At a time when the studio system in Hollywood was in its heyday and the producers — not the directors — were the credited architects of the movies, Alfred Hitchcock, a director, was one of the most dominant creators of them all. French critics such as André Bazin and François Truffaut in the ‘40s and ‘50s were enamored with Hitchcock. He greatly inspired, if not catalyzed, the concept of auteur theory, which posits that the director is and should be the most important voice behind a movie, to the point that a film will become a reflection of his own vision if he’s given enough creative control.
Perhaps no one was, or ever will be, better at realizing his or her own vision than Alfred Hitchcock, with a career that encompassed over 50 films, beginning in 1922 with his first unofficial feature, a lost and unfinished silent picture called Number 13, and spanning all the way until his final feature Family Plot in 1976, just a few years before his death. Pioneering suspense and continuing to inspire filmmakers and genres today, Hitchcock is arguably the greatest director of all time. In honor of his first directorial attempt a century ago, we dig into his filmography and give you the most essential Alfred Hitchcock movies to watch.
The Eras Of Hitchcock
Phases Of Filmography
There are several ways to break down the illustrious career of one Alfred Hitchcock, but when you get to the bottom of it, there were really five major phases of his filmmaking lifetime.
The Silents The silent era is when Hitchcock cut his teeth in the industry, getting his start at an American-owned London outfit called Islington Studios in 1919, where he worked as an intertitle artist. He eventually got a shot to direct his first feature, 1922’s Number 13, which went unfinished for budgetary reasons. Soon after, he got hired at Gainsborough Pictures as an assistant director before getting asked to direct 1925’s The Pleasure Garden.
Hitchcock’s silent era included his first thriller, 1927’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, and concluded with 1929’s The Manxman, which had a talkie version made as well. In that time, he released nine full-length features (sometimes called the “Hitchcock Nine”) and one short. These pictures are largely considered inferior to the director’s later work, largely because he had yet to hone his craft and was still learning on the job, as he would continue to do throughout his career.
The British Films The advent of the talkie in 1927 meant the quick death of the silent film industry. While purists like Hitchcock lamented the end of an era, they also learned how to adapt. Hitchcock’s learning curve was steeper than most, tasked with helming 1929’s Blackmail, which was not only the director’s first talkie but Britain’s. Over the next decade, he made 16 features for a handful of studios. Beginning with 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock enjoyed quite a hot streak that culminated with his penultimate British film The Lady Vanishes in 1938. The following year, the filmmaker would make the divisive Jamaica Inn before departing for the States.
The Early Hollywood Years Outgrowing the inferior British film industry at the time, Hitchcock came to the U.S. to spread his wings a little more. While plenty of contract offers came in from American producers, none of them seemed as appealing as the one from David O. Selznick, who was the most powerful man in Hollywood and just so happened to be in the middle of making his magnum opus, Gone with the Wind. The only problem was, as Hitchcock was continuing to mature in his own craft, he quickly felt stifled by the Hollywood way of making pictures, where the producer had more of a creatively authoritative role over the end result.
Nevertheless, Hitch thrived in the American film industry, putting out some 13 movies that initial decade, starting with 1940’s Rebecca, which won Best Picture. He peaked during that era with 1946’s Notorious, but then began receiving measly reviews, starting with Rope just two years later.
The Golden Age It’s reported that on his first day on the set of Strangers on a Train, Hitchcock said that the picture marked the beginning of his career. In some ways, he was correct, experiencing a new level of creative control and micromanaging that yielded masterful results. However, his most notable streak — and arguably the greatest of any filmmaker in history — began with 1953’s Dial M for Murder and ended eleven films later with Marnie in 1963. Most, if not all, of the movies that came from him during that time are considered masterpieces, including Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds.
It was also during that period that his television anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents debuted, with each episode wryly introduced by Hitchcock himself. The show ran for ten seasons and was hugely successful, inspiring countless others like it and establishing the director as a recognizable public figure.
The Later Years As Hollywood’s New Wave began bubbling under, Hitchcock found many of his contemporaries either retiring or passing away. He too found it difficult to find stories to tell, and in ways he wanted to tell them. In the final 15 years of his life, he churned out four more pictures — Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, and Family Plot — the final two being fairly well received, especially Frenzy, which was his farewell to inner-city London. He died from liver failure in 1980 but would be remembered for his legendary filmography and the indelible mark he left on cinema.
