Alfred Hitchcock Meta-Analysis

Here’s a fun game to play: try to find a ranking of directors which doesn’t have Alfred Hitchcock in the top five. I can tell you that out of sources that I find generally credible (even if I largely disagree with them), I haven’t been able to do so. In 2002, Sight and Sound polled directors and he came out fifth, placing behind Orson Welles, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, and Francis Ford Coppola. The critics put him second, behind Welles. So did the people at Studiobinder in 2020 (to Kubrick) and at Empire in 2005 (to Spielberg). Parade put him third, behind Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. But for EW in 1996, MovieMaker in 2002, They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? in 2021, and Total Film in 2007: first overall.

Why shouldn’t they? In another few months, we’ll finally find out if Vertigo will hold on to its title as the greatest movie of all time, per Sight and Sound; Hitchcock is already only the third director to have made one of Sight and Sound’s greatest movies, and he can become the second after Welles to keep an entry there for more than one edition of the list. Hitchcock is probably the most influential director of the sound era, a man who moved his camera and set up his stories with terrific panache. I don’t think there’s another director whose most famous images are more familiar or more imitated than Hitchcock’s. The crop duster behind Cary Grant in North by Northwest would be the most iconic image of almost any director’s milieu, and yet I’m not sure that it even qualifies as Hitchcock’s. I think the birds on the jungle gym or the knife-wielding shadow behind the shower curtain would outstrip it, and even still there are more uncanny, strange pictures from his oeuvre which strike me more deeply. The spectacular camera movement from balcony to the palm of Ingrid Bergman’s hand in Notorious, the lit tip of a cigarette in the dark of an apartment in Rear Window, or the gauzy green semi-ghost walking to Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. There are movies and all where people play Hitchcock, but I don’t think any biopic of the man could ever really be successful. Hitchcock was a somewhat prickly English gent who could eat huge quantities of food and probably did some nasty stuff to his blonde stars that would get him canceled in the present time. It’s not him that we’re interested in so much as his images, and despite the gloryhounding and stanning that qualifies as Film Twitter criticism, it’s never Hitchcock’s personality that shines through. (I’ve never seen anyone tweet about Hitchcock with the words “god,” “king,” or “legend” in front of his name, for example.) He does not even have the quotable genius of Ingmar Bergman, nor does he inspire the religious discipleship that Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky do. It is easy to consider him the greatest of all directors because it is easy enough to put aside the cameos and the intros to Alfred Hitchcock Presents and to see the shots instead.

The perception of Alfred Hitchcock is that he directed thrillers and the occasional horror movie. I have a weakness for being the guy who says stuff like, “Well, it’s not that simple,” and I suppose if I wanted to I could bring up the screwball Mr. and Mrs. Smith or some offbeat comedies like Family Plot or The Trouble with Harry. But to be frank, I think it’s fair to say that they dominate his filmography. Almost all of the pictures in the top 25 that I’ve gathered here are thrillers of one kind or another, whether psychological or erotic or noirish. I’ll allow two horror movies, which are not exactly distant relatives to thrillers. One one hand, there really isn’t all that much variety in the man’s filmography, and on the other, any list is a testament to its makers. That this list is so full of thrillers and thriller-adjacent pictures has as much to do with the facts of Hitchcock’s movies as it does with the preference we have for his thrillers and mysteries as opposed to his comedies.

The process for Alfred Hitchcock is just a little different than it was for the MCU, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Pixar, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Stanley Kubrick. Given the number of Hitchcock films out there and the paucity of lists which go to the lengths of ranking all of them, I had to/was happy to adjust. I decided to make twenty-five films the cutoff. Any list that ranked fewer than 25 was immediately excluded from the possible sample. On the other hand, rankings of more than twenty-five still worked for me. However, just because a movie might be rated thirtieth on a longer list doesn’t mean that it was necessarily put down as “30” in the math. I thought that would unnecessarily downgrade films which happened not to be rated in the top 25 in fuller rankings, and thus give too much weight to people who had seen 30 or 50 Hitchcocks as opposed to outlets which went to 25 for the sake of the number.

Here’s an example. Neil Alcock, a film writer who has seen all of Alfred Hitchcock’s surviving films, has a full ranking on Letterboxd. His thirtieth-ranked film is Young and Innocent, which appeared on five lists. However, since I’m only ranking top twenty-fives, Young and Innocent was not entered as “30” but as “26.” This is less faithful to Alcock’s actual rankings, but it also ensures that a few lists can’t overly sway the final results, and in practice a “26” has an appropriately unkind effect on a film’s average.

