Five Hitchcock highlights
The master of suspense is having a renaissance year. Of course, nobody ever forgot about Alfred Hitchcock's massive contributions to cinema and his stylistic touches, but between the naming of "Vertigo" as the greatest movie of all time this past summer (ousting "Citizen Kane" from the top spot), "The Girl" on HBO and now "Hitchcock" hitting theaters, the man and his movies are discovering an even longer pop cultural shelf life.
And deservedly so. No director has been able to recreate Hitchcock's inventiveness and consistency, and almost all of his films hold up astoundingly well. With all of that going on, it seems to be as good a time as any to take a look at a few of the master's most masterful works.
"To Catch a Thief"
Not to get into a war of semantics, but this is a favorite Hitchcock film countdown, not a best of Hitchcock piece. If it was a best list, either "Rear Window," "Notorious" or "Rope" would probably occupy this spot. But since this is a list of favorites, I get to bust out "To Catch a Thief," starring the impossibly charming and charismatic duo of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.
The movie, about a thief attempting to free his good name in the French Riviera and falling in deep love in the process, would never be counted amongst Hitchcock's heavier pieces. In fact, it's so fluffy and light that it's amazing the DVD case doesn't just float away. However, "To Catch a Thief" is the kind of movie Hollywood just doesn't make anymore. Sure, they make romance-tinged action comedies, but none of them have the hilariously clever and charming wit, gorgeous visuals and beautiful on-screen chemistry that Hitchcock's heist movie delivers.
It may be a dose of pure fluff (Hitchcock himself called it a "vacation movie"), but "To Catch a Thief" is the most satisfying fluff possible. Plus, it features the greatest display of metaphorical fireworks in cinematic history.
When Sight and Sound's critics poll came out earlier this year with "Vertigo" named as the greatest movie of all time, I had the eye roll to end all eye rolls. I liked Hitchcock's peculiar and strangely personal tale of obsession, but the greatest movie of all time? Seemed like a mighty big reach to me. Well, after seeing it again, I must say that while I still don't think it's the greatest film ever made, "Vertigo" is one of the director's best and easily one of his most mesmerizing movies.
The fourth project Hitchcock made with Jimmy Stewart results in a hypnotic thriller, based less on violence and theatrics than it is on sadness and obsession. It's beautifully shot (I want the image of Novak standing under the Golden Gate Bridge framed and hung up in my apartment) and plays like a fascinating mystery of the soul of Stewart's character, Novak's character and even the director himself. Plus, Bernard Herrmann's haunting score is one of the finest recorded. Is it the greatest movie of all time? Maybe not, but "Vertigo" certainly merits a place in the conversation.
"North By Northwest"
They really just don't make them like Hitchcock used to. A large chunk of his massive resume features films that play like romantic adventures, with wronged men racing across the country in the hopes of finding their freedom and finding a lovely woman along the way. Nowadays, they have the formula but none of the effortless charm, visual panache and wit that drives Hitchcock's movies, namely "North By Northwest."
Once again, it's not much of a brainy film (frankly, Hitchcock didn't really make brainy films; he made entertainment of the highest order, which is no less skillful), but the adventures of Cary Grant, ad man turned accidental spy, are gloriously captivating and fun to watch.
The chemistry between Grant and Eva Marie Saint generates enough heat to boil water, and the script provides equal moments of hilarious wit between sequences of heart-pounding intensity (namely the film's deservedly famous set pieces featuring a crop duster and Mt. Rushmore). It's pure entertainment made by a craftsman on the top of his game.
"Strangers on a Train"
Of all of Hitchcock's villains and murderous fiends (birds, psychopaths with multiple personalities, spies), it turns out that just an everyday guy is one of the auteur's most chilling and creepy creations. That's what makes "Strangers on a Train" so intense. Well, that and the terrific director, who puts together some of his most suspenseful and exciting sequences (the tennis match, the chilling carnival murder, the merry-go-round climax).
It really is the character of Bruno Antony, played by the devilishly slick Robert Walker, who makes "Strangers on a Train" pop. It's terrifying because of the mundane nature of the man and the origin of the crime. What starts as an innocent conversation with a seemingly innocent stranger turns into a deadly game, where control leaps from one man to the other. Hitchcock was always intrigued by everyday people's interest and fascination with death and darkness; with "Strangers on a Train," he turned that intrigue into a brilliant film.
It may have started the entire slasher genre and reinvented horror for all time, but even after decades of imitators, there is no beating "Psycho." Sure, some of the scenes may have lost a tiny bit of their scare-inducing luster, but they are still just as chilling as ever, as well as technically marvelous and filled with the kind of visual and storytelling flourishes that made Hitchcock a master.
The film plays essentially in three parts, and each part is equally spellbinding and intense, tied together by Anthony Perkins' terrifically on-point performance. He is memorably creepy but without overplaying his hand. The rest of the cast follows suit, especially Janet Leigh who, despite grimly departing from the movie one-third of the way through, makes a deep impression. Plus, you get another iconic Bernard Herrmann score (is there anything the man can't do?).
"Psycho" is one of the few horror films, and films in general, in which even when you all know all of the moves, it still manages to chill. It simply can't be duplicated; just ask Gus Van Sant.
Psycho still scares the hell out of me....a very good movie that does not have to rely on bloody, gory scene after scene to scare you....just anticipating the horror does that for you.
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