No filmmaker ever hit the trifecta the way Alfred Hitchcock did: a career so long, so commercially successful, so critically acclaimed. Just how critically acclaimed was underscored last year in the poll the British film magazine Sight & Sound conducts every decade on the 50 greatest films of all time. Heading the list? Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958).
Earlier this month, a retrospective, The Complete Alfred Hitchcock, started an 11-week run at the Harvard Film Archive with, yes, “Vertigo.” The series ends Sept. 28, with “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943).
There are so many things to say about Hitchcock, from cameos (his) to blondes (cool) to MacGuffins (myriad). It’s not easy being comprehensive about the career of a man who directed 55 features, some of them among the most cherished in film history, over the course of more than half a century.
So we won’t try. Instead we present some favorite moments from Hitchcock films, courtesy of Globe writers.
THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934)
We tend to recall the 1956 remake of this abduction yarn in greater detail, including Doris Day singing “Que Sera, Sera.” But a recent Blu-ray reissue of Hitchcock’s original British version amusingly reminded us that Day was simply carrying on a proud musical tradition, in a way. In the earlier film, protagonist Leslie Banks and wingman Hugh Wakefield slip into a cultish house of worship that they suspect is a hideout for insidious foreign agents. But how to alert each other to danger while there’s a service in progress? By putting the warning in hymn form, of course: “La-la-la-la stand by / There’s trouble coming soon.” Consider it an early glimpse of the Master of Suspense-Mixed-With-Fleeting-Silliness.
THE 39 STEPS (1935)
Skip this entry if you haven’t seen the movie — wait, you haven’t seen the commercial peak of Hitchcock’s British years and the film that made his name in America? Why on earth not? Based on John Buchan’s 1915 novel, the story line fits neatly into Hitch’s obsession with heroes wrongly accused of murder, but the movie’s most resonant touch — not in the book, notably — is that fussy little man with the music-hall act who figures in the climax. Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) makes his living memorizing obscure facts and statistics, and when Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) yells out from the back of the theater, “What are the 39 Steps?!” professional pride compels him to reveal the “organization of spies” of which he’s part. He knows the act dooms him but he’s helpless to do otherwise — another of Hitchcock’s gentle monomaniacs walking willingly to the grave.
THE LADY VANISHES (1938)
Never forget how good the man was at comedy. It helped make him so good at suspense. Both, after all, are about tension and release. Consider “The Lady Vanishes.” How can Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood help Dame May Whitty evade the very Nazi-ish villains somewhere in Central Europe? (Tension.) Things look grim when a uniformed official shows up to announce that British citizens have to leave the train they’re on. (A lot more tension.) Praise for the excellence of his English distracts the official from his dark task. He puffs up a bit. “Well, I was at Oxford,” he explains. Redgrave, seizing the opportunity, bashes him with a chair. (Release.) “What the blazes did you do that for?” splutters fellow Oxonian Basil Radford. “I was at Cambridge,” replies a nonchalant Redgrave. (A lot more release.) The English class system, as Hitchcock well knew, is can’t-miss, gag-wise.
A key scene in many senses — the key to the mystery, the key to the judgmental heart of Cary Grant’s secret agent, and one with an actual key — this inspired Hitchcock to a technical and stylistic triumph. The feds have enlisted Alicia (Ingrid Bergman), the bibulous, party-girl daughter of a pro-Nazi traitor, to help Grant’s Devlin spy on her dad’s cronies in Rio. Devlin’s disgust turns to love, but then back again when Alicia marries a Nazi creep for the cause. The turning point comes when she swipes the key to the wine cellar, where the secrets are hidden. Hitchcock cranes down slowly from a balcony above, closing in on Alicia schmoozing with Nazis at the reception, then focusing on the key in her hand. Devlin arrives moments later, soon to be a smitten man again.
