En español | Alfred Hitchcock may be the most famous director in cinema history. And who knew — he also apparently has his very own holiday, Alfred Hitchcock Day, on March 12. While the choice of the date is cloaked in mystery — it is neither the date of his birth nor his death — it's still a fine time to pay tribute to the Master of Suspense.
And what better way to do so than to screen some of his finest films? We pored through the pioneering legend's vast filmography, which comprises more than 50 movies spanning more than five decades, and ranked his Top 10 classics. The list isn't just a primer on an unparalleled body of work that influences Hollywood to this day, it also stands as a master class in how to artfully turn thrills, chills, mischief and murder (not to mention a certain shower scene) into fiendishly giddy entertainment. See if your favorites line up with ours, and let us know in the comments, below.
1. Psycho (1960)
If you want to pinpoint it, this is where the modern horror movie begins. Anthony Perkins is creepy perfection as the ultimate mama's boy, Norman Bates — the seemingly mild-mannered proprietor of a fading motel where Janet Leigh's Marion Crane tragically decides to spend the night while on the run with a suitcase full of cash that she stole from the bank where she works. The infamous shower scene is a masterpiece of lurking suspense, primal terror and masterful quick-cut editing, ending with a close-up of a bloody shower drain that matches the lifeless victim's pupil. Sixty-year-old spoiler alert: By killing off the movie's heroine before the picture's halfway mark, Hitchcock let the audience know that from here on out, the old rules of cinema were as dead as Crane herself.
DON'T MISS THIS: Test your Hitchcock trivia IQ with our critics in our quiz, here: How Well Do You Know Psycho?
2. Vertigo (1958)
More than six decades after it was released, Vertigo still packs a kinky, transgressive punch. Often outpolling Citizen Kane as the greatest Hollywood movie ever made, this perverse, eye-candy melodrama stars Jimmy Stewart as a phobic San Francisco police detective who falls for a friend's wife, torments himself with guilt when she dies, and then becomes obsessed with a woman who looks just like her (Kim Novak). Some have argued that Vertigo is the closest Hitchcock ever came to putting his own erotic and psychological neuroses on film, but either way, it's a hell of a thriller that's both twisted and haunting. Bernard Herrmann's swooning score is the icing on the cake.
3. Strangers on a Train (1951)
A chatty sociopath in sheep's clothing (Robert Walker) shares a train compartment with a famous tennis player (Farley Granger), and as they begin to talk, he becomes convinced that they've made a vague pact to swap murders ("Crisscross"). He'll kill Granger's estranged wife if Granger will kill his domineering father. Surely, he must be joking, right? But when Granger's wife turns up dead, it's clear that he's now up to his neck in trouble. Thanks to Walker's deliciously unhinged performance, Strangers on a Train is one of Hitchcock's sickest sick jokes. The climax on a whirling carousel is worth the price of a rental alone.
4. The 39 Steps (1935)
Before he picked up and moved to America, Hitchcock was the British film industry's best-kept secret. But like all secrets, this one eventually got out. The 39 Steps is the movie that made Hollywood really take notice and lure the director across the pond. Tapping into a theme that Hitchcock would revisit many times over his career, the film stars Robert Donat as an innocent man wrongly accused of murder. A nest of spies is after him, as are the police. And, of course, there's a blonde (Madeleine Carroll) — isn't there always a blonde? The 39 Steps is a cracking good yarn and also the closest Hitchcock would ever come to a greatest hits album.
5. North By Northwest (1959)
Hitchcock regular Cary Grant is at his Cary Grant-iest in this cross-country wrong-man thriller about a suave Madison Avenue ad exec (guess who?) who is mistaken for a spy that some very bad men (hello, James Mason) want to rub out. He's captured, he escapes, he's framed for a murder at the U.N., he narrowly dodges a crop duster, and he scales Mount Rushmore, all in a bid to clear his name. The thrills just keep coming. Is it preposterous? And how! But it's also such a fizzy cocktail of style, wit, paranoia and plain old rollicking adventure that it feels like a James Bond movie made before there was such a thing as James Bond movies.
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6. Rear Window (1954)
The joke's on us. Hitchcock turns the camera on the audience and implicates it in this thriller about voyeurism. Laid up in his apartment with a broken leg, Jimmy Stewart peeps out his window into the flats across his courtyard and thinks he sees a man who's knocked off his wife. Aided by his girlfriend (a straight-out-of-Vogue Grace Kelly), whose primness belies a buried desire for thrills, the two try to get to the bottom of what he's seen — or thinks he's seen. Rear Window is one of Hitchcock's most perfectly paced films, and it's been copied endlessly. But none have duplicated the Maestro's magic touch. Bonus: the priceless Thelma Ritter as Stewart's sassy, brassy housekeeper.
7. Rebecca (1940)
Hitchcock decided to make his Hollywood debut with this chilling combination of detective story, swooning romance and psychological drama, based on Daphne du Maurier's gothic novel. A mousy Joan Fontaine marries the brooding Laurence Olivier and tries (and fails) to make him and everyone else forget his deceased first wife. Packed with guilt, insecurity and a laundry list of other nerve-fraying emotions, Rebecca marked the arrival of a new, unstoppable force in American movies, winning the Best Picture Oscar. As a footnote, however, Hitchcock would never win a Best Director statuette!
Watch it here: Rebecca, on YouTube
8. Notorious (1946)
What seems to be setting itself up as an espionage film instead becomes a tortured romance, with Ingrid Bergman unwittingly married to an ex-Nazi (played by Claude Rains) and Cary Grant as an American agent manipulating her to play along with her possessive hubbie to get what he needs. The way Bergman is treated in the film says a lot about how Hitchcock viewed women, but if you can get past the film's cruel cat-and-mouse psychological gamesmanship, it's an intoxicating nightmare that feels ripped from the pages of a pulp novel.
Watch it here: Notorious, on YouTube
9. The Birds (1963)
Exactly what you think it is … but also so much more. Red-meat leading man Rod Taylor meets Tippi Hedren in a San Francisco pet shop, they flirt, and she delivers a pair of love birds to him in his quaint seaside hometown. Then, for no apparent reason, (other) birds start dive-bombing and attacking the town's residents, pecking out eyes and screeching while they draw blood. Jessica Tandy and Suzanne Pleshette are both excellent as Hedren's mother and Taylor's old flame, respectively. But this is really a shot of white-knuckle animal-attacks mayhem with a Freudian undercurrent about the cages of propriety Hitchcock's characters are trapped in.
10. To Catch a Thief (1955)
Pure thousand-thread count luxury escapism, To Catch a Thief is like a cat burglar thriller packaged as an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. On the French Riviera, Cary Grant plays a dashing retired thief who may or may not actually be retired. Suspected after a bunch of jewels go missing (including those of an impossibly gorgeous Grace Kelly and her impossibly wealthy mother), Grant has to find the real burglar in order to prove his innocence — and get the girl. To Catch a Thief is fairly lightweight, but it's so breezy and fun and beautiful, it's hard to argue with it. Better to just pour a glass of Champagne, kick back and enjoy the opulent atmosphere of it all.
Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.