Anyway, the process:

1) I found twenty lists which met the standard of length and quality. They come from: Neil Alcock (Letterboxd), Rick Burin (Letterboxd), Cinemaholic, Cinemadailies, Complex, D Magazine, Aaron Dicer (Letterboxd), Wesley Emblidge (Letterboxd), Far Out Magazine, Film Lifestyle, Sean Gilman (Letterboxd), Gold Derby, Indiewire, Rick Jones (Letterboxd), Letterboxd (filtered for highest rating), Rotten Tomatoes, Studiobinder, Time Out, They Shoot Pictures Don’t They?, and Ultimate Movie Rankings.

3) The ranking system is very simple: write down the place the movie holds on each list (with possible variance in literal ranking noted above), get an average over the 20, and the low number wins. If the numbers were the same, the tie went to the film which appeared on more lists. If those numbers were the same (though I didn’t have any ties that needed a second tiebreaker in the top 25), then the tie would go to the film which had a higher placement.

4) My own list, which is obviously not part of the sample size, is linked here.

Results are below!

Tier 7: Not a Real Tier, Don’t Get Any Ideas

There are five movies which garnered more than five votes but which aren’t on the list itself. Saboteur (26th), The Man Who Knew Too Much ’34 (29th), Family Plot (31st), and I Confess (32nd) each appeared on seven lists. Blackmail (27th) reached base on six. It’s a weird group, to be sure. Of the group, the only one that isn’t a pretty plain influence on future Hitchcock movies is Family Plot, which, of course, was the last movie he made. Saboteur is most famous for the junior version of the Mount Rushmore sequence from North by Northwest, which is probably because the movie itself is a little so-so. I’d take The Man Who Knew Too Much from 1934 over the film with the same title and basic outline from 1956, though that’s obviously an outlier opinion. I Confess has a really lovely twist on the wrong man narrative that Hitchcock loved so much combined with something of the containment in Rear Window or Dial M for Murder. And Blackmail, though less obviously influential on specific later Hitchcocks, does give us Hitchcock’s (and Britain’s) first experimentation with sound in a feature. In a more just world, I think at least two of these would have made this list. I Confess has an absolutely terrific performance from Montgomery Clift in the lead role, and the same is true with the slouching, weird work done by Peter Lorre in The Man Who Who Knew Too Much.

25) The Trouble with Harry / Average score: 23.45 / 10 lists

24) Sabotage / Average score: 21.9 / 11 lists

23) Marnie / Average score: 21.4 / 10 lists

Here’s where the movies go which only rated on half the lists. Maybe the single biggest surprise to me on this entire list is that Marnie, which came twenty-third, is here among them. I’m not a huge Marnie guy myself, but I think it’s hard to argue that it’s one of the richer Hitchcock texts from a psychoanalytic perspective—certainly richer than a films like Spellbound or Psycho, which treats the human mind with all the gravitas typically afforded to condensed milk—and on top of that, it may even be his darkest film. Marnie Edgar, a woman of multiple identities and multiple white-collar crimes, is triggered by the color red, has a profound aversion to sex, and is the victim of sexual violence in multiple stops along her life. (Not least is the marital rape she suffers at the hands of the husband who blackmailed her into marriage.) It’s a sobering picture with an epiphany at the end revealing honest to God repressed trauma, a far cry from crowd-pleasers and frankly simpler fare, and while I think it’s fair to call it an uneven movie, I was surprised that only half of my sample group sprang for it, and even then it had just two top-half appearances. On the other hand, The Trouble with Harry was roughly as popular with this crowd, and that’s one of Hitchcock’s most obviously fun movies…at least on paper. John Forsythe is really meh in this movie, which is absolutely crying out for a Jack Lemmon or Dean Martin, but the rest of the cast is delightful: the first Shirley MacLaine, with a pre-Leave It to Beaver Jerry Mathers as her son, Mildred Natwick escaped from the John Ford stock company, and a suffering Edmund Gwenn. Backed with lovely foliage and Bernard Herrman’s score, this is a movie that could stand to be about 25% goofier than it is, and although I like it well enough, it’s not one that I thought would crack this list.