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951)
We remember the melodramatic nighttime scenes: Bruno (Robert Walker) strangling Miriam (Kasey Rogers), which we see reflected in the thick lenses of Miriam’s fallen glasses; or Guy (Farley Granger) and Bruno facing off on a broken carousel, with grimacing painted horses bearing down as the runaway ride spins faster and faster. Just as powerful, however, is Hitchcock’s ability to linger in broad daylight, in the discomforting moments of ordinary life. In the film’s first tennis scene (what could be more wholesome?), the heads of spectators swing left and right in unison — as at all tennis matches — but something does not seem quite right. A quick zoom reveals the source of our uneasiness: While the spectators around him watch the ball travel back and forth across the court, Bruno stares straight at Guy, unmoving. We cut back to Guy’s face, which is etched with dread.
REAR WINDOW (1954)
Perhaps because he was himself such an odd duck, Hitchcock often made room for quirky characters who seemed to have strolled in from an alternate universe, bringing their own skewed logic with them. Take Stella, the wisecracking nurse to James Stewart’s recuperating photographer in “Rear Window,’’ played by the one and only Thelma Ritter. After popping a thermometer in his mouth, Stella informs him that she has “a nose for trouble,’’ and that, in fact, she predicted the stock market crash of 1929. How? Well, it seems she was working as a nurse to a director of General Motors, and . . . Well, let’s let Stella explain. “ ‘Kidney ailment,’ they said. ‘Nerves, I said.’ And I asked myself: What’s General Motors got to be nervous about? Overproduction, I says. Collapse.’’ Then Stella looks the photographer straight in the eye and declares: “When General Motors has to go to the bathroom 10 times a day, the whole country’s ready to let go.’’ After he maintains there is no connection between a kidney ailment and the stock market, she retorts: “Crashed, didn’t it?’’ Ah, Stella. If only you’d been around in 2008.
The success of films such as “Vertigo” or “Psycho” owes an uncomfortable debt to the music of Bernard Herrmann — uncomfortable because we like to attribute the brilliance of these films to Hitchcock’s genius alone, and uncomfortable because Herrmann’s scores are so relentlessly, virtuosically unsettling. Herrmann tossed out the Romantic orchestral melodies and swells of older film scoring styles and placed in their stead music that, often with the most modest materials, spoke directly to the gut. A connoisseur of unease, he understood the emotional anatomy of suspense, and how to sustain it through simple webs of notes, chords that resist resolution as if defying gravity, and in so doing hold us riveted. Try lowering the volume next time you watch Scottie Ferguson trailing Madeleine, or even Scottie’s nightmare, and see just how flat the sequences become. Far more than is typically the case, these films depend on their Herrmann scores, divulging secrets without mentioning a word.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)
The great Martin Landau’s film career begins about nine minutes into “North by Northwest.” That’s when we see Leonard for the first time, pale as a farmed trout, holding a croquet mallet though it’s hard to imagine he’s actually engaged in the game. “He’s a well tailored one, isn’t he,” Landau sneers a few minutes later, upon entering the library and encountering Cary Grant and that stunning gray suit. In that room, the best lines, as always, go to Grant. But the most skillful physical performance — the menacing head tilt, the finger-twiddling, the body collapse as Grant tries to dart past him — belongs to Landau.
THE BIRDS (1963)
Tippi Hedren sits on a bench outside a schoolhouse. Behind her is the metal outline of a jungle gym, as vacant as the milky Bodega Bay sky. She takes out a cigarette. First one crow alights on the playground apparatus, then a few more. While Hedren smokes (beautifully), and a mesmerizing chorus of children’s voices wafts out of the classroom, more and more birds drift in stealthily, until she finally turns and sees a battalion of them covering the metal structure. No one will ever accuse “The Birds” of being Hitchcock’s most artful film, but nestled within its schlockiness are moments of creative genius, including this dialogue-free scene, so masterfully choreographed that an everyday image of birds on a playground exudes quiet, unshakable horror. At least after “Psycho” you could just avoid taking showers. After “The Birds,” you couldn’t walk outside, never mind anywhere near a schoolyard, without looking over your shoulder.