Though he’s most well known for Psycho, considered by many to be one of the first horror movies ever made, you don’t just earn the moniker “master of suspense” for just one picture. Alfred Hitchcock started making silent films in Britain in the 1920s. His 1934 picture, The Man Who Knew Too Much, was a smash success in England, bringing him to direct Rebecca, his first American movie, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, in 1940. No other film director has had more influence on the modern day thriller and the application of suspense in cinema. When asked about his techniques, Hitch famously quipped, “always make the audience suffer as much as possible.”
Only the master of suspense could make a flock of crows seem like the most terrifying thing on earth. This 1963 movie, based loosely on a Daphne du Maurier short story, is an early example of natural horror–when natural phenomena goes berserk. Later infamous examples include Stephen King’s The Mist and John Carpenter’s The Fog. The bad stuff with the birds begins when stranger Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) appears in Bodega Bay, a small California seaside community. True to Hitchcockian form, the scenes in which no birds are present–the aftermath of two attacks in particular, and the scene in which residents of Bodega Bay accuse Melanie of being somehow responsible for the birds–are the very definition of suspense.
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The Man Who Knew Too Much
At the peak of Hitchcock’s British period, five years before he moved to the States, 1934’sThe Man Who Knew Too Much is a classic example of international spy suspense. Jill and Bob, a couple vacationing in Switzerland, get enmeshed in a crime ring, resulting in the kidnapping of their daughter. The concert scene, in which Jill must thwart an assassination, is heart-stoppingly suspenseful. Hitchcock loved this movie so much he remade it in color in 1956 with a slightly different plot, starring the beloved Jimmy Stewart as Ben and America’s sweetheart, Doris Day, as Jo.
The 39 Steps
Just one year after the success of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitch was back with The 39 Steps, an influential suspense drama with a classic case of mistaken identity at its heart. Richard Hannay is minding his own business when he becomes embroiled in a web of spies and assassins and ends up on the run in Scotland, handcuffed to a woman he’s just met. Thoroughly Hitchcockian, The 39 Steps is the basis for many modern “on the run” thrillers–movies like The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible, The Bourne Identity, and Hitchcock’s own To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest.
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North by Northwest
Following in the steps of The 39 Steps, North by Northwest stars the dashing Cary Grant as a man who, in a case of mistaken identity, is on the run. After Roger Thornhill (Grant) summons a waiter, two men believe that he is the “George Kaplan” they’re looking for–and Thornhill, unable to convince them otherwise, must flee. This on-the-run thriller is most famous for two scenes, one in which Grant is nearly mowed down by a crop-dusting plane, and the terrifying finale on the precipice of Mount Rushmore.
The good news: You’ve survived the boat sinking. The bad news: Now you’re stuck on a lifeboat with a bunch of strangers. After their boat is sunk by a German submarine, a motley crew of survivors, including the legendary stage actress Tallulah Bankhead as a columnist who helpfully speaks German, must work together to get to shore. Meant as a commentary on World War II, Lifeboat is a deeply suspenseful and claustrophobic film, taking place entirely on the small boat. That didn’t stop Hitch from making his infamous cameo, though, in a photograph on the back of a newspaper read by one of the survivors.
Dial M for Murder
Based on a hit play, Hitchcock’s beloved Grace Kelly stars as Margot, whose husband discovers her affair and plots to kill her. But his plans go awry when Margot manages to fend off her attacker, killing him. Her husband frames her for the murder, and she is set to be executed. Luckily, her lover suspects her husband all along. As ever, Hitchcock uses the audience’s expectations to manipulate emotions and turn up the tension. In 1998, the movie was reimagined for modern audiences as A Perfect Murder, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael Douglas, and Viggo Mortensen.
Based on the classic novel by Daphne du Maurier, Hitchcock’s Rebecca was his first American project with David O. Selznick. Rebecca tells the story of a young woman who falls desperately in love with, then marries a wealthy widower. But when she’s installed at his palatial country estate, Manderley, she finds there are more secrets about his dead wife, Rebecca, than there are rooms in the house. Audiences loved the suspense of Rebecca, with its dramatic and shocking ending, and the movie was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning two for Cinematography and Best Picture.
Perhaps Hitchcock’s finest suspense thriller, Rear Window is a cautionary tale about boredom. When Jeff (Jimmy Stewart) breaks his leg, he takes to spying on his neighbors in the building across the courtyard for amusement. Even frequent visits from his stunning girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly) can’t distract Jeff from his fixation–that his neighbor has murdered his wife and is getting away with it. Jeff’s inability to move while others are at risk make this film skin-crawlingly stressful.
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Hailed by many as Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Vertigo is a gorgeous and groundbreaking tale of obsession. Jimmy Stewart, one of Hitch’s favorite actors, stars as Scottie, a detective suffering from a bad case of vertigo after watching his partner fall to his death. An old friend asks Scottie to follow his wife Madeleine, who he believes is having an affair. The lengthy sequences of Scottie following Madeleine around San Francisco are completely dialogue-free, the anxiety amped up by a beautifully sinister musical score by Bernard Hermann. Though the movie received mixed reviews upon its release, it is now considered to be one of the best movies of all time.
Feature still of "Rebecca" via Selznick International Pictures