Thirty-five years after his April 29, 1980, death, Alfred Hitchcock remains the most influential and arguably the most well-known director in the history of cinema. Hitchcock not only created many of the medium’s greatest and most innovative films, he shaped the language of filmmaking itself. With his pioneering camera techniques and editing, meticulous scripting, and ambiguous morality, Hitchcock left an indelible mark on the landscape of the silver screen. Whether the suspenseful efficiency of “Psycho,” the devastating climax of “Vertigo,” or the subtle storytelling of “Rear Window,” the body of work created by Alfred Hitchcock remains unrivaled.
What is often overlooked in discussions of the Hitchcock legacy is his mastery of adaptation. The works of Alfred Hitchcock are built on a literary foundation. Many of his most famous films – and nearly all of his greatest – are adaptations. In honor of the Master of Suspense, let’s have a look at a few of the best.
Arguably, Hitchcock’s most recognized work, “Psycho” contains many of the director’s trademarks (the voyeuristic camera, stark juxtaposition of light and shadow). Based on the novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, “Psycho” Is a master class in suspenseful filmmaking.
“The Birds” (1963)
Adapted from Daphne Du Maurier’s novella of the same name, “The Birds” is one of Hitchcock’s more underappreciated and nuanced works. Although the effects are dated, the suspense and underlying themes of paranoia and anxiety ring true as we watch the town of Bodega Bay, California, suffer through inexplicable and violent bird attacks.
“Strangers on a Train” (1951)
Among the obsessions that drove so many of Hitchcock’s films, the fear of being wrongfully accused of a crime was perhaps foremost among them. “Strangers on a Train” features a protagonist unwillingly trapped in a murder plot and eventually framed for the murder of his wife. Despite a premise that is now a Hollywood trope (strangers agreeing to murder someone who is complicating the life of the other), “Strangers on a Train” is a tightly scripted and impeccably shot thriller with no shortage of subtext. It’s based on the novel Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith.
As the only Hitchcock film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, “Rebecca” holds an interesting place in the Hitchcock catalog. It is the filmmaker’s first American movie – and widely considered one of his best – but is also not widely known to the larger cinematic audience. “Rebecca” is a taut, gothic romance following a woman, whose first name is never revealed, as she slowly unravels the mystery surrounding the death of her husband’s first wife, Rebecca. It’s based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Daphne Du Maurier.
“Rear Window” (1954)
“Rear Window” may be the second most well-known of Hitchcock’s film and one can deduce that, with parodies sprouting all over the pop culture landscape (from “The Simpsons” to “Mike and Molly”), the themes and plot of “Rear Window” have left an indelible mark. The film is the clearest example of the theme of voyeurism so prevalent in many Hitchcock’s works and perhaps its greatest achievement is the meticulous way it subtly portrays the individual stories of the neighbors Jeff Jeffries (James Stewart in one of his best performances) spies on. “Rear Window” is based on the short story It Had to be Murder by Cornell Woolrich.
Based on the novel of the same name by Winston Graham, “Marnie” follows a woman with an aversion to touch who gains employment in order to eventually rob her employer. This 1964 film, starring Hitchcock favorite Tippi Hedren, is a tense study of obsession, emotional trauma, and irrational fear.
As the film that unseated “Citizen Kane” and its fifty-year reign at number one in the prestigious “50 Greatest Films of All Time” poll conducted by Sight and Sound magazine, “Vertigo” is arguably the best of Hitchcock’s films. It is a distillation of the themes and pathos inherent to all of his works (obsession, paranoia, guilt, mistaken identity, fetishism) and features some of Hitchcock’s most innovative cinematography (most notably the vertigo inducing stairway scene in the bell tower achieved by zooming in the lens of a camera while simultaneously pulling it away on a dolly – it’s commonly known as the “Vertigo Effect”). “Vertigo” is an extraordinary film that brings together every piece in Alfred Hitchcock’s genre-defining repertoire. It is based on the novel D’entre les Morts by Boileau-Narcejac.