The insane truth about Alfred Hitchcock's filming technique on 'The Birds'
(Credit: Universal Pictures)

Alfred Hitchcock’s 10 best films ranked

“Give them pleasure. The same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.” ― Alfred Hitchcock.

Alfred Hitchcock, the famed film director and producer, is widely regarded as one of the most influential and pioneering filmmakers in the history of cinema. Nicknamed the ‘Master of Suspense’, Hitchcock directed over 50 feature films through his prolific career which began in 1919 and continued to push the boundaries of the cinematic landscape right up until his death in 1980.

Hitchcock, given his impact on film, is one of the most heavily studied filmmakers in the history of the art. He was, however, a keen cinephile and student of the subject himself. “I depend on style more than plot,” he once explained. “It is how you do it, and not your content that makes you an artist. A story is simply a motif, just as a painter might paint a bowl of fruit just to give him something to be painting.” 

He added: “I have a strongly visual mind. I visualise a picture right down to the final cuts. I write all this out in the greatest detail in the script, and then I don’t look at the script while I’m shooting. I know it off by heart, just as an orchestra conductor needs not look at the score.

“When you finish the script, the film is perfect. But in shooting it you lose perhaps 40 per cent of your original conception.”

Here, in one extensive list, we explore the 52 surviving films directed by the great Alfred Hitchcock.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 10 best films:

10. The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Starting top ten and, from this moment on, pretty much every feature film you see will be classed as one of the finest of Hitch’s catalogue and, more than likely, of cinema in general. First up in the top ten is The Lady Vanishes.

Hitchcock may well have been widely noted for his flecks of comedic genius, but on The Lady Vanishes, the director goes one better and gives free rein for laughter. Down to that fact, it remains one of the finest pictures he made in Britain.

Charmingly cast, the witty and beguiling script mixes a 1930s romance patter with an increasingly suspenseful story. It was another marker of Hitch’s growing talent and a sign he was already destined for Hollywood greatness.

Official Film Synopsis: “On a train headed for England a group of travellers is delayed by an avalanche. Holed up in a hotel in a fictional European country, young Iris (Margaret Lockwood) befriends elderly Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty). When the train resumes, Iris suffers a bout of unconsciousness and wakes to find the old woman has disappeared.

“The other passengers ominously deny Miss Froy ever existed, so Iris begins to investigate with another traveller (Michael Redgrave) and, as the pair sleuth, romantic sparks fly.”

9. The Birds (1963)

If there’s one film that is instantly recognisable it is, of course, Hitch’s masterpiece of ill-fitting special effects The Birds.

Easily one of Hitchcock’s most enigmatic and engaging films, The Birds is easily regarded as one of the finest motion pictures ever made and the horror-thriller genre has a lot to thank the director for. It was here that he made his statement of intent. Horror could always, always be a little bit funny.

So dry it has a chance it may chap your lips even talking about it, this film must be on everyone’s shelf. Hitch not only shows his technical wizadry but also his insatiable appetite for suspense.

Official Film Synopsis: “Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) meets Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in a San Francisco pet store and decides to follow him home. She brings with her the gift of two love birds and they strike up a romance. One day birds start attacking children at Mitch’s sisters party. A huge assault starts on the town by attacking birds.”

8. Rebecca (1940)

Marked as Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film, the acclaimed director often looked back at Rebecca with a pained expression. Yet, looking back now, it’s hard to find fault with the 1940 film. We’ve watched it several times and yet we’re still shocked and spooked by the twisting and turning storyline.

Not only is it chock-full of suspense and brooding tension but the film, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, might well be one of the most charming, romantic films in the 20th century. It’s what the publishing world would call a page-turner.

Not necessarily a lot here for film buffs to gorge over, perhaps that was part of Hitchcock’s distaste for the film, but as an entire project, it’s hard to fault.

Official Film Synopsis: “On vacation in Monte Carlo, wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Sir Laurence Olivier) meets a young woman who is working as a lady’s companion to Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates). They spend a good deal of time together and it leads to love and marriage.”

