The Hitchcock Project

alfred_hitchcockAs a coronavirus project, I decided to watch all the movies I hadn’t yet seen by my favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock. There were fifteen of them, here listed in chronological order.

  • The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (silent, 1927)
  • Blackmail (1929)
  • Murder! (1930)
  • Rich and Strange (1931)
  • Young and Innocent (1937)
  • Jamaica Inn (1939)
  • Rebecca (1940)
  • Lifeboat (1944)
  • The Paradine Case (1947)
  • Under Capricorn (1949)
  • Stage Fright (1950)
  • I Confess (1953)
  • The Wrong Man (1956)
  • The Birds (1963)
  • Marnie (1964)

Hitch buffs will probably immediately wonder why some other titles aren’t on the list. And so I’ll immediately acknowledge that I still haven’t seen any silent films other than The Lodger, or these early sound ones: Juno and the Paycock (1930), The Skin Game (1931), Number Seventeen (1932), and Waltzes from Vienna (1934). None were readily available on Amazon Prime (which has the most Hitchcock films of any platform) or anywhere else I could find, though I have to admit I didn’t try that hard to seek them out.

My list of fifteen is to some extent a predictable one, consisting of relatively obscure or not-well-thought-of films, with two and a half exceptions. The half is Lifeboat, which I think is pretty high in the canon, though it’s probably most often referred to for the ingenuity of the directorial cameo. But it’s surprising that I’d never seen Rebecca, which won Hitch’s only Best Picture Oscar. All I can say is that it apparently never played at the college film society that supplied most of my movie education, or, to my knowledge, on television any night since I got my first TV in 1978. And there does seem to be something funky going on with the rights to the movie. It’s currently not streaming or for rent from any platform, not even the Criterion Channel, and I ended up watching it via a good-quality bootleg copy on YouTube.

The other surprising one on the list is The Birds. It’s famous and shown quite a lot, including currently on the free tier of NBC’s Peacock service. I haven’t seen it for a simple reason that I’m very scared of it. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I could brave myself to watch it for this project. No spoiler: by the end of this article you’ll find out if I mustered the courage.

In any case, the watching is done and I am ready to rank the movies, from very bad to very good, and give some comments. Before getting to the list, I’ll share a subjective list I compiled of elements that generally augur well for a Hitchcock film

  • Busybodies, especially English ones
  • Black and white
  • George Sanders
  • Dolly or tracking shots
  • High-angle shots (often used, according to the blog linked to, when a “character come to a realization of some terrible truth”)
  • Staircases (though ubiquitous enough to sometimes be a bad sign too)
  • Female protagonist

High-angle shot from “The Wrong Man”

And ones that are worrisome or worse:

  • American children
  • Music (this is admittedly complicated)
  • Rear projection and/or matte shots
  • Normative love relationships, that is, a boy-girl romance absent any suggestions of deviance or obsession
  • Michael Wilding
  • Hairpieces
  • The Mid-Atlantic accent (the not-quite-English, not quite American way of speaking best personified by Grace Kelly)

In describing the films, I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, especially as we move up the list. I did a minimum of research, mainly checking names, credits, and other basic facts on Wikipedia or IMDB, though I’ve passed along a few tidbits I picked up on those sites and elsewhere. All of the movies are available for rental or streaming on Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube or other platforms. And while on the subject of access, the app and website JustWatch is a helpful guide to where to find Hitchcock films, and indeed any available movie or TV show, though it properly doesn’t list YouTube bootlegs.


15. The Paradine Case

Well, it’s in black and white, a staircase is prominent, and Charles Laughton livens things up in his inimitably kooky way (see entry three places below), but this is a dog. There are no twists in the story (indeed, there’s nothing that couldn’t be predicted by any sentient viewer), all depictions of love are unconvincing, and Gregory Peck looks uncomfortable, perhaps mulling the issue of why, since he’s playing an English barrister, he has been directed not to even attempt an English accent. Like Rebecca, it’s available only on YouTube via bootleg.


14. Under Capricorn

Last place was a close call between Paradine and this technicolor period piece. The last three words of the last sentence almost gave Capricorn the nod—in fact, I should probably add them to my “bad signs” list. Plus, it’s dragged down by a weak plot, the insipid Michael Wilding, and Joseph Cotten’s performance and character (coming just six years after his brilliant turn in Shadow of a Doubt) as an Irishman (also no accent attempted) who had been brought to Australia as a prisoner and, after release, become a member of the gentry. Hitch’s direction apparently consisted of one note: “gruff.”

