time you enter a video store, you see them aimlessly wander the aisles. Dyed-in-the-wool movie fans, who after several
years of renting, have exhausted the films they know or have heard something about. Even the most casual fan knows and
appreciates Alfred Hitchcock's three most famous films: Psycho,
North by Northwest and The Birds.
These three masterpieces were made consecutively near the end of Hitchcock's brilliant career. But he made fifty-one other
movies over a span of five decades. Not all are masterpieces. They range from breathtaking to annoying. Facing rows of
DVDs in the "Hitchcock" section can cause sensory overload... so many choices, so many opportunities to skip
over the classics and choose one of the dogs. With that in mind, here is my list of the ten "next best" Hitchcock
films to rent after you've enjoyed the famous three.
1) Rear Window, 1954. Though too claustrophobic to equal his best movies, Rear Window nails all the themes that
reoccur throughout Hitchcock's work. As Jimmy Stewart unravels a mystery, much of the film is without dialogue. Between
the intriguing camera shots and Stewart's facial expressions, the audience must deduce what exactly is going on for themselves.
2) Strangers on a Train, 1951. Alfred Hitchcock believed in a film device called the McGuffin. A McGuffin is the
thing the characters in the movie care about, but we as the audience ignore. The McGuffin is what sets the story in motion.
Psycho's McGuffin is Janet Leigh stealing $50,000. Strangers' McGuffin may be the best ever conceived for a film. Robert
Walker is unforgettable.
3) Foreign Correspondent, 1940. All Alfred Hitchcock films made during World War II are a bit flawed today by the
extreme hysteria that was a natural reaction then. All, that is, except Foreign Correspondent. It features his most
three-dimensional villain of this period and ends with an impassioned call to patriotism. If nothing else, we are shown how
heroes are made out of the most unlikely candidates. Also, it'd be years before Hitchcock had this much fun again.
4) The 39 Steps,
1935. In the 1926's The Lodger, Hitchcock first presented his familiar predicament: an innocent man falsely accused of a crime.
The 39 Steps has the twist of being about an innocent man falsely accused of being a spy. Loaded with memorable scenes and fun
bantering between Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, this film features one of Hitchcock's most intriguing stories. While flawed by
some incomprehensible British dialogue (why do they swallow the last half of their words?), the film is frustrating because when one
of the characters, in a riveting scene, answers the question, "What are the 39 Steps?", we want to know more. Unfortunately,
the movie mostly ignores the 39 Steps themselves. (The Steps are the film’s McGuffin. A remake focused on the Steps themselves.) In fact,
although the villains are obviously German, the production code of the time prevented the characters from using "German" or
"Nazi". Such cowardly "forced apathy" was in a great part what led to the successes and tragedies of fascism.
5) Dial M for Murder, 1954. There aren't many straight men in the world who would want to get rid of Grace Kelly
as their wife, but Ray Milland is one. Too talky (and the money involved sounds comical today), but still a wonderful
unraveling of a "perfect" crime. The major flaw is the ludicrous casting of Robert Cummings as the heroic lead.
The love of his life is about to be executed and he still has time to perfectly arrange his hanky in his breast pocket.
Grace Kelly does a surprisingly poor job, but her part is small. Milland is terrific when smugly in control.
6) The Lady Vanishes, 1938. A fine mystery where the bad guys (again, nobody calls them Germans) seek to convince
a previously ditzy heiress (Margaret Lockwood)
she didn't see what she saw: believe us, not your eyes. Building to a wonderfully tense conclusion, The Lady Vanishes
today can be viewed as a microcosm of what the world faced in World War II: treachery, apathy, the big lie, lonely heroism,
and finally, redemption. Particularly memorable are two English twits more concerned with cricket than important events
swirling around them, until the evil forces demand that they abandon their sense of fair play and be a party to the evil. (The
twits' characters became so popular they reappeared in other films, most notably the excellent Night Train to Munich.)
7) Shadow of a Doubt, 1943. Uncle Charlie was Hitchcock's first psychopath. Even though marred by the obvious paranoia
of the times (the outsider is welcomed, but then found evil), Shadow of a Doubt brings terror into the guest room.
Alfred Hitchcock knew it takes elements of the familiar and comfortable to create the most terrifying nightmares. In that way
Shadow is the direct ancestor of The Birds and many modern horror movies.
8) Lifeboat, 1944. More World War II paranoia, but this time the few characters must wrestle with the dilemma of what
to do with evil when it's staring you in the eye. Savage and angry, Lifeboat shows what a difference a decade makes.
Here not only are the Germans the literal enemy, but John Hodiak pronounces "gnatsies" like he's spitting out poison.
9) To Catch a Thief, 1955. Besides North By Northwest, Cary Grant excelled in Notorious, Suspicion and
this movie, making him the quintessential Hitchcock leading man. (Jimmy Stewart has to settle for second.) A retired thief, even Grant
has to wonder when evidence in a series of burglaries points at him. Not a classic, but Thief is an interesting twist on the
"innocent man falsely accused" theme. Grant was guilty as sin years before, but now he protests his innocence.
10) Torn Curtain, 1966. Not as widely revered as some of his other films, Torn Curtain is nonetheless quite entertaining.
Starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews (looking both gorgeous and heartbroken), this movie is chocked full of ordinary people moved to
heroism. The bad guys are made particularly nasty by making them East Germans, as if being either Commies or Nazis alone is no longer enough!
The farmhouse scene is a fine study in the ingenuity of desperation.
Notorious, possibly the last movie Nazis were the enemy and not the Soviets.
Saboteur, terrific locations including Statue of Liberty scene, marred only by Robert Cummings again.
The Man Who Knew Too Much, the 1934 version, not the much worse 1956 remake where Doris Day croons "Que Sera,
Sera" as her son is hostage a few yards away.
Vertigo, ingenious (and starring
Kim Novak) but just too painfully slow in spots.
Rebecca, a wonderful idea but stretches the slim story out much too long.
Spellbound, has moments but the archaic presentation of psychoanalysis is silly.
The Wrong Man, based on a true story where the look-alike of a crook is arrested.
Suspicion, could have been great but censors forced a ridiculous changed ending.
Rope, The Lodger, Topaz, Frenzy, Murder, and I Confess are worth checking out.
Amazingly, after all these, Alfred Hitchcock still has a decent body of work available in Blackmail,
Sabotage, Young & Innocent, Secret Agent, Number 17, Marnie, The Trouble
With Harry and Family Plot. If you get this far, you'll have seen some of the finest movies ever made,
but don't be surprised if every bird, crop duster and shower curtain you see makes your skin tingle.