American movies of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s have been hyped by generations of film lovers to the point where if you only go by reputation you may be deceived about the quality and entertainment value of any particular movie. But without a doubt there are a number of deservedly admired works. From time to time I will give my decidedly biased and idiosyncratic opinion and remarks on the movies I’ve watched and try to pass along useful information for those who haven’t seen some of these films.
Last year when I was looking at horror movies I reviewed “Psycho.” But I am a fan of Hitchcock in general and in the summer, I always indulge in a good cross section of his best. So, I’ll make some general remarks followed by more specific comments about the various Hitchcock films I’m familiar with.
Hitchcock had a long career as a director that stretched from the silent film era all the way to the 1970s. He started out in England and some of his earlier, lesser known films were excellent. But what is noticeable in these earlier British films are the more primitive special effects and other technical aspects. What isn’t primitive is the skill with which the plot and dialog are constructed. The three best of these earlier British films from my point of view are “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes.” All three of these are spy stories and are colored by the tense political environment in pre-World War II Europe. The Man Who Knew Too Much was later remade by Hitchcock in Hollywood starring Jimmy Stuart and Doris Day but I much prefer the original. In general, they involve civilians getting caught up in espionage and fighting for their lives while the world around them is completely unaware of their plight.
As the ‘30s ended Hitchcock moved to Hollywood. His first big picture was “Rebecca” starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. It’s sort of a mystery-suspense story with the feel of one of those Bronte sister novels. It won the Best Picture Oscar and several others but I’ve always hated the movie. I guess it’s a chick flick and bores me to tears. But during the ‘40s he had a string of excellent movies. My favorites are “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Lifeboat,” “Notorious” and “Rope.” Now, other than Notorious, which is indeed a masterpiece, all of these other movies, especially Rope have their quirks. Rope is a claustrophobic story adapted from a stage play that takes place completely inside a Manhattan penthouse apartment and is a sort of a fictionalized version of the Leopold and Loeb thrill killings murder story. To say it is creepy is an understatement. And equally claustrophobic is Lifeboat which takes place, you guessed it, completely on a ship’s lifeboat. Hitchcock loves to put his characters together in close quarters and irritate them. Sort of like a little boy with a bottle full of bugs. I guess that’s his special gift.
During the ‘50s Hitchcock continued to produce critically and financially successful films. I like “Strangers on a Train,” “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window” and “North by Northwest.” Each of these is an entertaining movie but Strangers on a Train is the most original. Hitchcock really loves strange and this one delivers that in spades.
In the ‘60s the only two Hitchcock movies I can recommend are “Psycho” and “The Birds.” Psycho is rightly famous for launching the whole “Slasher” genre but more than that it blazed a trail for every movie that explored the psychology of murderers. And think of how large that field is at this point. Hannibal Lector and every other serial killer showcased in the movies, and on television are the direct descendants of Norman Bates. The Birds is a horror story based on a sort of environmental backlash where birds turn on the human race. It is weird and sometimes compelling but by the end of the movie I felt that Tippi Hedron’s character deserved all the grief she got just because of how annoying she was.
So that’s my Hitchcock list. I’ll dig into the list in the follow ups and rate the movies and describe what makes them worth watching.