The Essential Alfred Hitchcock Movies
Works Of Art
The 39 Steps (1935)
From a train scuffle to mistaken identity to the confident yet troubled blonde archetype, The 39 Steps established several elements that would become thumbprints throughout Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Robert Donat plays Richard Hannay, a man who inadvertently receives classified information from a secret agent right before she gets murdered. Now both the bad guys and the police — some of whom are the same people — are after Hannay as he treks across the British countryside. The debonair Donat perfectly balances insouciance and heroism in the lead role and never lets the director’s assertive style overshadow his performance.
Hitch takes influence from Russian silents and German expressionism from the decade prior, but makes each frame his own canvas and has some early fun with POV here in the process. One of Orson Welles’ personal favorites, the 1935 picture introduced espionage into Hitch’s repertoire for the first time in earnest and the episodic chase throughout the United Kingdom was echoed 24 years later in North by Northwest, which would go on to inspire an entire generation of spy thrillers. But it was The 39 Steps that brought the director’s genius to light on an international level and led to U.S. producers clamoring to bring him across the pond.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Alfred Hitchcock doesn’t simply balance suspense with comedy in his 1938 British flick The Lady Vanishes but allows them to brilliantly coexist merely by understanding how similar the two genres can actually be. Margaret Lockwood plays a recently-concussed young woman who’s trying to convince everyone on a train that her elderly friend has been kidnapped. Gaslighting and sheer coincidence make it hard for other passengers to believe her, but she’s convinced that something deeper is at play.
A lesser filmmaker would have compromised one style for the other, but Hitch, if anything, shows the audience his own sense of humor throughout the picture while executing a brilliant thriller. It’s not a perfect movie, but The Lady Vanishes sees the director taking the type of bold risks for which he would later become a household name.
It would be arguably the most dominant producer of all time, David O. Selznick, who would convince Hitch to make the move to Hollywood in 1939. The two men worked right away on their first of three films together, which also happened to be Selznick’s follow-up to his mega-hit Gone with the Wind as well as the only one from Hitchcock to ever win Best Picture. 1940’s Rebecca stars Joan Fontaine as the second wife of a wealthy man, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Fontaine’s character, who’s only ever referred to as “Mrs. de Winter,” constantly lives in the shadow of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, who died tragically the year prior. Along the way, Mrs. de Winter combats insecurities brought upon by society around her, not the least of which is the insurmountably evil Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). Rebecca is not a love story but a character study with mystery elements.
The picture is the result of two filmmaking juggernauts. We see Selznick’s eye for engaging pacing and his typical parabolic arc, but Hitchcock is still very much at the helm, filling the movie with kinetic motion, unexpected suspense, and an onion-like exposition. Yet the biggest trick of all may be in building up Rebecca as an actual tangible character without ever showing her once.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
There are times, watching Shadow of a Doubt, when it doesn’t feel like a Hitchcock film at all. Favoring its deeper themes about idolatry and disillusion over its actual suspense, the 1943 picture paralleled the change happening during that era, where quixotism of the American dream quickly gave way to the grim realities of a world at war; where excitement and vileness are often two unavoidable sides of the same coin. We follow a young woman (Teresa Wright), experiencing ennui over her idyllic yet mundane life in her small town, excited about her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) coming to live with her and her family for a while. However, she soon discovers the potential secrets hidden in his very recent past.
Hitchcock’s own personal favorite of his movies, which he attested to on several occasions, Shadow of a Doubt can also be seen as the project where he became even more comfortable with clever editing tricks and assertive camerawork — signatures that would make his films so recognizable stylistically. History has buried it underneath the likes of Psycho, Rear Window, and North by Northwest, but Shadow of a Doubt was once considered among his best for a long time.
There are the Hitchcock films before Notorious and those after it. Most historians look to the 1946 picture as the one that established the visual and thematic style that would soon take over for the rest of his career; not only gripping a more confident brush under Hollywood’s conventions but operating with newfound freedom and creative control as his first outing as a producer. The director’s first film where the romance is at the forefront, Notorious depicts the heartbreaking saga of an American agent (Cary Grant) and a civilian recruit (Ingrid Bergman) who fall in love just as Bergman’s character is forced to marry a German war criminal (Claude Rains) hiding out in Rio.
