The most notorious name associated with suspense-thriller cinema is Alfred Hitchcock. When discussing his films, fans tend to cite the same titles as his most triumphant masterpieces. Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959), and The Birds (1963) tend to get the spotlight, as does his most adored chiller, Psycho (1960). At the same time, the Hitchcock filmography does contain a few clunkers. Fans seem to be most disappointed by Marnie (1967) and his final film, Family Plot (1976).
But which Hitch flicks fly under the radar - yet deserve much more praise than they generally receive? Below are my selections, in order of release, for the top five Sir Alfred Hitchcock films that don't get as much spotlight, but are certainly as well-crafted as his more famous motion pictures. Here is the first installment of FEARnet's 'Overlooked & Underrated' - the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
From the very beginning of this film, Cary Grant does an excellent job of being both charming and just off-balance enough to keep his beautiful wife Joan Fontaine (and the audience) guessing about his intentions, which may or may not be quite diabolical. Add in a great performance by Nigel Bruce, playing the somewhat bumbling buddy of the couple, and you've got a film that is entertaining and weirdly-romantic while maintaining a sinister undercurrent.
Suspicion is lighter in tone compared to Hitchcock's more celebrated films, but this movie is still expertly directed, oddly intriguing, and saturated with suspense. It's a remarkably enjoyable watch. Fontaine collected a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in this film.
Robert Cummings is on the run, accused of starting a fire at an airplane plant in the midst of World War 2 - and killing his best buddy in the process. Saboteur is not so much an intense and dramatic thriller as it is a rather theatrical melodrama, tinted by the God Bless America zeitgeist. The film is also a captivating adventure across the country, during which Cummings, in his pursuit of the real culprit, crosses paths with a variety of colorful, strange, and engaging characters. The oddly flamboyant energy of Saboteur makes it stand out in the Hitchcock filmography.
In one sequence of the movie, a damaged, capsized ship - the result of another act of sabotage - is seen in its New York pier. This was a real ship that, depending on which source you believe, either caught fire due to a cutting torch accident, or was actually sabotaged by the Germans. Hitchcock was denied permission to film the recently-debilitated ship for Saboteur, so he stole the shots.
Strangers On A Train (1951)
Farley Granger and Robert Walker intertwine superb performances as Strangers On A Train weaves a tale of "trading murders" so that neither murderer is connected to their victim. Walker succeeds in being a threatening and ultra-creepy villain, but the success of this film hinges on Granger's terror and desperation as he is pulled deeper and deeper into a nightmare. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a chance meeting on a train sends his life spiraling out of control. One of the darker, more intense nail-biters in the Hitch filmography, Strangers On A Train unfolds as a character-driven psychological thriller, but ends with a "disaster sequence" that works surprisingly well.
It's an absorbing film with a smart script - based on the debut novel by Patricia Highsmith, a former comic book writer who would go on to pen mostly violent and macabre crime novels. Around 25 of her lurid stories would spawn film adaptations, including The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) starring Matt Damon. Highsmith was both a bitter, cruel, alcoholic bigot, and a critically acclaimed, internationally-celebrated, award-winning writer.
I Confess (1953)
There are many interesting moving parts at work in I Confess, including spirituality, religion, marital infidelity, war, love, greed, desperation, and forgiveness. Hitchcock blends these themes brilliantly into a truly riveting film. In tone, this film is among Hitchcock's most dark and tension-filled.
Ironically, an element of production Hitchcock was most frustrated by became a key aspect of the film's success. Method actor Montgomery Clift had difficulty following direction and sticking to Hitchcock's meticulously planned out blocking, but Clift's outstanding performance is what really makes this film pop. We have here a great script, beautiful cinematography, Hitchcock's brilliance, excellent performances by co-stars Anne Baxter, Karl Malden, and O.E. Hasse, plus dreamy Montgomery Clift as a priest accused of murder. In my opinion, this is easily one of Hitchcock's best films.
Torn Curtain (1966)
Post Marry Poppins and The Sound of Music Julie Andrews stars with pre salad dressing Paul Newman in Hitchcock's Torn Curtain. Newman is on a mission to discover how much information the Soviet Union has pertaining to anti-missile systems. While the cloak and dagger aspects of Torn Curtain work well and are brimming with suspense, the film really shines as an escape adventure. More ominous in tone compared to Saboteur, Torn Curtain shares the same sadistic joy in scrutinizing two characters as they travel a lengthy, dangerous journey in their seemingly-impossible escape from the enemy.
Torn Curtain was a troubled production, hammered by financial and shooting location problems. Worse, Hitchcock was unhappy with the studio's casting of Newman and Andrews, and the director's working relationship with both was rocky. Legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver, Psycho, and seven other Hitchcock projects) scored Torn Curtain - twice - before being booted off the project by Hitchcock and the studio. He was replaced by John Addison (A Bridge Too Far). The long-running Herrmann / Hitchcock partnership was over - the two never worked together again. Now that all this drama has faded into the past, Torn Curtain should be revisited. While many see this movie as a Hitchcock misstep, I consider it one of the director's most underrated films.