Managing Editor David Rosler: Re-reading a top ten Hitchcock movie list from a competing online movie site (but then, who can compete with historic Films in Review, but I digress) I was struck by how shallow, ignorant and frankly childish the list was and the reasons why each film was included on that list. It may be that many of today's 40-year-olds need to stop living in the world of video games and superhero comic books and grow up a little bit (But I digress again). Annoyed with the shocking lack of knowledge and sophistication of these recent Hitchcock top ten lists, your intrepid Managing Editor suggested to our Editor-In-Chief that I angrily write my own top ten list, so there! Roy creatively suggested that he, our resident film historian Glenn Andeiev and I each compile three separate top five lists and we publish them in one post for the advancement of a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of Hitchcock's movies. I think the resulting three lists are quite interesting taken together. We at FIR hope you do, too. In fact, we think you will. First up, FIR's Editor-In-Chief ROY FRUMKES Ruminations About Hitchcock
1. NORTH BY NORTHWEST About 15 years ago, let’s say, I was a guest at a horror convention in an old world movie palace in New Jersey, and I was asked by the show’s organizer to conduct an interview with Martin Landau who was their guest of honor. I’d never met him before, and was looking forward to it. We climbed the stairs to the podium area where the two of us sat down and I proceeded to ask the questions. I understood that the large crowd was made up of horror-sci fi fanatics, mainly adolescents, who wanted to hear all the juicy details about Tim Burton’s ED WOOD, for which Landau had copped an Academy Award playing Bela Lugosi, and about his decidedly odd British TV series, SPACE 1999, and I gave them what they wanted. But I wanted something, too. I had some questions about my favorite Hitchcock film, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, which literally no one in the audience responded to when I mentioned the title. But Landau obviously was proud of the role he played, and when I fired one off about the vaguely gay characterization Landau gave as James Mason’s right hand man, he was happy to elaborate. “I asked Hitchcock if I could play the character as gay since I felt the relationship between the two villains as written was somewhat lacking dramatically. Hitch liked the idea and told me to go ahead, and he was pleased with the results so the subtext survived.” A wonderful illustration of how some directors who seem to be the most tyrannical – Chaplin, Kubrick and Hitchcock among them – were in fact always open to ideas from their cast and crew. I was glad Landau enlightened me about this.
Then he fell off the stage.
2. NOTORIOUS. This film is one of very, very few that I can say, (in my opinion) is perfect. I can’t say that about Chaplin’s work. Even though I think he was the greatest artist of the last century I’d still like to take a splicer to CITY LIGHTS and MONSIEUR VERDOUX. But this one. This one has not a frame out of place. Not a grain. The man has created over 50 films, so maybe the law of averages was with him. On the other hand, some guy last year put thirty-five thousand dollars into one of the Lotto games, certain that since this was covering such a large field of numbers that he was bound to win. He did and he didn’t, though mainly he didn’t. I think his winnings covered a few trips to Baskin Robbins but were not enough for Haagen Daz or Emack & Bolios.
3. AN ABSTRACT, HITCHCOCK RIPOFFS I’ve always enjoyed Hitchcock rip-offs. There are the Brian De Palma clones, a few of which are genuinely good, provided you don’t hold them up too close against the Hitchcocks. Then there are the ones by Guy Ritchie. When I inquired who his cinematic influences were, he instantly replied De Palma, and when I said “But much of De Palma’s work was ripping off Hitchcock; have you seen those films?” he replied, “I’ve heard about Hitchcock. I’d like to see some of his work some day.” Yipes! So this filmmaker is imitating the imitator of the master. But some of these clones, including de Palma’s, are quite good, and others can perhaps be qualified as openly fun-loving ‘homages’ rather than plain out copies. Carol Reed, who loved replicating the work of his favorite filmmakers, made NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH in 1940, a love letter to Hitchcock’s British period. The film is tight and charming, and available from Criterion. Warner Archives recently released THE PRIZE (1963) directed by Mark Robson and starring Paul Newman, Elke Summer and Edward G. Robinson, a pleasantry penned by NORTH BY NORTHWEST scribe Ernest Lehman. Some of the scenes are flat out duplications of Hitchcock’s work, and it’s amusing to come upon them. Then there’s the Hitchcock invasion of James Bond territory – FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE. Having little to do stylistically with the rest of the series, I was told by Robert Shaw (the villain of the piece) that everyone would sit around during lunch and dream up Hitchcockisms to sneak into the film. And then there’s THE PASSENGER, Michelangelo Antonioni’s jaw-dropping Hitchcock knock-off on downers. You must see it to believe it. Considering all this, and more, if I were forced to choose a favorite film indebted to the master’s oeuvre, I’d have to go for CHARADE (1963 – Stanley Donen), fast, effervescent, drooling with dark humor, and featuring Hitchcock’s perennial alter ego (who got all the blondes – that’s how we know) Cary Grant.
