Rear Window (1954)
By Dalton Mullins
Rear Window is another of Hitchcock’s greatest achievements. A story of human voyeurism and the dark path that it can lead one down: one where you eventually find something that wasn’t meant to be seen. It is oftentimes a perverse and paranoid film and features many of the themes and motifs often associated with Hitchcock.
The story follows L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart), a photographer with a broken leg and a camera by his side. He begins spying on his neighbors through his rear window, in opposition to the wishes of his nurse (Thelma Ritter). As he becomes more absorbed and engaged, he manages to involve his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) in the activity. After watching for a while, he believes that one neighbor across the courtyard has committed a murder. What happens next is pure brilliance on the part of Mr. Hitchcock. As they concoct a scheme to capture the murderer in the act of destroying evidence and as they start connecting events together, you are rigid with tension on the edge of your seat waiting for the conclusion that can’t arrive fast enough.
James Stewart in Rear Window is similar to his character in Vertigo. He is far from your average Hollywood hero. He can be voyeuristic and perverted. He becomes fanatical and the mystery consumes him. He even uses his own girlfriend as bait to capture the suspected murderer. He isn’t the most rational and sensible character and believes in what he wants, whether it’s true or not.
The very first time I saw Rear Window was an experience that I will never forget. Not only was I biting my nails throughout the running time, it made me think about voyeuristic and curiosity-guided tendencies we all have, how they can control us and lead us to obsession, and how they can uncover unpleasant people or actions. Rear Window is among the best Hitchcock films for not only being able to make you quiver with tension but also for being thought-provoking and subverting expectations.
By Ben McDonald
Vertigo is one of the more recent Hitchcocks I’ve seen, and certainly the most difficult one I’ve yet to experience. Vertigo is both the epitome of and the exception to Hitchcock, a haunting and self-conscious reflection on the director’s most pervasive, and perverse, thematic material. It also features a stunningly uncomfortable performance by James Stewart as an acrophobic private investigator, pulled out of retirement by an old friend to follow his wife Madeline (Kim Novak).
As Stewart’s Scottie trails Madeline at a distance, we are equally drawn in as spectators by the mystery of her behavior. Her actions seem possessed, even supernatural. When Scottie is forced to intervene her apparent suicide, we become even further entrenched in the obsession, deceit, and intrigue of their relationship.
James Stewart’s performance is phenomenally compelling precisely because it goes against every fiber of his normal character type. As Scottie, Stewart is neither his usual pleasant self nor psychologically sound. He’s obsessive and voyeuristic to the point of perversion, completely ignorant of the repercussions of his behavior on others. Without spoiling too much, there’s a moment that takes place towards the climax that sickeningly encapsulates pure, pathetic obsession, often cited as one of the greatest scenes in cinema.
My first impressions of Vertigo were frankly a little underwhelmed and confused, but since watching it for the first time nearly four months ago, the film has never strayed far from my mind. If that’s not a testament to its power, I don’t know what is.
North by Northwest (1959)
By Dalton Mullins
When I was in the eighth grade, I had an intro to film class that I simply adored. One of the films that we watched during that class was Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. This was one of the most instrumental films for me when I fell in love with film and cinema. Since my first viewing of North by Northwest, I’ve seen about a dozen other Hitchcock films, and none of them come close to North by Northwest, either in impact or sheer cinematic brilliance.
At its simplest, North by Northwest is a case of mistaken identity and the various events that happen afterwards. It follows Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), an advertising executive in New York City, as he is mistaken for government agent named George Kaplan. Roger is then framed for a murder and has to dodge the police and to solve the case. Throughout the mess his life has become, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful blond woman (Eva Marie Saint). Everything comes to head upon Mount Rushmore in one of the greatest rescue scenes in film history.
One thing that always stood out to me about North by Northwest is how thrilling and tense it is. Hitchcock is known as the Master of Suspense and it manifests itself clearly in this film. From the aforementioned rescue upon Mount Rushmore, to the plane chase at the bus stop, and just about every other scene in the film, Hitchcock keeps you guessing about what will happen next and keeps you on the edge of your seat. One thing that always made me wonder was how Hitchcock managed to get past the censors with blatant, sexual overtones throughout (especially the ending).
Filled with quick wit and some of the most suspenseful scenes, ever committed to celluloid, North by Northwest remains one of Hitchcock’s greatest achievements.