Vaulting it out of last place were, in no particular order, the star presence of Ingrid Bergman (though it’s far from her best performance for the director); Margaret Leighton’s Milly, a creditable creepy maidservant in the tradition of Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers; the many long takes, which Hitchcock had gotten adept at in Paradine and (especially) Rope and apparently wasn’t done with yet; and one brief affecting moment involving Cotten and a ruby necklace.


13. Murder!

The second through fourth films on the chronological list, above, were all to some extent on the cusp of the transition from silent and sound. I’d judge that two of them successfully negotiated the in-betweenness. Murder! did not. (The exclamation point could be seen as trying too hard, and Hitch wisely eschewed it for his other crime titles, Sabotage and Blackmail.) It starts off great, with a dolly pan of an upper story of a row of flats that almost exults in the potential of sound; we hear screaming, bells ringing, windows opening and closing, people chattering, and an unexplained pounding. And the climactic scene is verifiably creepy. But in between is a lot of talk, livened only by the intriguing question of what cross-dressing actor Handel Fane’s secret really is.


12. Jamaica Inn

One of three Daphne du Maurier adaptations on the list (the others are Rebecca and The Birds), it’s another period piece—set on the Cornish coast of England in around 1820. But at least it’s in black and white. Charles Laughton originally bought the rights to Du Maurier’s novel, and his mincing, scenery-chewing turn as Sir Humphrey Pengallen dominates the film. The actor and his idiosyncrasies and demands apparently gave Hitch agita, but the performance gave me campy entertainment, as did the shiver-me-timbers cut-throatedness of the gang of “wreckers” and Maureen O’Hara’s feisty screen debut. On the minus side, Robert Newton as the love interest is reminiscent of Michael Wilding.

(And speaking of shiver me timbers, I was fascinated to find this on Wikipedia: “Newton is best remembered for his portrayal of the feverish-eyed Long John Silver in the 1950 film adaptation of Treasure Island, the film that became the standard for screen portrayals of historical pirates. He continued to portray pirates in Blackbeard in 1952 and Long John Silver again in the 1954 film of the same name, which spawned a miniseries in the mid-1950s. Born in Dorset in the West Country of England and growing up in Cornwall near Lands End, his exaggeration of his West Country accent is credited with popularising the stereotypical ‘pirate voice.’ Newton has become the ‘patron saint’ of the annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day.” Who knew?)


13. I Confess

It’s attractively short at an hour and a half, and constricted, though unlike the similarly adapted-from-plays Rope and Dial M for Murder, it opens up into the world at large, in this case the atmospheric scenes of Quebec City. The black and white cinematography by Robert Burks is rich and inviting, marked by shadows and angular closeups. Strong supporting cast led by Karl Malden; a lot of nice grace notes, like the crew-cut priest’s noisy bicycle.

The central plot device basically worked, for me, though there are some holes in it, and clearly, the original script, ditched because of Hays Office concerns, would have been better. The main problems are the love story, which never coheres, and Montgomery Clift’s performance as Father Logan. Reportedly, he and Hitch clashed over his Method approach. In any case, I agree with John McCarten of The New Yorker, who wrote that Clift plays Logan “as a sort of bemused juvenile, plainly too abstracted to lead one lamb, let alone a flock.”


10. Stage Fright

Or as I like to call it, Jane Wyman’s bangs versus Marlene Dietrich’s eyebrows. The bangs hold their own, and Wyman’s performance as the protagonist, Eve Gill (as noted, I count a female lead a plus), is one of the enjoyable things about the movie. A year after her divorce from Ronnie Reagan, she must have been feeling her oats.

Also feeling his oats is Hitch, specifically about being back in England after an 11-year Hollywood sojourn. The very best thing about the movie are the London atmosphere and the small but memorable English types: Dietrich’s cockney dresser, all the theater “luvvies” (Eve is an aspiring actress), Joyce Grenfell as a shooting gallery operator with “lovely ducks,” Sybil Thorndike as Wyman’s crusty mother.

