Arguably the first superstar director that the public knew from appearance due to his fleeting cameo in nearly all of his 51 films was Alfred Hitchcock. Now whilst everyone knows his films such as Psycho, North by Northwest and The Birds we’re taking a look at those overlooked Hitchcock films which deserve a look some of which are as good as his better known films and we’re starting with ……
Hitchcock was British and had directed a couple of shorts and features but the reason why we list this is that this was the first British ‘talkie film. Starring Ivor Novello in the title role the film focuses on a landlady who suspects that he is the serial killer murdering women in London. Previous films had been silent but this had scripted dialogue for the actors and the director though still very early in his career was already experimenting with technique and here it was the sound where in a scene where the murders are discussed by the landlady chattering away in the kitchen with all her words becoming blurred until the only legible word is ‘Knife’ that is highlighted throughout.
Hitch had moved to Hollywood and had earned his first Oscar nomination for Rebecca (one of several Daphne du Maurier book adaptations he would make throughout his career). Starring Cary Grant & Joan Fontaine it was unusual in that it had Grant cast against type and here his character was suspected of planning the murder of the heiress he has married. One of several standout moments was Grant climbing the stairs with a tray and a glass of milk that was possibly poisoned and intended for his wife. A black & white film Hitch wanted the audience’s attention on that milk and to do that the milk had a light hidden inside it to make it bright and draw the audiences eye.
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Set in small town America the film featured Teresa Wright as the teenage Charlie overjoyed when her favourite Uncle, again called Charlie , comes to visit the family but slowly begins to suspect that he might be the ‘Merry Widow’ killer. This was Hitchcock’s own favourite film above all of those he would helm over his 50+ year career and starred Joseph Cotton as Uncle Charlie who had appeared in a number of films for the director. The story of danger and menace in a small town was one that would be repeated to great effect in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. One of several great scenes is at a dinner table where Uncle Charlie, his identity as the serial killer, challenges the idea about the unfairness of rich widows squandering the money in their vacuous lives. He puts up an increasingly persuasive argument. But his niece says, ‘Well they’re human aren’t they? And Uncle Charlie breaks the fourth wall, turns directly to us the audience and asks, ‘Are they?’ You’re suddenly colluding with this awful idea and it’s a stroke of brilliance in challenging the moral waters which have been muddied by his justification for the widows being offed.
Based on a stage play this was a feature length experiment for Hitchcock that starred John Dall and Farley Granger as two men attempting to commit the perfect murder by hosting a dinner party having strangled a former classmate and is hidden in the apartment. This was a first for Hitchcock for several reasons. It was his first film in colour but more importantly this was shot as a series of long takes lasting around ten minutes each solely because that’s how long a reel of film lasted before fresh stock had to be used min the camera. By his own admission it was a stunt and in fairness it is very stagey confined as it is to one set but it’s an interesting experiment.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
This was the story of Bruno (Robert Walker) a psychopath who forces a tennis star Guy (Farley Granger) to exchange murders based on his theory that they would never be caught as they had no motive. So whilst the tennis star’s wife meets her death the appalled tennis star finds Bruno insisting that he carry out his side of the never agreed arrangement to kill his mother. Its brilliantly played out with a fair round sequence that sees a murder reflects in sunglasses and featured the directors own daughter Patricia in an important supporting role. Walker was great in what would be his penultimate role before dying of alcoholism. This is one of those films that hooks you in from the moment they meet on the train and carries you through to its conclusion. It was remade by Danny DeVito in the 1980’s as Throw Momma from the Train to much lesser effect
Dial M for Murder (1954)
This was the directors first film with grace Kelly with whom he developed quite an obsession and she would appear in two more films including the classic rear Window. This was a relatively straight forward story of a former tennis star (Ray Milland) who arranges the murder of his adulterous wife. So what’s the reason for inclusion on the list? Well many might think that King of the World James Cameron is the 3D maestro but the truth is he’s the latest director who dabbled with 3D a fad that has started way back in the 1950s and like the early 1980’s ( Jaws 3D etc) and then the late noughties (Avatar) it would have a flurry of interest before dying out again. By 1954 the 3D wave of films was already on the wane but the studio were insistent that Hitch shoot the film in the format. He was coming to the end of his contract with the studio and had little interest but he enjoyed an experiment and there’s plenty of low angle shots with objects in the foreground to give depth to the 3D effect. Unsurprisingly it only had a short release in this format before a conventional 2D version played in the cinemas
This was Hitchcock’s penultimate film and his last great film after a run of films that had flopped. It was a brilliant return to form for a director who was now in his seventies and starred Barry Foster as Robert Rusk a porter in London’s Convent Garden which at that point was still a fruit and veg market) who is a serial murderer that uses a necktie but lets his friend Richard Blaney ( Jon Finch) take the fall when the police suspect him. Hitchcock retuned to the UK for the first time in decades to make the film in Covent Garden where his own father had worked decades previously. The film has some undoubtedly salacious moments and the director was criticized for unnecessary nudity and for a graphic rape as Rusk grunts, ‘Lovely, lovely, LOVELY!’ before he murders his victim. However there are a number of brilliantly sustained set pieces – the murderer suddenly realising his incriminating necktie pin is in the right hand of his recent victim now dumped on the back of a truck driving out of London and in another scene again the directors interest in experimenting with sound right from the start of his career was used here as the murdered sets about despatching a victim in a flat and as she yells for her life the camera backs away and tracks down the stairs out of the front door into the noisy market making her screams inaudible. A great cast of British lead actors but that also included Billie Whitelaw, Alec McCowen and Anna Massey too but look out also for the late great Bernard Cribbins as a local pub landlord.