At times Notorious feels like a low-stakes war film, lest we forget that the villain is involved in a uranium bomb conspiracy — a detail that gets unceremoniously relegated as a MacGuffin. By design, our investment is tied up in the central romance while the tension insidiously builds under our noses. Hitchcock’s slow-burn is filled with artistic tracking shots and fastidious blocking, but it’s the chemistry between Grant and Bergman, as well as the legendary final shot on the front steps that keep this film ingrained in our memories.
Hitchcock rarely uses the same narrative trick twice. And in the case of his first color film, Rope, we can see why. Not only is it set entirely in a single location but it also takes place in real-time and, as such, is made to feel like one long take (in reality, there were 10 cuts in total, only because of the limited length of a film roll back then). Yet, despite the ostensibly gimmicky filmmaking technique, Rope is superb simply because of how it plays with the mind of the viewer.
We follow two friends who kill their former classmate for fun and hide his body in a trunk in their living room. Then they host a party just to prove that they can pull off the perfect crime. Always so in tune with what the audience is thinking at any given moment, Hitchcock toys with our suspense while getting to display his own dark sense of humor. As another rarity, the director takes a philosophical approach to Rope, drawing a line in the sand between utopian idealism and ethical responsibility.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
It took some time for the brilliance of Strangers on a Train to get its deserved recognition, but today the noir thriller stands as a masterclass in the employment of several filmmaking conventions, including creatively subtle symbolism, especially in regards to the movie’s motifs about the dichotomy between two men. Our hero is Guy (Farley Granger), a tennis star trying to get out of a marriage with his licentious wife. While riding the train one day, he meets Bruno (Robert Walker) a mentally ill man with daddy issues and an enabling mother. He tries to convince Guy to swap murders (his wife for Bruno’s father). Guy blows him off but Bruno goes through with his end of the ostensible deal.
A master of utilizing the space within a frame, Hitchcock is among his craftiest here, but never strays far from B-movie silliness, including a carnival sequence with an out-of-control carousel. Regardless, the director still conjures suspense by putting his protagonist in a pinch and then utilizing a psychopath to keep us on edge, never knowing what he’ll do next.
Dial M for Murder (1954)
In a story filled with flawed individuals, the hero isn’t the protagonist, but often justice itself. In the case of Dial M for Murder, that justice is emblemized in John Williams’ Chief Inspector Hubbard — a supporting character but a hero nonetheless. Within the movie, Hitchcock provides a dilemma for the audience: Do we root for an attempted murderer or a cheating wife? Grace Kelly plays the former and Ray Milland her intelligent and bitterly vengeful husband, Tony. Neither of them is a very good person but the worse of the two sinners has a more understandable motive.
The ultimate example of Hitch’s obsession with “the perfect crime,” the 1954 film just might be the Master of Suspense’s most suspenseful of them all. When Tony’s meticulously-planned murder plot falls victim to incidentals, he finds himself constantly having to be creative — and mostly succeeding. And along the way, the director builds a relationship between our perspective and our deduction in a way that only he could do. While the consensus reads Psycho or Vertigo as Hitchcock’s best, you wouldn’t be wrong if you happened to believe it were this one.
Rear Window (1954)
The ultimate nosy neighbor film, Rear Window lets the audience decide about the good and bad of voyeurism. It centers on a wheelchair-bound man named Jeff (James Stewart) who spends all day entertaining himself by spying on his neighbors, leading to him surmising that one of his neighbors has murdered his wife. Jeff gets his friends on board with this conspiracy as well. However, we don’t find out the truth until the very end.
Hitchcock’s two biggest achievements here are how he creates such a large world from such a small space (the entire movie takes place in a single apartment) and how he makes the audience doubt themselves as he subtly manipulates our wavering sympathy throughout the film.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
A quasi-remake of his own movie from 1934, The Man Who Knew Too Much is about an American couple (James Stewart and Doris Day) on vacation in England when they accidentally find out about an assassination plot. They spend most of the film trying to track down their young son who’s been kidnapped to ensure that they keep quiet.
This may not be Hitchcock’s most perfect film, but the stakes are as high as ever as the director taps into the emotional weight that comes with trying to find your child. It’s grounded even more by pristine performances from both Stewart and Day who provide a level of pathos that’s rarely hit in even the filmmaker’s most renowned masterpieces.
