly develop characters and produce suspense and tension in a limited environment without gigantic explosions. For a bonus, try to spot one of Hitchcock’s most ingenious cameos on the back of a newspaper 24 minutes into the film.
5. Stage Fright (1950)
C’mon, Alfred Hitchcock and Marlene Dietrich working together? This film is a no-brainer for this list! As so many Hitchcock films do, this one centers on a murder. The main character, a young singer named Eve Gill (played by Jane Wyman), finds herself in the position of having to hide her friend Jonathan Cooper after being blamed for the murder of his lover’s husband. His lover, famous singer Charlotte Inwood (played by a sultry Dietrich dressed up in luscious outfits by Christian Dior) is the real culprit. Don’t let this setup distract you because this isn’t the common Mistaken Man formula. Stage Fright focuses on Eve trying to prove her friend innocent because she has feelings for him. She begins her own investigation, which eventually leads her to the detective in charge of the case. As fate would have it, she falls in love with the detective. Now what is Eve to do? Will Charlotte literally get away with murder? Filming back in his native London, Hitchcock delivers a powerful backstage drama. Things are only made much more effective considering how Hitchcock used Dietrich and Wyman’s real life animosity for each other for the film’s benefit. It’s a minor masterpiece, to be sure, but it is definitely worth checking out.
4. I Confess (1953)
A favorite among the pioneers of the French New Wave, I Confess is one of Hitchcock’s bravest films. Based on a French play from 1902, it tells the story of Father Michael William Logan, a Catholic priest, played by Montgomery Clift. We all know that what is said in Confession is private, but what if someone confessed that they had killed somebody? And what if the same priest was accused of the murder and threatened with execution for a crime he didn’t commit? Such is the situation that Father Logan finds himself in. He knows that with a word he could free himself of the charges, but in doing so he would violate his sacred vows. Are his beliefs worth dying for? In the hands of a lesser director this could have been a throwaway suspense flick. But Hitchcock was no amateur. Instead, he makes a slow, subtle, and genuinely felt film that delves into the depths of one man’s personal faith. The movie is filled with Christian imagery and uses the melody from the Gregorian chant Dies Irae throughout the soundtrack. It is filmed with such conviction that the ending could literally bring people of the faith to tears. I Confess is just further proof that Hitchcock was not a one-trick horse. It is evidence that Hitchcock could master any genre that he set his mind to. Which brings us to…
3. The Trouble with Harry (1955)
Those familiar with Hitchcock’s work will know that he had a very defined sense of humor. Imagine British wit with a dash of gallows humor thrown in, and you have Hitchcockian comedy. If you need further evidence, then look no further than The Trouble with Harry, a dark comedy that is as absurd as it is shocking. The basic premise is this: one day, various residents of a small Vermont village discover a dead body in the woods. Instead of reporting it to the police or getting scared, they try and figure out what to do with it. They name this unfortunate corpse Harry. They spend the rest of the film trying to hide the body, burying it, digging it back up, and even stuffing it into a bathtub. What’s incredible is how unbelievably aloof the residents of the village are to the discovery of the dead body. The best character is Sam Marlowe, played by John Forsythe, a carefree artist who is more concerned with painting the dead body than he is with anything else. This film may be confusing to those who don’t know how to approach it. It should be viewed with the same mindset that one would watch Dr. Strangelove. If you understand where the film is coming from, then be prepared for one of the most surprising treats of Hitchcock’s career.
2. The Wrong Man (1956)
Several times throughout his career, Hitchcock played with the genre of film noir. His best outing was by far The Wrong Man, which is one of my personal favorites. Going on to influence such classics as Taxi Driver, it perfectly captures the atmosphere and tone of the great genre. Based on a terrifying true story, Henry Fonda plays Manny Balestrero, a musician working in New York City who is charged with armed robbery. The kicker is that he is, of course, innocent. But what makes things even worse is that even eyewitnesses to the crime say that Manny wasn’t the culprit. This doesn’t stop the police from arresting him and trying him for the crime. As he wastes away in prison, his life is destroyed, family torn apart, and his wife goes insane. A slow, methodical film, it takes great pains to capture the police process and the various errors that led to his arrest and wrongful prosecution. The terrifying thing is that, like I said before, it is completely based on fact. With some of the most beautiful black and white photography in Hitchcock’s career (which is really saying something), The Wrong Man is a devastating masterpiece. It also helps that it begins with one of Hitchcock’s greatest cameos as a giant silhouette on an abandoned city street, gravely informing the audience that he has taken the greatest pains to accurately recreate the real life story. I honestly can’t understand why it isn’t more popular. It definitely stands up with his best work.
1. Frenzy (1972)
Forget Marnie, this was Hitchcock’s last masterpiece. One of his most brutally violent films (it was actually his first R-rated film in the United States), Frenzy deals with a serial killer who rapes and murders his victims. While it only has one onscreen murder, it is full of violence and sex, even going so far as to have a brutally realistic rape scene! This is not your grandfather’s Hitchcock! But the genius behind this film is not that it is violent, but that it largely implies violence that you never actually see. In fact, we know who the murderer is the whole time! It is the sickening feeling that we get when he approaches a new victim that makes the film suspenseful and thrilling. The killer in question has been nicknamed by the press as the Neck Tie Murderer, after the necktie that is used to strangle his victims. In reality, the killer is a wholesale fruit merchant named Bob Rusk. He is impotent, and the only way he can get his rocks off is by raping and strangling women. Fortunately for him, the cops have another suspect in mind when the bodies of his victims start showing up. This man is Richard Blaney, a bad tempered bartender whose ex-wife was recently killed by Rusk. As in so many Hitchcock films, Richard must prove his innocence and find the real culprit. It features some truly grisly scenes, like when Rusk has to retrieve a piece of evidence from the dead hands of one of his victims. By the time he realizes what she is holding, rigor mortis has set in, and he has to physically break the bones in her fingers to get it out. Sickening, shocking, and thrilling, Frenzy will certainly shake you to your core more than any other film that Hitchcock ever directed.
By Nathaniel Hood
Read more about overlooked movies at the author’s blog: Forgotten Classics Of Yesteryear.