Tier 5: Bijoux

22) The Wrong Man / Average score: 20.4 / 14 lists

21) To Catch a Thief / Average score: 19.6 / 14 lists

20) The Lodger: The Story of the London Fog / Average score: 19.55 / 14 lists

19) Frenzy / Average score: 19.55 / 15 lists

There’s not another equivalent stretch in these rankings like the 19-21 spot, where three films are separated by .05; what puts Frenzy above The Lodger is its inclusion on one more list. This tier also has by far the largest gap from the earliest film (The Lodger, a 1927 silent) and the latest (Frenzy, 1972, his penultimate feature), and there’s a mixture of reasons why this one is so unusual. I think all of these are underseen, especially compared to some pictures like The Birds or Rope, which have easier hooks. The Lodger, unfairly, is underseen because it’s silent, even though I would rate this pretty easily among the best British movies ever made. The Lodger is also the only silent Hitchcock to make this list, which I don’t think is wrong—again, if you were to choose a silent Hitchcock, I’d go with this one twice on Sundays—but it speaks to how even our electorate is probably a little more focused on the more approachable sound Hitchcocks. D Magazine, which I appreciate for ranking every Hitchcock feature, has The Lodger at thirty. It’s the top-ranked silent for them, too, and I think it’s indicative of how ready even the Hitchcock devotees are to put down something like The Manxman in order to raise up something like Under Capricorn.

Anyway, Frenzy is almost Marnie-level dark, a story about a rapist-murderer in London; it’s not exactly a merry return to England for Hitch after all those years. To Catch a Thief, on the other hand, runs against some of Hitchcock’s weaknesses in relatively straitlaced comic storytelling. (Weakness is a strong word. He was adequate without being George Cukor or Preston Sturges or even Mitchell Leisen, which is not necessarily something to blame the guy for.) And for being the movie that Hitchcock’s thriller ethos is named, The Wrong Man has simply not caught on to the same extent as the films where the wrong man goes on the run. (I don’t even think it has the namebrand quality of The Lodger, which also works on this principal.) Henry Fonda, in his only collaboration with Hitchcock, is basically kind and gentle and horrified, and the ensuing nervous breakdown that his wife undergoes as he tries to clear his name—an effort which would almost certainly have failed if it were not for the real criminal striking one last time—is equally disquieting. It’s a wonderful movie, and almost certainly figures in the best five-picture stretch of Hitchcock’s career.

Tier 4: Downballot from the ’40s and ’50s

18) Lifeboat / Average score: 17.8 / 16 lists

17) The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) / Average score: 17.6 / 17 lists

16) Spellbound / Average score: 17.45 / 16 lists

15) Foreign Correspondent / Average score: 16.95 / 15 lists

14) Suspicion / Average score: 16.9 / 16 lists

13) Dial M for Murder / Average score: 14.45 / 17 lists

Alfred Hitchcock made twelve features in the 1940s and eleven in the 1950s. More than a quarter of that output is in this tier, and more than that undiluted with any of his efforts from the four other decades in which he made movies. This is also the last tier in which movies made the list without being on at least nineteen of twenty lists. (Randomly, no movie made just eighteen.) I’ve always been lower on Hitchcock’s single-set or single-location films than most people are, and you’ll notice which of them has escaped this tier and been bumped up a little ways. In fact, most of this tier would go lower for me than they are here, with the definite exception of Foreign Correspondent, which I think is one of the wonderful espionage thrillers of the World War II era, a propaganda romp near 49th Parallel or Above Suspicion for excitement and charm but which also includes an airplane crash as punctuation. Maybe Spellbound would creep a bit higher for me as well, a film that makes absolutely no sense about anything at all, but which is a sort of unadulterated thrill ride where ridiculous things happen over and over again to gleeful effect. All the same, it’s a tier that helps us to appreciate some of the better actor collaborations that Hitchcock would have with these same people. Dial M for Murder helps us with Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much for Vertigo, Spellbound for Notorious, etc. If there’s another standout here aside from Foreign Correspondent, I think it has to be Suspicion, which gives us one of Cary Grant’s rare performances as the villain, and the only radioactive glass of milk ever put on the screen. It’s a movie with some genuinely good thrills, although, like just about everything else here, I’m not tremendously enamored of it. On the other hand, a little perspective: these six Hitchcocks, which are middling films in his own oeuvre, would be the jewels of most of his contemporaries’ filmographies.