Vertigo has lived two lives since its release in 1958. Fairly divisive when it first came out, the psychological thriller recently garnered a lot more attention when it began to replace Citizen Kane on several “Best of All Time” lists. Amidst a career of thematic and narrative experiments, Vertigo is amongst the most audacious. A man who’s afraid of heights (James Stewart) falls in love with the wife (Kim Novak) of his friend (Tom Helmore) after being hired by him to follow her. What follows is a rabbit hole of mystery and chaos that’s frequently as disorienting as its title implies.
It’s tempting to wonder at times if maybe the movie were too ambitious. This is not the easy, yet intricate, viewing experience of Psycho or Rear Window; it is arguably Hitchcock’s most challenging picture for the audience. And yet because of that, it’s established an enigma that’s kept cinephiles coming back to it repeatedly over the past 60-plus years.
North by Northwest (1959)
It’s easy to take North by Northwest for granted in this day and age. Replicated in both style and story too many times to count, the espionage adventure thriller has inspired the likes of James Bond and Mission: Impossible, among others, and was the first modern-day action movie. A classic case of mistaken identity happens twofold as Cary Grant plays an ad man running from both the police who think he’s a murderer and terrorists who think he’s a spy. He’s neither, and he’s set to venture across the U.S. to figure out what exactly is going on.
From the U.N. Headquarters to a Chicago train station to a desolate country road to a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home atop Mount Rushmore, the scenic locations and unorthodox composition of North by Northwest often overshadow the quality of the film itself, but this is the closest we’ll ever get to a Hitchcockian road trip movie.
By 1960, film noir was all but dead and horror wafted somewhere between the sci-fi paranoia from the decade before and the venturesome, yet thematically derivative, horror pictures happening overseas. In a filmography filled with structured classics, Hitchcock’s most iconic and groundbreaking effort is still this elevated pulp thriller that changed the horror genre forever, assembling the mystery elements of noir with the craziness of a single psychopath — a terror so personal yet so arbitrary that it defied the logic of every Gothic lit adaptation and monster flick ever made.
Psycho stars Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, an innkeeper with mommy issues who kills a woman (Janet Leigh) on the run after she steals money from her boss. By now most of us know the big twist that comes at the end, but at the time it was simply the benevolent cherry on top of a movie that challenges everything the audience thought they knew about expectations and rules of storytelling, all while jerking us around as it sees fit. For the first time, we really saw things from the killer’s perspective as though it were a planned assassination. In reality, Norman couldn’t care less about the woman’s money or who she is. It’s this lack of premeditation and logic that makes him among the scariest psychopaths of all.
The Birds (1963)
Hitchcock can be accused of underpinning nearly each of his films with a subtext of societal cynicism, but the misanthropy imbued into The Birds feels like a pressure gauge finally being released. Tippi Hedren stars in the filmmaker’s 2nd horror effort, which surrounds a deluge of bird attacks on a small fishing town.
The villains in The Birds aren’t nuclear-sized monsters or supernatural entities. No. They’re simply anatomically-correct corvids with inexplicable ire. This was the director’s attempt at a drive-in B-movie but with his highly fastidious approach, similar to what Steven Spielberg would go on to do just 12 years later with Jaws. With mixed reviews upon its initial 1963 release, The Birds is perhaps the closest Hitch has ever had to a cult hit, now making its way onto the director’s shortlist for many.
The last of Hitchcock’s three horror films (and his penultimate picture overall) is also the most gruesome in his oeuvre — even more so than Psycho, which still had to abide by the stringent grips of the Production Code at the time. Returning to his home country for the first (and last) time in 22 years, the director sets Frenzy in London, where a recently unemployed man (Jon Finch) becomes the prime suspect in the murder of his wife, even though he’s innocent. In true Hitchcock fashion, we figure out the identity of the real killer almost right away, putting the onus on the filmmaking itself to drive our suspense, which it totally delivers on.
The director makes sure that the audience always sees what the protagonist can’t figure out yet. In fact, the killer himself is the only character in the film who knows the entire truth. The nuance in Frenzy rivals that of Hitchcock’s most artistic pictures, and with the widest contrast between funny and disturbing we’ve ever seen him attempt. The fact that it’s his second-to-last endeavor makes this one even more poignant, but the 1972 film is a masterpiece nonetheless.