Iconic Must-See Alfred Hitchcock Films

The Best Hitchcock Films: Witty, Suspenseful, Macabre

The Birds
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Alfred Hitchcock had a long, productive career making fine movies with his distinctive trademarks, each including a cameo by the portly "Master of Suspense" himself. Some of them were masterpieces; all of them are entertaining. Here's a list of the best Alfred Hitchcock movies.

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"The 39 Steps" (1935)

Made during his early career in Britain, is stamped with Hitchcock movie hallmarks — an innocent man on the run, unwillingly accompanied by an icy blonde who's not sure she can trust him. It's a spy mystery that jaunts across the streets of London to the Scottish countryside with a tight plot and clever dialogue. There's good chemistry between Robert Donat as the plucky Canadian hero and Madeleine Carroll literally handcuffed together. Donat is delightful when he is mistaken for a political candidate and has to give a rousing, impromptu speech — a scene Hitchcock would repeat in subsequent films.

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"The Lady Vanishes" (1938)

Suppose you're chatting with a charming old lady on a train. You doze off — and the lady vanishes. What's more, no one on the train will believe that she was ever there. That's the problem Hitchcock sets Margaret Lockwood and fellow traveler Michael Redgrave, the only other passenger willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. A great cast with Dame May Whitty as the disappearing Miss Froy and a stable of terrific comic English actors round out the mystery and the fun. There's always sly or macabre humor in Hitchcock films, but "The Lady Vanishes" may be his most amusing movie -- one of the last he made in England, and a box-office success that helped ensure his welcome in Hollywood.

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"Notorious" (1946)

A tense espionage thriller with Hitchcock's favorite actor, Cary Grant, as an upright American agent and Ingrid Bergman as the daughter of a German spy. Bergman, at heart an American patriot, is a notorious party girl and a drinker. Grant recruits her as an agent to infiltrate a Nazi plot in Rio, and of course, falls in love with her. Despite a passionate kissing scene that runs three minutes, they can't quite manage to trust each other. Cary lets her go off to serve her country in the arms of the chief local Nazi, Claude Rains. Terrific sexual tension and nail-biting suspense, along with great examples of Hitchcock "McGuffins" (in this case a key and some wine bottles) that serve both as plot devices and symbols.

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"Strangers on a Train" (1951)

Yet another chance Hitchcock meeting of strangers on a train — this one with a strong homoerotic subtext and a particularly nasty murder. Professional tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) meets idle rich boy Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), who turns out to know quite a bit about Guy — enough to propose a bizarre double murder. He'll get rid of Guy's coarse and cheating wife, and Guy will do away with Bruno's domineering dad, who's withholding the trust fund. The idea is that they'll each have alibis and escape detection. Walker is truly creepy; there are some unforgettable camera angles and set shots and a terrifying climax with an out-of-control carousel. Thrilling stuff.

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"Rear Window" (1954)

No trains here, but Hitchcockian voyeurism and obsession are on full display. Photographer Jimmy Stewart is laid up with a broken leg, spying on his fellow New Yorkers in a courtyard surrounded by apartment houses. Seen from his rear window, they're funny, lonely, lively and possibly deadly, in the case of the mysterious traveling salesman whose sickly, nagging wife suddenly disappears. Stewart enlists the help of his gorgeous girlfriend, elegant Grace Kelly as a Park Avenue fashion model/designer, to solve the mystery. A bizarrely original plot, an ingenious set, and heart-pounding suspense highlight "Rear Window", along with a fascinating look at the open windows of New York apartment life in the days before air conditioning.

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"Vertigo" (1958)

Many see "Vertigo", a brooding exploration of obsession, failed nerve and lost love as Hitchcock's masterpiece movie. It's filmed in a dreamlike haze on the oddly empty streets of San Francisco, as Jimmy Stewart pursues Kim Novak, another elegant Hitchcock blonde, who seems to slip in and out of her dead great-grandmother's persona. Here again is the central Hitchcock motif of a pair of lovers who are made for each other, but can't quite come to a place of trust, and for good reason. The plot's a little iffy, but that's not the point in this almost surreal tale. You'll find yourself thinking back on its slow, dreamy scenes for days after you see it.

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"North by Northwest" (1959)

This one's got just about every Hitchcock theme stuffed masterfully inside. A "chance" meeting on a train, mistaken identity, a man falsely accused, an icy blonde, a little voyeurism, a touch of homoeroticism, a woman sent to seduce a spy for love of her country and locations that range from Madison Avenue to Mount Rushmore. It's all wildly entertaining, with Cary Grant as the impossibly debonair, quick-thinking hero, Eva-Marie Saint as the ice-blonde femme fatale, James Mason as the dastardly spy and Martin Landau as his too-devoted henchman. Witty dialogue, a breakneck pace, and a microfilm McGuffin. What are you waiting for? Go watch this movie. And if you've already seen it, go watch it again!

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"Psycho" (1960)

Not Hitchcock's best film, but perhaps his most famous. Shocking in its day, it seems tame by modern horror movie standards, but it can still pack a jolt or two. Janet Leigh is a comely criminal who rips off her boss and makes a very bad decision to spend a night at the Bates Motel. There she meets Norman Bates, mild-mannered momma's boy, and serious psycho. He likes to spy on motel guests (voyeurism again) and gets a little agitated, which leads to the infamous shower scene. With its famous screeching-violin score by Bernard Herrman, it seems a bit campy now, but countless horror movies owe a great deal to this classic Hitchcock film.

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"The Birds" (1963)

Bizarre and absolutely unforgettable, Hitchcock's "The Birds" is the story of an inexplicable avian attack on a quiet seaside town. For no apparent reason, the birds attack kids at birthday parties, innocent farmers and school teachers in vicious, mindless waves. While it's tempting to see it as an ecological fable, the film really has more to do with primal human forces. It's Hitchcock's trademark exploration of men with strong mothers and the relative attractions of icy blondes like Tippi Hedren versus earthy beauties like Suzanne Pleshette. Trained birds, mechanical birds, and animated birds make for spectacular scenes of menace, and the vision of crows settling silently on a school playground, one by one, will stay with you.