Name a movie director who made more classics than Alfred Hitchcock. Go ahead; I’ll wait.
There are legions of reports that he wasn’t the world’s nicest person. But there’s no disputing the track record of the Englishman who gave us not just “Vertigo,” which the prestigious Sight & Sound poll says is the finest movie ever made, but so many other greats that in the list below I have to leave off movies I love — “North by Northwest,” “Strangers on a Train,” “The Birds,” “The Lady Vanishes,” “Frenzy” — because I want to marry seven other films even more.
The key thing to remember about Hitchcock movies is the difference between surprise and suspense, the latter of which he famously mastered. To illustrate, he always used the example of two people sitting at a table, not knowing there’s a bomb under it.
If the bomb explodes, surprising us, Hitchcock said it would supply 15 seconds of moviegoing pleasure. But, if we are shown the bomb and kept cognizant of it while the two unaware people eat brunch and chat about how great it is to be back in a restaurant, Hitchcock would say he could draw the scene out for 15 escalating minutes of excitement and suspense. Will it go off? Will they discover it? Can our brunchers be saved?
Essentially, it’s the difference between violence that comes out of nowhere in a slasher film and the slower, more satisfying experience of a thriller that engages our emotions and builds on them. Hitchcock said that was his main duty as a director. One shortcut he used was casting huge stars, knowing their immediate appeal would help us side with their characters.
Another biggie for Hitchcock was taking advantage of whom we root for. He’s not the first to force us to identify with a bad guy, as we do in “Psycho,” fearing for Norman Bates as the authorities close in on him, despite the fact that he just killed the movie’s heroine. But Hitchcock trademarked this technique, which has inspired point-of-view shots from that of Michael Myers in the “Halloween” movies to the mobsters of Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.”
All of these elements make us participants in the action. We respond to these scenes because Hitchcock compels us to contemplate the awful things that could happen and who might do them, although we wish they wouldn’t. By watching, we are complicit.
Since Hitchcock’s death in 1980, other films have taken these elements further, including this year’s best picture Oscar winner, “Parasite” (an honor won by only one Hitchcock film, “Rebecca”). But there’s no beating these seven streamable titles from the master of suspense.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
It’s often reported that this is Hitchcock’s favorite of his films, but in the book “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” he says that’s a misunderstanding. Anyway, it’s my favorite. Its macabre screenplay — by “Our Town” playwright Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson and Alma Reville (Hitchcock’s wife) — is perfect. Charlie (Teresa Wright) is thrilled when her favorite uncle and namesake (Joseph Cotten) comes for a visit, enlivening her sleepy town. Then, she realizes the guy sleeping in her family’s guest room may be a serial killer.
Rear Window (1954)
Both Hitchcock/Grace Kelly collaborations from 1954 are entertaining, but this unbearably tense gem is a better movie than “Dial M for Murder.” Jimmy Stewart plays a photographer, laid up with a broken leg, who thinks he sees evidence a neighbor across the courtyard has murdered his wife. In the pivotal scene, he watches as his girlfriend (Kelly) almost becomes a victim, too, while snooping for evidence in the killer’s apartment. All movies turn us into voyeurs, but this sadistic masterpiece taunts us with the knowledge that — like Stewart — we’re powerless to do anything about what’s happening on screen, even if we want to.
Maybe Hitchcock’s most devious movie, it kills off its lead early, then messes with us by exploring the sickest mother/son relationship in movie history (it was loosely inspired by Wisconsin’s Ed Gein). Anthony Perkins’ performance as Norman Bates is a jittery triumph.
The 39 Steps (1935)
A vast conspiracy threatens all of England. A couple on the run (Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll) find hate turning to love when they’re handcuffed together. A catchy earworm turns out to be a crucial clue. A magic trick finally reveals all. This comic mystery is 86 minutes of pure fun.
If “39 Steps” is Hitchcock in a light mood, this is him at his darkest. Stewart plays a San Franciscan who becomes obsessed with a woman (Kim Novak) who resembles his late lover. Or maybe she is his late lover? As open to multiple interpretations as a David Lynch movie, “Vertigo” is chilling and unsettling.
Hitch’s most romantic film, featuring a notorious kissing scene, showcases Ingrid Bergman as a spy recruited by Cary Grant to infiltrate a den of Nazis, and includes one of the director’s most famous scenes (it involves a key).
To Catch a Thief (1955)
Hitchcock in comic mode again, in his third of four collaborations with Grant. He plays an elegant cat burglar, improbably masquerading as a lumberjack, who may go straight after falling for a witty socialite (Kelly). The banter is sparkling, the French Riviera setting is a stunner and Jessie Royce Landis, as Kelly’s skeptical mother, almost steals the show.