On the other hand, Alistair Sim, as her father (and I didn’t catch the explanation of why Eve has two English parents and an American accent) gives one of the worst performances I’ve seen by a well-regarded actor in a major film. He mainly shuffles around uncomfortably and can’t help, as my wife says, smiling under his mustache. Not much better is Michael Wilding, insipid as usual as police inspector “Ordinary” Smith. The love story, of which he is a part, is of course the weak link. As for the suspense plot, I didn’t mind the notorious unconventional move made by Hitch and his screenwriters. But the suspense never really built for me, due in part to several plot holes, including too-easy escapes and Smith’s unexplained withholding of significant information. The biggest hole had to do with the big McGuffin, a certain dress. Let’s just say that the handkerchief in “Othello” worked a whole lot better.


This still suggests just some of the strangeness of “Rich and Strange”

10. Rich and Strange (U.S. title: East of Shanghai)

Something needs to be said about the middle territory of this list, which we are now in. If you’re looking for an evening’s entertainment, you’d probably do better with the previous two title on the list than the 1927-1937 titles that occupy four of the next five slots. That’s because the early movies are dated in a number of ways, the prints aren’t so good, and so on. I ranked them as high as I did for reasons  both historical (in prefiguring Hitchcockean themes and motifs) and intrinsic (standout sequences in camera work, editing or impact), and for intriguing or surprising themes or stories or twists.

The title of Rich and Strange is taken from a speech (sometimes sung) by Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest that’s also the source of an even more familiar phrase:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

That’s right, it’s where “sea-change” comes from.

The wordless opening seems more like a silent than anything we see in the slightly earlier Murder! and Blackmail, as the main character, London office-worker Fred (Henry Kendall), leaves work and takes the tube for the journey home. Furthering the impressions, Kendall is heavily made up, and there are anachronistic title cards, such as “To get to Paris you have to cross the channel.”

Rich and Strange is un-Hitchockian in having no element of suspense. And maybe its unusualness in the canon was part of why I quite enjoyed it. Other reasons: Fred is a pill and a cad all the way through, no suggestion of improvement; Joan Barry’s nice performance as his wife, Emily; the pre-Code-era naughtiness; and the wacko turn the plot takes toward the end. I waited in vain for a title card saying, “No cats were harmed in the making of this motion picture.”


Rear projection makes an early appearance, as Nova Pilbeam and Derrick De Marney go motoring.

8. Young and Innocent (U.S. title: The Girl Was Young)

I simul-watched this with my friend Michael Tisserand, as we made Mystery Science Theater-type snarky comments, as well as some admiring ones, by text. Michael identified and fixated on the theme of littering in the movie and was entranced by the scene in Nobby’s Lodging House, the kind of place George Orwell might have bedded down when he was tramping around England “on the kip.”

The companion to Young and Innocent is obviously The 39 Steps (1935), as both are early examples of Hitch’s greatest plot, the wrongly accused person on the run. (He’d introduced it in 1927 in The Lodger, would bring it to America in Saboteur, and would knock it out of the park in 1955 with  North by Northwest.) There’s no doubt that 39 Steps is the better film. The set pieces are amazing instead of good; Robert Donat>Derrick De Marney. The love story (repeat after me) in Y and I is the weak link, and in addition is treated with a comical touch I found jarring.

That said, I enjoyed the movie. So many eccentric minor characters and tasty set pieces: the meeting with the nearsighted lawyer; dinner at Erica Burgoyne’s house, with her hilarious seven-dwarfs brothers, all dressed in suits; the fistfight at Tom’s Cafe, which gets as crowded as the Marx Bros. stateroom scene; the kids’ birthday party and Erica’s busybody aunt; and the scene at the “mine workings,” which has the first (I think) use of a Hitch trademark, seen later in Saboteur and N by NW: someone in danger of falling a great distance and being pulled up (or not) to safety, the money shot a high-angle closeup.

The best set piece is the last, which combines hot jazz, a creepy somatic “tell,” and an amazing crane shot. However, for reasons that will be clear if you watch the movie, the last scene is also the reason why Young and Innocent can’t really be shown in public anymore.


7. Lifeboat

Since the title is Lifeboat, I don’t count it a spoiler to say that the entire action takes place on one, after a Merchant Marine ship is sunk by a German U-Boat in the Atlantic. Ending up onboard is the usual Hollywood microcosm, including William Bendix as a regular mug from Brooklyn; Tallulah Bankhead as an Dorothy Thompson/Martha Gellhorn-type journalist; John Hodiak as a Marx-reading engine-room crewman who seizes leadership of the motley bunch; Henry Hull as a wealthy industrialist; and Walter Slezak as a German who’s hauled aboard from the sea and occasions heated ethical and strategic debates. All the performances are good (with the exception of Hume Cronyn, who offers the least convincing English accent this side of Dick Van Dyke), there’s ample suspense and emotionally affecting moments, the philosophizing (screenplay by Jo Swerling from a story by John Steinbeck–who later disavowed the movie) is for the most part food for thought rather than windbaggery, and even the rear projection of the ocean isn’t a distraction. Bottom line: Hitchcock pulls off this tour de force.