4. THE LADY VANISHES (1935). It’s been remade a few times, decently but not memorably, and you have to feel bad for those well-meaning casts and crews. George Pal once told me that he’d been approached to remake KING KONG and he turned it down, explaining “It was too big a ghost to follow.” He was proved right a couple of times on that one. Similarly, you don’t remake Hitchcock. Oh, maybe TOPAZ and FAMILY PLOT.
5. JAMAICA INN (1939) A pirate film by Alfred Hitchcock?! Good grief. And until recently there were no decent film elements to be found. But the Cohen Film Collection found them, and it was, for me, the restoration of the years. That glorious treat, of course, is not justification enough to put the film in this list. But I suggest you check the coffee table book co-authored by Robert A. Harris (who later restored VERTIGO and REAR WINDOW.) In the list of actors for JAMAICA INN you will find the name of your Editor in Chief. I think that buys me a place in the FIR Hitchcock pantheon.
GLENN ANDREIEV Five Exciting Runts of the Alfred Hitchcock Litter
Saying your favorite Italian dish is Lasagna, doesn't mean you hate Pizza. The same thing goes with the films of Alfred Hitchcock. I won't list my five favorite Hitchcock films, but I will list five disregarded Hitchcock films that I really enjoy. These five films have problems, but they are vastly entertaining and should get a bigger audience.
1. RICH AND STRANGE (1932) Before settling into becoming the master of suspense, Hitchcock made this slightly auto-biographical film, where a struggling office worker named Fred (short for Alfred) manages to go on a world cruise with his wife. Both Fred and his wife secretly have affairs on the cruise ship. Yes, that sounds ho-hum, but Hitchcock does some really wild things with jump-cutting 30 years before Jean-Luc Godard, point-of-view shots from a dizzy person (shades of VERTIGO) and a suspenseful scene aboard a sinking ship.
2. SECRET AGENT (1936) Ordinary citizens John Gielgud and Madeline Carroll are drafted into becoming assassins for the British government during World War 1 in this very curious early Hitchcock thriller. Sadly the opening and closing of the film are rather slow, but there's this really inventive and experimental middle section that makes SECRET AGENT fun Hitchcock viewing. Gielgud and Carroll, accompanied by a comically horny Peter Lorre set murderous sights on a tourist they think is a spy. Hitchcock experiments wildly with disjointed sound in this section. A must-see.
2. STAGE FRIGHT (1950) Did Marlene Dietrich murder her husband or is there something else going on? Hitchcock and Dietrich make a terrific team here in this tale of a ‘orrible murder taking place among theater people. There are some very long talkie segments here that prevent STAGE FRIGHT from obtaining the heights of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN or REAR WINDOW. A true joy of this film is Hitchcock peppering his story with frightfully eccentric Londoners, especially that one carnival worker so excited about shooting “those lovely duckies”. Do catch this one. It's fun.
3. TORN CURTAIN (1966) The only real problems with this gripping cold war-era spy thriller is that it's about twenty minutes too long, and as a frightened every man caught up in murder and espionage, Paul Newman is all wrong. We love Paul Newman as COOL HAND LUKE or in HUD, but as the helpless target for the Communist police, I would have preferred a more vulnerable type of actor such as Jack Lemmon or Peter O'Toole. TORN CURTAIN is a James Bond film in reverse and a real suspenseful treat.
4. FAMILY PLOT (1976) Hitchcock ended his career with this slightly drawn out mystery that often plays like a seventies TV movie, but it has such exciting moments. It's fun to see a Hitchcock film include uncharacteristic tidbits such as rock and roll, a biker gang and an occasional hippie. The centerpiece of FAMILY PLOT involves heroes Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris trapped in a runaway car through curving California mountain side roads. In this wonderful scene Hitchcock delights in showing us what would really happen if you were in a movie style car chase scene
DAVID ROSLER No Vertigo, The Hitchcock Top 5
1. Strangers On A Train.
Hitchcock was at his apex here in a story about a professional tennis player, romancing a Senator's daughter, who is blackmailed by a child-like middle-aged madman son of a wealthy tycoon. Per the title, they meet by chance on a train. The madman's insane scheme is that the two men should “swap murders”, because Walker's character believes that the Tennis Player must want to murder his difficult, estranged wife, as the madman wants to murder his own father, and misunderstanding the conversation, the madman makes a move to fulfill his side of the “bargain” first by going after tennis pro's estranged wife. The film is a cinematic masterpiece on every level, the screenplay outstanding, and in the acting category, special praise must go to Hitchcock's daughter Patricia who has a wonderful role that alternates between hilarious dark humor and the expression of true fear. Hitchcock's inventive use of camera here is beyond parallel. A triumph.
