On the anniversary (June 16) of the premiere of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” (1960) we are taking a look back on the masterful director’s prolific career. Hitchcock is one of American cinema’s most influential filmmakers, even if he was born in Britain. He is especially known for his innovative techniques and making cameos in several of his films: he enters scenes and sequences with a presence stoic, subtle, and full of portend.
Almost every film student has seen at least a few of his movies. He is a particular favorite among scholars working on Freud, as well. However, his work extends beyond its academic appeal. Hitchcock, whose name itself rings legendary, is one of film history’s greatest icons. Continue reading for a breakdown of some of his best scenes throughout his filmography.
10Dead Birds in “Psycho” (1960)
The film has spawned sequels, imitations, and TV shows, but nothing is as striking as the original “Psycho.” One particularly compelling scene is the dinner between Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Norman Bates (John Gavin) at the hotel. The two talk for the first time, and it’s a moment where audiences begin to register that something terrifying is coming. Viewers tune into that clue in part because of the set design. As the characters converse, our eyes often turn to the background, which is filled with stuffed birds, all meticulously arranged. Hitchcock, surely, was known for his attention to detail. In the scene, a thousand eyes seem to peer at Marion, and to the viewer, as it foreshadows Marion’s fatal attack.
9A Spectacular Smooch in “Notorious” (1946)
According to some filmgoers, there is one scene in “Notorious”–a sensual film about espionage, a heated love triangle, and tracking down Nazis–that stands out over the rest. The film has become known for its maturation, creative depth, and its ushering in of some of Hitchcock’s greatest works. There is one scene, however, that lingers for many modern day viewers: a slow, passionate kiss between Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck.
8A Trippy Dream in “Spellbound” (1945)
In this intriguing film, Hitchcock, the master of suspense, collaborates with Salvador Dali. In so doing, they create fantastical dreamscapes. The film follows Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), who works at a psychiatric hospital that has recently been appointed a new director, Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck). Petersen soon realizes that the new director is not the man he appears to be. In one dream sequence, Hitchcock employs the poetic imagery of Dali to color Edwardes’ inner world. It is replete with deserts, a ballerina, and eerie geometric spaces.
7Innovations in “Rope” (1948)
Hitchcock gets experimental with “Rope.” The feature film is composed of several uninterrupted ten-minute long takes and is shot on a single set. “Rope” centers on a drama about an intellectual exercise made real, while also, remarkably, reflecting such an exercise in its form. Hitchcock follows two Harvard grads, Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) and Brandon Shaw (John Dall) as they attempt to devise a “perfect” murder based on a conversation they had while in school.
In the brilliant opening (the only scene filmed off of the set), Hitchcock gives viewers a tracking shot of a quiet street that moves to an ominous looking window outside of an apartment. Outside of it, viewers will hear a frantic scream. Inside, Philip and Brandon are strangling their old friend with a rope.
6A Cursed Knife in “Blackmail” (1929)
“Blackmail” is Hitchcock’s first sound film, and it’s also Britain’s first-ever sound feature. The film, an evocative noir about a woman who kills her attempted rapist and is blackmailed for it, is stunningly executed and suspenseful. A favorite scene involves a knife and a loaf of bread.
In it, Alice White (Anny Ondra) has escaped with the attempted rapist’s apartment, and arrives at her family home, as she grows increasingly paranoid. Imagine her fear in this scene when she sits down at a table and people are talking about the cruelty of using a knife as a murder weapon. Then, someone asks her to cut them a slice of bread. Hitchcock creates a feeling of dread so precise that it’s chilling.
5The Airplane Assailant in “North by Northwest” (1959)
There is a common theme in Hitchcock’s oeuvre of everyday flying objects turning into murder devices. “North by Northwest” is no exception. The thriller is very much a chase film, with Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), an advertising executive who is mistaken for a spy, constantly running away from the government. In this scene, a plane–in one terrifying nosedive–sets its sights towards running Roger down.
4A Camera Flash in “Rear Window” (1954)
When L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart), a photo journalist, gets a broken leg, he is wheel-chair bound for weeks. All he really does is look outside the window of his apartment complex. Armed with a pair of binoculars that are also probably a reference to the film camera, and–knowing Hitchcock’s work–also probably the phallus, with which he spies on his neighbors. He sees newlyweds, a piano man, and a dancer, but he also sees a man who he believes has just murdered his bed-ridden wife.
A modernly meta- film about voyeurism, the fear of marriage, and the moviegoing experience, “Rear Window” remains one of Hitchcock’s most exciting works. And one of the greatest scenes in the film is when Jeff finally goes face-to-face with the would-be murderer, who barges into his apartment, after he previously only watched him from afar. It’s Hitchcock at his most suspenseful, and Jeff at his most interesting as he tries to “stun” the murder suspect with the flash of his camera.
3An Aerial View in “The Birds” (1963)
Birds, quite frankly, can be terrifying. They’re flying animals with razor sharp beaks, talons and are equipped with horrifying precision. In “The Birds,” the winged creatures decide to turn on humans, to disastrous results. They kill, they torture children, and they serve as a looming metaphor for Melanie Daniels’ (Tippi Hedren) subconscious. Or perhaps the wrath of Mitch’s mother (Jessica Tandy).
In one particularly disastrous scene, the birds attack Melanie and passersby outside a California diner. The entire scene shines, but most especially one long take aerial shot, where the viewers can feel the creatures as they fly through the air, primed to attack.
2The Nightmare in “Vertigo” (1958)
There is a long and rich history of nightmare sequences in film. And yet, Scottie’s (James Stewart) own terror, captured in ghoulishly bright hues and slipstream images in “Vertigo,” should be at the top of the list. Hitchcock employed the aptly named vertigo shot, or dolly zoom, throughout the film to haunting effect. The most exciting use of the technique is in this scene, as viewers get the opportunity to visually, and viscerally, identify with his anxieties, taking audiences into Scottie’s mind as he descends into the deepest depths of madness.
1The Infamous Shower Scene in “Psycho” (1960)
The shower scene has become almost a cliche because of its popularity, but it is a classic for a reason. When Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) hides away in the Bates Motel, she is attempting to take a shower when Norman Bates (John Gavin) fatally stabs her. The nerve-piercing soundtrack adds to the horror of the scene, but what makes it so creepy is the ingenuity of Hitchcock’s camera.
As water dances down the shower drain, the shot fades into an image of Marion’s unblinking eye that slowly zooms out to show her lifeless body. Hitchcock’s directorial vision is central. However, viewers should also praise actress Janet Leigh’s tortuous labor, who, throughout the dozens of takes needed, had to stare without blinking for long periods of time.