Ivor Novello as the Lodger: a bit over the top.

6. The Lodger: A True Story of the London Fog

This late silent, starring Ivor Novello as a mysterious lodger who bears a striking resemblance to  a Jack-the-Ripper-style murderer of young blonde girls, is another one I simul-watched with Michael Tisserand. Here are some excerpts from our text exchanges about Novello’s performance:

Yagoda: I know it’s 93 years later and styles change but I can’t help thinking the lodger is a bad actor

Y: The other acting by contrast is good

Tisserand: Thinking the same esp Marie Ault as the mum

T: The lodger guy was directed to be zombie-like

Y: Hitch’s note: seethe

T: “Look at each chess piece as you would a lost lover”

Except for Novello’s overheated performance and heavy makeup (and what I found to be excessive music in Amazon Prime’s print), the film plays well all these years later; at age 28, Hitchock’s ambition and chops are pretty amazing. But the main reason I ranked it as high as I did is the uncanny way it introduced so many themes and motifs that the director would return to again and again: gruesome crimes, the innocent (?) man on the run (albeit confined to a scant fifteen minutes here), pursued man hiding in plain sight, ineffective police, scary mobs, blondes.


5. Blackmail

This is a curiosity, in that Hitchcock filmed both a sound and silent version, and that lead actress Anny Ondra’s lines were dubbed by Joan Barry because Ondra had an accent. But it’s also a great film. The cinematography, mise en scene and editing represent the high-water mark of silent cinema. And it’s positively bursting with Hitchcockian themes and elements: a blonde, suspense, edge-of-the-seat moments (including a climactic chase involving a landmark), not one but two MacGuffins (a painting and a glove), all sorts of ambiguity, and ambient kinkiness. There’s a line from Cyril Ritchard’s (that’s right, Captain Hook) twisted bad guy, Mr. Crewe, all the way up through Bob Rusk in Frenzy (1972). When Crewe goes to the piano and sings the kitschy “Miss Up-to-Date,” with all sorts of bad tidings in the air, you are riveted. Or I was, anyway.


4. Rebecca

Now we get to some really hard choices. Ranked purely as a piece of cinema, Rebecca would be in the top spot, or at lowest number two. After all, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture—Hitchcock’s only win in the category. But I found the other three simply affected me and stayed with me more.

That said, Rebecca is a pip. After all, it has George Sanders, beautiful black and white (George Barnes won an Oscar for his cinematography), a nearly omnipresent staircase, and problematic relationships up the wazoo. The leads, Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, were both nominated for Oscars and both are great, though I thought the direction of Fontaine was a bit too heavy on the meekly awkward in the first half or more of the film; I picture her with her head constantly tilted at a 45-degree angle, as if the second Mrs. de Winter felt that holding it straight would be too assertive. But I guess Hitch judged that was necessary to set the groundwork for the developments at the end. I thought there was one significant plot hole involving the creepy Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson, also justly nominated). And, as has been noted by others, the change to du Maurier’s novel necessitated by the Production Code was unfortunate.


3. Marnie

To start with not the most important point, I liked that this movie was in color, for the sort of documentary reason that it brought me back to how things looked in 1964, when I was first starting to notice them. I also liked the exterior shots of Philadelphia, outside of which I live, and I even admired the matte background of a supposedly Baltimore waterfront location.

But not to bury the lede, I believe Marnie is most famous, or notorious, for two things. The first is a scene in which Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), who has married the very troubled Marnie Edgar (Tippi Hedren) for reasons that are rather puzzling to begin with and don’t quickly become clearer, rapes her. The incident takes place in the source material for the film, a novel by Winston Graham, but in the film it is shocking and troubling to a 2020 viewer in a way Hitchcock surely didn’t intend. The terrible act has an immediate consequence, but afterwards is more or less brushed aside, and that is certainly a legitimate reason to shun Marnie. As is the second notoriety, Hitchcock’s abusive behavior towards Hedren, as described by her in interviews and a memoir.

