Alfred Hitchcock

One of the most iconic moments in all of film history - Cary Grant running from the crop duster in Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959)

One of the most iconic moments in all of film history - Cary Grant running from the crop duster in Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959)

  • Born:  1899
  • Died:  1980
  • Rank:  6
  • Score:  908.10
  • Awards:  NYFC / NBR
  • Nominations:  5 Oscars / 7 DGA / Golden Globe
  • Feature Films:  52
  • Best:  Strangers on a Train
  • Worst: Jamaica Inn

Top 10 Feature Films:

  1. Strangers on a Train – 1951
  2. Rear Window – 1954
  3. Rebecca – 1940
  4. Notorious – 1946
  5. North by Northwest – 1959
  6. Psycho – 1960
  7. Shadow of a Doubt – 1943
  8. The 39 Steps – 1935
  9. Spellbound – 1945
  10. To Catch a Thief – 1955

Top 10 Best Director Finishes  (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1927-28 – 4th – The Lodger
  • 1929-30 – 4th – Blackmail
  • 1930-31 – 9th – Murder
  • 1932-33 – 6th – Number Seventeen
  • 1935 – 3rd – The 39 Steps
  • 1935 – 3rd – The Man Who Knew Too Much
  • 1936 – 5th – The Secret Agent
  • 1937 – 5th – Sabotage
  • 1938 – 9th – Young and Innocent
  • 1939 – 7th – The Lady Vanishes
  • 1940 – 2nd – Rebecca
  • 1940 – 9th – Foreign Correspondant
  • 1941 – 5th – Suspicion
  • 1942 – 10th – Saboteur
  • 1943 – 2nd – Shadow of a Doubt
  • 1944 – 8th – Lifeboat
  • 1945 – 2nd – Spellbound
  • 1946 – 3rd – Notorious
  • 1951 – 2nd – Strangers on a Train
  • 1954 – 2nd – Rear Window
  • 1955 – 1st – To Catch a Thief
  • 1955 – 10th – The Trouble with Harry
  • 1958 – 4th – Vertigo
  • 1959 – 3rd – North by Northwest
  • 1960 – 4th – Psycho
  • 1963 – 8th – The Birds
  • 1972 – 7th – Frenzy

He is hailed by many as the greatest director of all-time.  Certainly he owned the suspense genre for several decades, making several of the genre’s best films.  He was a true director, the kind never fully appreciated by the Academy (5 nominations – no wins, even though Rebecca won Best Picture), but worshipped by the auteurs.  In fact, the whole auteur theory seems to have been made to fit him and his style — his way of adapting every film to fit who he was, no matter the stars, the writers or the plot.  They were all identifiable as Hitchcock, even the bad ones.

So the question that comes up is this: Why do I rank him only at #6?  There are two parts to that answer.  The first part is that Hitchcock directed a lot of films.  And he directed more weak films that anyone else in the top tier of directors.  He has the lowest average film score of anyone in the top 13.  By 1933, Hitchcock had directed 15 films (really 16 but Mountain Eagle is lost) and only one of them is truly memorable: The Lodger.  Not a single other of those films rises above *** and only Number Seventeen and Murder are higher tier *** films.  The rest are distinctly average films (except Waltzes from Vienna, which is distinctly mediocre).  After that, Hitchcock truly began his career in earnest.  He made The Man Who Knew Too Much and followed it up with The 39 Steps and suddenly he was becoming The Master of Suspense that he would later be labelled as (prior to that most of his films were Dramas).  But he never seemed to be able to keep a string of great films going.  In between The Lady Vanishes and Rebecca he made Jamaica Inn.  The string of Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat, Spellbound and Notorious were followed up by the relentlessly mediocre Paradine Case.  He followed Strangers on a Train with I Confess.  He had a string of success with Rear Window, To Catch a Thief and The Trouble with Harry, but then made his weak re-make of The Man Who Knew Too Much.  His great late success of Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds were followed by Marnie and Torn Curtain.

The second part to that answer lies in Vertigo itself.  It is widely hailed as one of the greatest films ever made, yet didn’t make my top 10 Hitchcock list.  I simply don’t find Hitchcock’s films to be as great as many other people do (especially Vertigo, which has never worked for me the way it works for many others).  Don’t get me wrong — he made as many great films as any other director who ever lived.  He has 11 films in my top 400 and 17 in my top 1000.  But he doesn’t have the presence at the top of the list.  Strangers is the only Hitchcock film to make my top 100.  He simply doesn’t have the films near the top of the list like the remaining 5 directors do.

But he made great films and for a very long time.  For a long time he was singularly unique in that he made a large number of great films that are not only great on a cinematic level, but are enjoyable as can be on an entertainment level.  Hitchcock, quite simply, knew how to entertain an audience.

North by Northwest – #3 film of 1959

Alfred Hitchcock understood two things about suspense films that many directors today just can’t grasp.  The first is about anticipation.  There is no suspense in having something suddenly blow up.  That’s not suspense; it is action.  The suspense is in knowing that something might blow up and then waiting to see what happens.  The great action sequence of North by Northwest is preceeded by the great suspense of having Roger Thornhill arrive at the intersection in the middle of nowhere (what bus would actually take you there?) and then waiting to see what happens.  When that crop duster turns and starts coming towards him, that’s the great moment of suspense.

The second is about humor.  Look at the moment in Strangers in a Train during the tennis match when everyone’s head is turning except Bruno’s.  Listen to the interaction between Jimmy Stewart and Thelma Ritter in Rear Window.  Look at almost every moment in The Trouble with Harry.  Then think long and hard about North by Northwest.  Think especially about that great line that Jessie Royce Landis says in the elevator:  “You gentlemen aren’t really trying to kill my son, are you?”  Somewhere along the line thrillers lost their sense of humor.  They developed this idea that every minute has to be filled with action and pulse pounding suspense and that everyone must be completely without humor.  But serious plots are too serious after a while and people need something in a film to smile at.

Which brings us to the great center of North by Northwest.  Is there any actor we smile at more in a film than Cary Grant.  Bogart had presence (as did Eastwood and Harrison Ford later), Olivier had the acting pedigree and ability (to be followed by Daniel Day-Lewis) and there was something about Nicholson that couldn’t be defined, but no one has ever looked more at ease in front of a camera than Cary Grant.  He was never appreciated for his actual ability (two Oscar nominations, both for weepy dramas), but he was a class act on film.  He was the recipient of maybe the greatest come-on line in the history of film from a woman young enough to be his daughter (“You want a leg or a breast?”) and gave the ultimate answer  (“You make the choice.”) and it didn’t seem unbelievable for a moment.  He was the master of quick and witty dialogue in many of the great screwball comedies.  Then he teamed up with Hitchcock for four of Hitchcock’s best films.  He was simultaneously charismatic and enigmatic and there is no one who could have held the center of North by Northwest any better.

North by Northwest is one of those films that make us tear our hair out at the thought of what must go through the minds of the Academy Awards voters.  It has brilliant direction from one of the greatest directors of all-time, has a brilliant charismatic performance at the heart of it, a magnificent supporting performance from a character actress as the lead’s mother, a brilliant score (often seen collections of great film music) and amazing cinematography.  Yet, none of these were nominated for Oscars.  And the Screenplay, which actually was nominated (along with the scripts to Wild Strawberries and The 400 Blows) was to lose to Pillow Talk.  It really makes you wonder.

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