It’s no secret that Hollywood capitalizes on themes. This being the year of Hitchcock, The Master of Suspense is receiving the much-deserved all-star treatment in more ways than one. Universal is gifting cinephiles with its Blu-ray release of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, which includes 15 of the late director’s greatest works. Fox Searchlight, HBO, and A&E contribute their own celebratory offerings with the appropriately named Hitchcock (opening this week), The Girl, and Bates Motel, due next spring. Not to be outdone, I’m capitalizing with…a top ten list, forward-thinking opportunist that I am. With such a prolific repertoire of standouts, it’s almost silly to pick just ten (I cheated and added an extra), but if you’re into the whole brevity thing, have a gander:
10. The Birds (1963)
I’ve always hated birds: The way they flutter out of bushes just as you walk past in a thunderous flapping of wings that sounds like a gun’s just gone off. The way they maliciously sit on the electrical wire above your newly washed car, strategically aiming their gift-launching cannons. Apparently, they also assemble in hordes and violently attack beautiful women, elderly gentlemen, and innocent schoolchildren. I knew I always had a right to dislike the creatures, but Hitchcock provides a whole terrorized bay town full of reasons as justification. Just as we’re not initially sure of Melanie Daniels’ intentions toward Mitch Brenner as she follows him and breaks into his family home with a gift of lovebirds, the strange behavior of the birds doesn’t immediately register as sinister. The lingering suspicion against Melanie is mirrored by that against the amassing congregation of birds in the town, leading some to blame her for the freak events. As the birds grow in number, so does the town’s paranoia and fear, and rightfully so, as the sporadic attacks crescendo with an explosively terrifying barrage on the city. The verdict is in: I still unapologetically hate birds.
9. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
When Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Newton bemoans the dull, uneventful life her family leads, she’s delighted to hear news that her young, fun-loving Uncle Charlie is coming to visit. However, it becomes apparent that dear Uncle’s visit is no coincidence when two men posing as conductors of a national survey take a particular interest in the Newton family. As one of them develops an attachment to young Charlie and reveals he’s a detective investigating the “Merry Widow Murders,” she begins to question the true nature of her uncle’s sudden appearance. Charlie is horrified when Uncle imprudently lets on that he considers extremely wealthy women fat animals for slaughtering and claims his entitlement to reap in their riches. The gradual, disheartening transition from utter enchantment to innocence-shattering disillusionment with a man she idolizes highlights her tragic, but necessary progression into adulthood. Theresa Wright, as young Charlie, beautifully and earnestly portrays the heartbreak of her realization and wisely settles for a simple, quiet life in the end.
8. Dial M for Murder (1954)
Who in their right mind would plot to kill Grace Kelly once they’ve been lucky enough to marry her? Sure, she’s been carrying on an affair with a former lover behind your back and plans to leave you for him, but, have some sense, man; you’ve been married to the future Princess of Monaco. Your sad existence as a washed-up tennis star turned sports equipment salesman is justified merely by the years, albeit few, of marital status you’ve shared with that divine creature, worth more than her weight in gold—or a hefty insurance policy. Absolutely absurd. Such is the laughable folly of pride which perpetuates the attempted murder mystery in Dial M for Murder. Staged in the sense of a play, Tony Wendice slyly evades suspicion in the aftermath of a botched-up murder plot against his wealthy wife, Margot. Hitchcock’s obsessive attention to detail is fully showcased in this one with that bloody, fickle key constantly called into question. It’s enough to drive you mad and even question what you’ve already seen to be the truth. Seething over the fact that Margot’s been booked as a suspect in the crime and Wendice’s apparently successful escape from due justice, it’s hugely satisfying to see that the police force still employs competent men of good sense, like Chief Inspector Hubbard.
7. Psycho (1960)
Boy, does Hitch pull out all the stops in this iconic, gripping psychoanalytical thriller, or what? He doesn’t even spare his newest blonde, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), from a horrendous fate for very long. From the very beginning, he simultaneously entices, with Marion’s bra-bearing encounter with her lover, and warns of impending violence with Bernard Herrmann’s eerie string-driven soundtrack, dangerously building the sense of unease and tension. The risky depiction of overt sexuality and graphic violence was the subject of much controversy and increased its shock value in an unprecedented way. Still terrifying to this day, is the pivotal shower scene, which conveys violence with extreme close-ups, menacing flashes of a large knife, sounds of tearing flesh, and at Herrmann’s insistence, a recurrence of the screeching string composition. Delving deep into the warped psychosis of a killer lends a new angle to murder mysteries, one that has since inspired a slasher-film genre and replication in films like Brian De Palma’s almost-identical homage, Dressed to Kill (1980).