But I stuck with the movie and am glad I did. It is just such an strange and unusual film. Granted, one can’t forget the rape scene, and granted, Mark is a flawed character: except for that scene, and in contrast to the Graham novel, the darker elements in his character are either merely implicit or are air-brushed out. But my main takeaway is that Hitchcock and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen really and messily and honorably grappled with (in the title of a book we see Mark reading) Sexual Aberrations of the Criminal Female. I thought Hedren’s performance was brave and strong, with the occasional distraction of her Kelly-esque Transatlantic accent, the Mad-magazine-worthy moments bits when she has sensory triggers, and her architectural beehive hairdo, complete with multiple nooks and crannies. Louise Latham as her mother is affecting as well. There’s a great set-piece early on in a silent office, and two shocking ones later, the first featuring a horse, the second a scary and very young Bruce Dern.


2. The Wrong Man

I loved this movie. It made me wonder what would have resulted if Hitchcock had used Henry Fonda a little bit more and James Stewart a little bit less. Not taking anything away from Stewart, but his good friend Fonda, through his hollow eyes, his slightly stooped posture, and minimalistic approach, brings another level of emotional depth and, at moments, pain, to the proceedings. Even his thinning hair helps with the naturalism and authenticity; no toup for Hank.

The movie starts with an appearance by Hitchcock, shot in silhouette, who tells us, “This is a true story, every word of it.” Hyperbole, to be sure, but the movie has a documentary feel (black and white of course) and reflects the real-life experiences of Manny Ballesteros, a bass player at the Stork Club in New York who was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. (Not a spoiler since that’s established by the title and early scenes.) I loved the musical elements of the movie, in two ways. First, what must be Bernard Herrmann’s most restrained score cleverly and effectively is characterized by jazz-inflected bass lines. Second, as opposed to the typical romanticized portrayal of jazz musicians, The Wrong Man opens with Fonda and his bandmates playing corny mock-Latin arrangements to mainly uninterested patrons, at the end of which he has to take the subway home to Jackson Heights. It’s a job like any other, with elements of craft and tedium.

The first half of the film is brilliant and claustrophobic, showing the Kafka-esque ways the walls keep relentlessly closing in on Manny. And at the end there is an indelibly haunting moment, which I won’t spoil. The rest of the second half is colored by a plot element that was taken from life but that never really worked for me, whether because of the screenplay or the direction and/or performance of Vera Miles as Manny’s wife. Two minor carps: Anthony Quayle is wasted as Manny’s lawyer; his accent was last spotted in the middle of the Atlantic. And the movie grinds to a halt whenever Manny’s two little kids are on screen.


1. The Birds

Reader, I watched it—though admittedly, when things got too intense I had to parcel it out in twenty-minute segments. An amazing film, and Hitchcock’s last masterpiece; Evan Hunter’s screenplay makes a major contribution and is probably underrated. To me, it’s much better than Jaws in depicting malevolent nature in a horror-movie format.

It was actually Hedren’s first role after being discovered by Hitchcock in a TV commercial, and her performance as Melanie Daniels holds us all the way through. She’s got a similar beehive hairdo as in Marnie, though both she and it eventually get undone by the terrible events that ensue. Books can be and have been written about The Birds, and I can’t do it justice in a couple of paragraphs, so I’ll just share some of my notes.

  • Everybody lies in this movie. Is that what nature is punishing?
  • Melanie: “And on Tuesdays, I take a course in General Semantics at Berkeley, finding new four-letter words”!!
  • I think there’s no music, except the amazing scene when Melanie is outside the schoolroom listening to the children singing. The use of silence and muted sounds is brilliant.
  • Mitch (Rod Taylor) always calls his mother “dear” or “darling” and is constantly kissing her on the cheek. Hmmmm.
  • “Mitch, this isn’t usual, is it?” You got that right, sister.
  • All the shots from above.
  • Suzanne Pleshette is great as the brunette foil, better than Diane Baker in
  • Broken eyeglasses on the ground—Strangers on a Train
  • The busybody ornithologist in a tweed suit!
  • The Shirley Jackson “Lottery”/witchhunts from the all-female chorus in the diner are maybe a bit much.

The Birds takes us on a truly horrifying ride. I only felt the spell breaking a couple of times, when the characters seemed to be under-reacting to that they and we just witnessed. Maybe oddly, the thing I found moving about it was Hitchcock and screenwriter Hunter’s rigorous insistence not to try to cogently explain, for lack of a better word, evil.