Rick’s Picks: The best and worst of Hitchcock

  • Wed Nov 18th, 2020 3:30pm
  • Life

Rick’s Picks

By Rick Anderson

Alfred Hitchcock directed 53 movies during his legendary career. I’ve seen 33 of them.

It isn’t that I believe Hitchcock was necessarily a better director than Steven Spielberg or Billy Wilder. Like Martin Scorsese with crime films, he was something of a one-trick pony who focused on a specific genre.

But I like well-made suspense films, and Hitchcock was “the master of suspense.”

The Turner Classic Movies cable channel is running a 12-film Hitchcock marathon beginning Thanksgiving evening and continuing for 24 hours. In honor of that occasion, here is one fan’s list of the best and worst of Hitchcock.

My favorite

Most people would choose “Psycho,” “Vertigo,” or “North By Northwest.” My vote, however, would go to “Rear Window.”

The 1954 film works as both a pure thriller and as a commentary on voyeurism. Stars James Stewart, Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter are in top form, and the screenplay mixes the suspense with a welcome dose of humor. From the opening to the closing scenes (both, incidentally, shot without dialogue), it’s a great movie.

The worst

Despite a cast headed by Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman, “Stage Fright” (1950) is that rarest of birds: a boring Hitchcock film.

The spy drama “Torn Curtain” (1966) is marginally more interesting, but is a bigger waste of both time (about 20 minutes longer than the earlier movie, with about six different apparent endings) and talent (co-stars Paul Newman and Julie Andrews).

Take your choice. Or, better yet, skip them both.

Most underrated

“The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of his own 1934 drama, is widely considered inferior to the original film. With all due respect, I think those critics are nuts.

Both versions focus on the abduction of a child when their parents stumble across an assassination plot. But the remake contains better set pieces, strong performances from leads James Stewart and Doris Day (the latter surprisingly effective in a largely dramatic role), and perhaps the only Oscar-winning song (Day’s signature tune “Que Sera, Sera”) used to resolve the plot of a thriller.

Perhaps it was because of the poor video quality of the print I saw, but it’s almost impossible to follow the story of the 1934 film unless you are familiar with the 1956 version.

Most overrated

I’m in a distinct minority, but I never believed “Vertigo” (1958) was as good as its critical reputation.

The psychological drama is too slow-moving for my taste, with a plot twist that occurs too early in the proceedings. James Stewart’s obsession with Kim Novak’s character, while very well-acted, is tough to watch.

Best film not in the marathon

Perhaps due to licensing or copyright issues, “Notorious” (1946) is seldom included in Hitchcock tributes. It is missing from the TCM marathon as well.

That’s a shame, because it is one of the director’s best — a first-rate espionage drama buttressed by an improbable love triangle that includes Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains. What makes the triangle particularly strange is that Rains’ character is often portrayed more sympathetically than Grant’s — even though he’s a Nazi and a murderer. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

Best performance

Joan Fontaine won an Academy Award for “Suspicion,” while Stewart, Grant, Bergman and Anthony Perkins gave Oscar-caliber performances in other Hitchcock films.

My choice, however, would be Robert Walker, as the playboy who plans to uphold his part of the bargain after proposing an exchange of murders in “Strangers on a Train” (1951). After previously specializing in boy-next-door types, Walker makes a creepy, unrepentant psychopath remarkably human.

Sadly, it was Walker’s last completed film. The actor, whose private life was as troubled as his character’s, died at age 32 — apparently from a toxic mixture of alcohol and sedatives.

Most diverse cast

The 1955 film “The Trouble With Harry” features everyone from Kris Kringle (78-year-old Edmund Gwenn) to Beaver Cleaver (7-year-old Jerry Mathers, two years before assuming the title role on television’s “Leave it to Beaver”). Shirley MacLaine, in her big-screen debut, plays Mathers’ mother.

If only the film were as interesting as the cast. It’s a black comedy about a wandering corpse that Hitchcock evidently found hilarious but didn’t exactly leave audiences limp with laughter.

Worst candidate for a remake

In 1943’s “Shadow of a Doubt,” a young woman played by Teresa Wright rushes to the Santa Rosa (California) library before it closes to check out a newspaper article that might implicate her beloved uncle (Joseph Cotten) as a serial killer. Only Hitchcock could make a trip to the library suspenseful.

In a more realistic remake today, Wright’s character would attempt to check out such a story on the Internet and be blocked by a paywall, and so would be unable to stop her uncle’s murderous rampage. Even Hitchcock might not be able to do much with that plot alteration.

For that matter, Santa Rosa (with a current population of more than 175,000) no longer fits Hitchcock’s conception of small-town America. Fortunately, the original film — like most Hitchcocks — is well worth watching.