By Kevin Jones
In my own personal journey into cinema, Psycho was one of the films that really ignited my love for the medium. In a high school film class, the teacher first taught us about shot structure, about mise en scene, and about other filmmaking basics. When it came to watching films, she broke the class into different sections, largely based on genre. For the first section, we started with horror. Up to this point, I had largely avoided horror, believing it to be nothing but slashers and, being somebody who was quite squeamish in my youth, gore filled horror films did not strike my fancy. Psycho was the very first film we watched. Alongside the other selections in the “unit”, The Silence of the Lambs and The Shining, Psycho was a film that help to ignite my passion for cinema and for the psychological horror genre. It was not a film that was covered in blood – though there is some – but rather one that, as I would later learn, allowed Hitchcock to flex his more psychological muscle that he often explored in his films. Here, he explores the fractured mind of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and the sexual and maternal issues that drive his psychotic behavior as he struggles to put away the presence of his mother within his mind, which drives him to kill any poor young woman who happens upon his secluded Bates Motel.
Between this more psychological angle, the suspense, the voyeurism, and the mother issues, Psycho is a film that, beneath the surface, feels like old hat for many Hitchcock fans. There is nothing underneath the surface that truly represents some kind of evolution for him, rather he is playing with ideas and themes he has long toyed with in his career. Yet, what makes Psycho his masterpiece is not some sort of originality in its ideas, but in their execution. This sinister, menacing, and truly haunting film, features some of the best use of Hitchcock’s voyeurism, particularly due to their impact. James Stewart peers through windows in Rear Window, but he is a benevolent force who is just an average Joe interested in what his neighbors are doing. Norman Bates peering through a hole he drilled in the wall to watch Marion Crane undress feels perverse and sinister. His descent into madness as a result of being unable to cope with his mother no longer being with him feels like the culmination of all of Hitchcock’s past endeavors to explore strained mother-son relationships, born out of his own personal issues. She drives him crazy, both literally and figuratively. Prior to Psycho, Hitchcock made suspenseful and thrilling films, but not quite horrifying and haunting films such as Psycho, yet here the way in which he follows Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) only to cut her life short right in the middle is just that. She feels like a real person who screwed up and the audience becomes invested in her trying to right a wrong, only for Hitchcock to pull the rug out from under this and she is all of a sudden just dead. It is achingly real in a way that elevates it beyond a typical horror mystery or murder scene.
Similarly, the score provided by Bernard Herrmann helps to take this suspense to an entirely different direction, as does the camera work from John L. Russell, which is not just voyeuristic but always unsettling in how it forces the audience to serve as a witness to these blood-curdling murders. The score from Herrmann pulsating with its erratic and nail-on-chalkboard quality only serves to heighten the audience’s discomfort in a way that Hitchcock had not accomplished to this point and would not reach again in his career. He made great, suspenseful, and thrilling films. He made films that border on masterpieces or are outright masterpieces to some. Yet, he had not made a film like Psycho that took all of the sex, violence, suspense, and psychology that he loved to toy with, and put it into such a precisely executed and downright unsettling package. Even with a twist that one knows is coming or is familiar with on rewatches, Psycho still packs a punch and is filled with surprises, which speaks to its considerable staying power as one of the pinnacles of the horror genre.
The Birds (1963)
By Matt Schlee
Few horror movies can put me on the edge of my seat quite like The Birds. While modern technology has lapped the film in terms of special effects, Hitchcock’s mysterious natural thriller is an unforgettable mix of horror and tension. The unexplainable nature of the film’s plot only elevates the feeling of dread with every subsequent viewing.
The Birds revolves around a woman named Melanie (Tippi Hedren) who comes to a small town in pursuit of Mitch (Rod Taylor), a man she just met. She brings him a pair of lovebirds for his little sister. Coinciding with Melanie’s arrival, a plague of vicious bird attacks descend on the town and its surrounding areas. Many films and stories have adapted this formula: a stranger enters a small town and is blamed when their arrival is accompanied by disaster. I can never help but think of The Birds when I watch Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss.
Still, this Hitchcock masterwork is a unique exercise in building tension. Few scenes in film history more successfully get my heart racing than the sequence in which a flock of birds slowly gather on a jungle gym behind the unaware Melanie. The moment when the birds attack the populated center of the town is one of Hitchcock’s most thrilling action sequences. The final moments of the film are powerful and haunting, leaving the viewer to wonder what’s to stop such a catastrophe from descending on their own town. Hitchcock is known as the Master of Suspense. No film better justifies this title than The Birds.