7. Strangers on a Train (1951)

A provocative premise and inventive set design light the way for Hitchcock and his devilishly entertaining masterpiece. One of Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense classics, tennis pro Guy Haines (Farley Granger) happens to meet wealthy wastrel Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) on a train.

Despite only just meeting the two start to talk about the idea of “exchange murders” where one man would murder for the other and vice versa. A diabolical story then unfolds. It’s a more than an admirable showing of Hitch’s virtuosity within the suspense thriller sphere.

It’s as clear an image of the master at work as you’re likely to find.

Official Film Synopsis: “In Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s thriller, tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is enraged by his trampy wife’s refusal to finalise their divorce so he can wed senator’s daughter Anne (Ruth Roman).

“He strikes up a conversation with a stranger, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), and unwittingly sets in motion a deadly chain of events. Psychopathic Bruno kills Guy’s wife, then urges Guy to reciprocate by killing Bruno’s father. Meanwhile, Guy is murder suspect number one.”

6. Notorious (1946)

By way of introducing his stars at the beginning of the film, Hitchcock allows the absurdity of the plot to be given room to breathe. By using the actor’s star power against us, he alleviates the need for realistic integrity.

With this in play, Hitch can get round to telling the fascinating story of Notorious and he does so through some of his classic cinematic tropes: the blonde, the deep-seated sexual tension, a pathetic villain marred by their oppressive mother and of course, the powerful kiss and the happy ending.

Despite using some tried and tested techniques, that doesn’t take anything away from the power of Notorious. If you ever wanted to get someone hooked on Hitch, this is the film to do it.

Official Film Synopsis: “In order to help bring Nazis to justice, U.S. government agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) recruits Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the American daughter of a convicted German war criminal, as a spy.

“As they begin to fall for one another, Alicia is instructed to win the affections of Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a Nazi hiding out in Brazil. When Sebastian becomes serious about his relationship with Alicia, the stakes get higher, and Devlin must watch her slip further undercover.”

5. Dial M for Murder (1954)

As we begin to reach the heights of Hitchcock’s finest films, the subtlety of difference between them would be ever so pleasing for the man himself. On Dial M For Murder, Hitch is again providing a delicate interplay between dark and light.

A great story is one thing but a great cast is needed to ensure any film goes off according to plan, this film is well represented throughout. Ray Milland is a wonderful actor and does a fine job of taking the story where it needs to go but Grace Kelly steals the show.

With this film, Hitchcock manipulates his audience like a true master. Each scene is gilded with realism but is forthright and pace-filled, unwavering and strong. Full-colour photography is perhaps more stunning while Tiomkin’s score make this one of Hitch’s finest.

Official Film Synopsis: “Ex-tennis pro Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) wants to have his wealthy wife, Margot (Grace Kelly), murdered so he can get his hands on her inheritance. When he discovers her affair with Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), he comes up with the perfect plan to kill her.

“He blackmails an old acquaintance into carrying out the murder, but the carefully-orchestrated set-up goes awry, and Margot stays alive. Now Wendice must frantically scheme to outwit the police and avoid having his plot detected.”

4. North by Northwest (1959)

If there’s one film that sees Hitchcock at his sharpest it may well be North By Northwest from 1959. A commercial powerhouse, the film was still skillfully ladened with artist merit and has been seen as a moment of glory for the director.

A lot of credit can be directed at Ernest Lehman for his astoundingly smart script, but Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are the clear bright speakers in this picture, despite a final cameo from the score, which may be one of the best ever recorded in cinema.

The film remains endlessly enjoyable to this day, some 60 years after it first came out. Even after repeated viewings, North By Northwest ranks as one of the finest thrillers you will ever see.

Official Film Synopsis: “This classic suspense film finds New York City ad executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) pursued by ruthless spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) after Thornhill is mistaken for a government agent.