2. The Lady Vanishes
Filled with danger, political intrigue and a great deal of delightful and sometimes macabre humor, this mid-1930's offering, made while Hitchcock was still in England, yet to come to America, is suspense on-high. The plot is much too complex to detail here, but like number one on this list, a train ride features heavily, only in this case, a delightfully British elderly woman goes missing during a train ride on which the action takes place. Spies, murder, and a wide variety of characters, with an excellent screenplay and Hitchcock in high form make this a must-see. As is usually the case in Hitchcock's British films, all actors are outstanding. First rate, at the top.
A title that describes the audience's experience in which Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman at her finest in another suspense tale of murder, this one including the eventual Hitchcock trademark of mistaken identity. A 40's Hollywood production, like Strangers On A Train, this film was made when Hitchcock essentially had all of the Hollywood machine at his feet, and the ensuring psychological thriller with heavy Freudian references is fascinating and true edge-of-your-seat material. Only a skiing scene depicted on a mountaintop which relies on too-obvious rear projection to put the moving scenery behind the actors spoils this otherwise top-of-the-class thriller. A dream scene designed by surrealist icon Salvatore Dali is of particular interest and completely unique in all of motion pictures, worth the “price of admission” on its own. I do wish there was information on how Hitchcock and Dali traded duties on that scene: Hitchcock drew every shot of his films in highly detailed storyboards yet Dali was the “visual artist” in that sequence. My suspicion: Hitchcock laid out the angles and Dali supplied the finished art. No matter how, the film is another Ace for Hitch with a scene that should be framed and hung for all to see at the British National Art Gallery.
4. Jamaica Inn
Another 30's British film and featuring the inestimable Charles Laughton, zig-zagging between Hollywood and London at this point in his brilliant career. In the late 1800's, a young woman is left to take up residence at the titular location and experiences all sorts of suspenseful goings-on as the place is filled with a criminal operation of pirates. The opening scene of the pirates using misleading lanterns at night to drive a ship into the rocks, and the subsequent murder of the crew and pillaging of the wealth is one of the great Hitchcock scenes and never gets mentioned. The sequence is positively astounding in both its sense of production scale and visual artistry. Hitchcock's editing on this film is particularly fine as the montage is tight and terrifying.
This film is included because of its fame and Hitchcock as director. However, the artistic hero here is not Hitchcock, it is the brilliant composer Bernard Herrmann, regarded by most as the best film “background music” composer to ever put a note on paper. Made at Universal studios in 1960 when Hitchcock was there making his “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV series, Psycho uses the same crew as the TV series on the same lot and on a modest budget. With the sound turned off, the film is an over-long series of prolonged and redundant scenes and even shots. It basically is a 90-minute version of an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode with a small handful of fancy and admittedly powerful compositions, but Hitchcock's directorial energy is definitely on the slide here and everything is too slow, too long and usually just plain dull, with none of the cinematic greatness of his magnificent Hollywood works of 15 years earlier. Enter composer Herrmann whose dramatic imagination plainly catches fire and he turns a dull yarn of murder at the famous Bates Motel into a gripping and terrifying masterpiece. Never in cinema did one composer so change the effect of a motion picture. C- minus for Hitchcock and the grandest of effusive kudos to Herrmann, whose astounding musical and dramatic genius is never more evident than in Psycho. This film is not Hitchcock's triumph as so many have said over the years. That honor belongs here to composer Bernard Herrmann who transforms a small and dull visual tale of murder into a stunning, hair-raising classic. Amazing. Wrapping, you will note that none of the choices at FIR mentioned Vertigo, which has suddenly and oddly become popular with the motion picture intelligentsia. In this reviewer's personal opinion, however, only a Rich and Strange Notorious Psycho would add Vertigo to this list because that absurdly recently-over-hyped and cinematically obvious motion picture, is, frankly, for The Birds.