What's your favorite Alfred Hitchcock film?
Sight & Sound magazine announced its decennial (every 10 years) poll of the top films recently, and there was a new title at the top of the list. For 50 years, critics and film directors had agreed that "Citizen Kane," directed by Orson Welles, was the top film. In 2012, however, "Kane" was replaced by Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."
This wasn't a huge surprise. The reputation of "Vertigo" has been growing in the film community in recent decades. Directed in 1958 by Alfred Hitchcock, it's a film about love, obsession, identity and the need to control people around us. The film stars Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. It's a terrific flick: creepy and heartbreaking, mysterious and haunting. Nevertheless, I would guess that most film lovers would not mention it as their favorite Alfred Hitchcock film. That position might be held by "Psycho," "The Birds" or the adventures of Cary Grant in "North by Northwest." Hitchcock made a whole bunch of terrific films. What makes one of them special above the others? Is it more ambitious? More refined in its technique? Does it possess greater psychological depth or insight?
I was considering all these questions as I pondered the legacy of this great director. It occurred to me that the same difficulty might exist with many of the great directors.
Could you pick the best John Ford film? If you go by the Sight & Sound poll, you would believe it to be "The Searchers." But Ford has a spectacular lineup of films, including "Fort Apache," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Stage Coach," "The Quiet Man" and many, many others. Why does "The Searchers" get elevated to this exalted status? And does that opinion resonate with the people who watch movies?
The same case could be made of all the great directors represented in the poll.
But back to Hitchcock. What's your favorite Alfred Hitchcock film?
In a career that lasted more than six decades, Hitchcock produced more than 50 feature films. The list of the memorable ones is so long that it boggles the mind. In roughly chronological order, you have "The 39 Steps," "Rebecca," "Shadow of a Doubt," "Lifeboat," "Spellbound," "Notorious," "Rope," "Strangers on a Train," "The Trouble with Harry," "Dial M for Murder," "Rear Window," "To Catch a Thief," "Vertigo," "North by Northwest," "Psycho," "The Birds," "Frenzy" and "Family Plot."
My favorites in there are "North By Northwest," "The Trouble With Harry," "Psycho" and "The Birds." I guess I would add "Rope" and "Lifeboat" as as well. "North By Northwest" mixes suspense, humor and romance into a great package. It has a terrific hero in Cary Grant and an oily bad guy in James Mason. It has the elegant and beautiful Eva Marie Saint, one of Hitchcock's quintessential leading ladies. The movie is funny, scary and endlessly entertaining. What more could you want?
"The Trouble With Harry" is a favorite of mine because of its goofy black humor. It portrays a little Vermont town where a variety of residents are struggling to figure out what to do with freshly dead body of a local resident named Harry Worp. It stars Edmund Gwinn, John Forsythe and a very young Shirley MacLaine. It is quite funny in that twisted Hitchcockian way.
Many of these films are delights for film lovers. "Rope," for example, is a film of a stage play that is designed to play out in real time so that each shot lasts about 10 minutes (the length of a reel of film) and then is edited together to appear as though the entire film is happening in one shot. Technically, this is a marvel and a treat for film fans to watch how Hitchcock achieves it. Based on the famous Leopold and Loeb case, the film is talky but fascinating.
Likewise, "Lifeboat" sets a film in the most cramped of settings, a lifeboat. It's a wonderful character study that functions as a parable for the struggle to unify the allies during World War II against the evil of Nazi Germany. It also has one of Hitchcock's funniest cameo appearances as we see the famously portly director in before and after photos in a weight loss ad in a newspaper. The man was clever. "Vertigo" on the other hand, leaves me a little cold. Make no mistake, it is an impressive film, but it lacks that essential black Hitchcockian humor. Ultimately, its intensity wears me down a little. Though I admire it, I don't love it or jump at the chance to watch it again.
What is the distinction between a filmmaker's best movie and his best-loved? Is "Vertigo" your favorite Alfred Hitchcock film? If not, what is? Please share your opinions with us.
Follow Shawn Sensiba on Twitter @shawnsensiba.