“Hunted relentlessly by Vandamm’s associates, the harried Thornhill ends up on a cross-country journey, meeting the beautiful and mysterious Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) along the way. Soon Vandamm’s henchmen close in on Thornhill, resulting in a number of iconic action sequences.”

3. Rear Window (1954)

There are very few superlatives that haven’t been used to described Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense masterpiece Rear Window. Not only is it crammed to the brim with unstoppable performances, (see James Stewart and Grace Kelly’s career-defining performances) but it sees Hitchcock somehow take the lead role.

Often described as the filmmaker’s favourite film, Hitchcock employs so many techniques and nuances that it is hard to keep up—and you shouldn’t even try to. The real joy of filmmaking, after all, is watching the damn thing.

It is this simple premise which has always put Hitch above all artistically driven auteurs. Deep down, Hitchcock loved watching films as much as he loved making them. Rear Window is proof of that fact.

Official Film Synopsis: “The story of a recuperating news photographer who believes he has witnessed a murder. Confined to a wheelchair after an accident, he spends his time watching the occupants of neighbouring apartments through a telephoto lens and binoculars and becomes convinced that a murder has taken place.”

2 – Psycho (1960)

So, $40,000, a pretty young woman and a vulnerable man psychologically dominated by his own mother? Simple, unorthodox, brilliant—classic Hitch.

In 1960 Alfred Hitchcock created a cinematic masterpiece, opposing all advice and direction he was adamant that Psycho, based on the book by Robert Bloch, would be his next film, a risk following the staggering success of his previous work, North by Northwest.

This particular picture from the film industry’s one and only master of suspense took what were then viewed as obscene risks, using alternative techniques and visuals in order to make his film as intriguing and eye-catching as possible; a few of these techniques, however, baffled the contemporary audience.

The first introduction of a toilet in an American film, for example, caused confusion and controversy along with the suggestive nudity of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in that oh-so-famous shower scene we all know and love. 

Psycho is dripping in the brilliance of Alfred Hitchcock, a sheer masterpiece that has redefined the horror genre until this very day.

Official Film Synopsis: “Phoenix secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), on the lam after stealing $40,000 from her employer in order to run away with her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), is overcome by exhaustion during a heavy rainstorm.

“Traveling on the back roads to avoid the police, she stops for the night at the ramshackle Bates Motel and meets the polite but highly strung proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a young man with an interest in taxidermy and a difficult relationship with his mother.”

1- Vertigo (1958)

Alfred Hitchcock was a director whose films are recognisable as his iconic face, even without the use of odd or striking techniques, and even without creating his own plotlines or scripts. Hitchcock drew his ideas from other sources—quite often through the medium of novels—and seldom wrote his own screenplays, yet most film buffs know the look and tone of a Hitchcock film.

Vertigo showcases his style of directing spectacularly well. It is yet another horror film the director is well known for but it is a deeper, more psychological thriller than much of his work. It is, without doubt, his finest piece of cinema.

Vertigo may or may not be Hitchcock’s favourite creation, as some movie historians claim, but it is certainly one he put an inordinate amount of effort into. The idea of obsession fascinated him, and he was immediately drawn to the obsession-themed novel which is the basis for the film, D’entre Les Morts (published in English as The Living and the Dead). He had also expressed great interest in the horror potential with, confusing fantasy with reality—which Vertigo provides in ample amount.

Hitch contributed to the script, which took over a year to write and was closely involved with every aspect of the film’s production including the set design, costume design, and soundtrack. Every aspect of Vertigo expresses Hitchcock’s vision for the film.

More than any of Hitchcock’s other suspense movies, Vertigo finds the horror in some of the more frightening aspects of the human mind. It is a film that requires the viewer’s full attention, demanding that, if only for a little while, the story be the matter at hand.

Official Film Synopsis: “An ex-police officer who suffers from an intense fear of heights is hired to prevent an old friend’s wife from committing suicide, but all is not as it seems. Hitchcock’s haunting, compelling masterpiece is uniquely revelatory about the director’s own predilections and hang-ups and is widely considered to be one of his masterworks.”

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