Tier 3: Breaking New Ground

12) The Lady Vanishes / Average score: 12.8 / 19 lists

11) The 39 Steps / Average score: 12.2 / 19 lists

10) Rope / Average score: 11.75 / 20 lists

9) The Birds / Average score: 11.15 / 19 lists

There’s only one film in here which I really love, and that’s The Lady Vanishes, for me the true highlight of Hitchcock’s English films. When it’s going, it is really going, dashing through the unexpected adventures sweeping up Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood, how desperately they try to prove the courtly Paul Lukas is a dastardly fiend and kidnapper of old ladies. And when it slows down, it comes to a halt with an almost alarming deceleration. Charters and Caldicott, who love cricket like frat boys love cheap beer, turn out to be true Englishmen in the end, helping out in a gunfight and still worrying that they’ll miss the last frames of the match the whole time. Even Redgrave is game for some really endearing goofiness over the course of the picture, not least of all in the beginning, when his practical interest in musicology turns out to be both highly annoying and totally hilarious. It is the least trendy of the four movies here, admittedly, for it’s much less a high-concept romp than the others. The 39 Steps is “first-draft North by Northwest” or, more concisely, “North by Scotland.” Rope is not just pure in its single location, but in the way it feigns being a single take. And The Birds is, well, The Birds, probably the first Hitchcock movie that a normie would mention after Psycho but not really all that frightening. The 39 Steps is the best of the rest, for neither Rope nor The Birds, for all their notoriety, are particularly compelling movies. Rope is talky in the worst kind of way, and the fake one-shot work only makes the film feel more theatrical. And The Birds, while it still remains a fairly interesting thrill ride, is sort of the limit of creature features that don’t involve sharks. I think there’s some hesitancy on the part of the sample group as well to crown these films, because for all of their name-brand qualities, only Rope appears on all of them. You’ll find individuals who put Rope or The 39 Steps or The Birds in their top five, or even their top three, but on the whole, those spots are filled by usual suspects instead of these famous but not quite elite entries.

Tier 2: Classic Hitch

8) Strangers on a Train / Average score: 9.3 / 20 lists

7) Shadow of a Doubt / Average score: 8.85 / 20 lists

6) Rebecca / Average score: 7.95 / 20 lists

Like frequent collaborator Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock never won a competitive Oscar. And as is the case for Grant in Best Actor, the overlooking of Hitchcock’s entire competitive career in Best Director is widely considered that award’s greatest blind spot. Given that the only movie of his to win Best Picture, Rebecca, is in this tier, let’s play the charts game to commemorate this weird and wonderful factoid about the inability of Hollywood to recognize the best among them. First, his movies’ record:

All of the wins come between 1940 and 1956, and it’s the first movie of his that was nominated for Oscars, Rebecca, which earned the most nominations as well as the aforementioned Best Picture. I had no idea that Foreign Correspondent, which is also a 1940 release, was tied with Spellbound for the second-most nominations for a Hitchcock movie, with six apiece. (Incidentally, this is an incredible trivia question to stump your cinephile buddies with.) I think you can sort of see the decline over time here, but it’s much starker in the chart below, with trendline.

Hitchcock got his first Best Director nomination for 1940, and his last for 1960. The Oscars weren’t in the habit of rewarding British films in the 1930s, when Hitchcock was most active there, and to be perfectly frank I’m not sure that there was a Hitchcock movie after Psycho which stands out as an obvious missed opportunity to give the man his Best Director award. In any event, there’s a pleasant kind of round-number symmetry in there, and it got me thinking about who the most nominated and most winning directors of that period were. You can see the chart below to find both:

Over twenty-one Oscar ceremonies, William Wyler was nominated nine times and won three of them. Billy Wilder (more on him later) picked up eight nominations and two wins. The five most-nominated directors of those ceremonies—Wyler, Wilder, Hitchcock, George Stevens, and Fred Zinnemann—account for fully thirty percent of all nominations in this category. Hitchcock is the only one of that group who failed to win even once, and he’s one of only three people to be nominated three times or more in those twenty-one years who didn’t win in that period. The other two are Clarence Brown, who went winless in six tries over his career, and George Cukor, who finally got his for My Fair Lady. I think you could very easily make an argument that Hitchcock was undernominated in this stretch. Even if you grant that it’s a little rich to nominate him for Lifeboat or Spellbound, you’re still leaving out Vertigo, Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, North by Northwest. And as much as I think it’s easy to say that the Academy was biased against Hitchcock from some kind of genre perspective, I don’t think that’s borne out in evidence. He was nominated for thrillers in the ’40s, after all, probably came closer for one of the grannies of the American psychological thriller in Rebecca than he ever got again. There’s a nomination for Psycho, too, of course, which says it all. On top of that, the Oscars used to be much more correlated with moneymaking than they are in the present day, and Hitchcock was a box office regularity as well as a household name. Hitchcock may never have won his Oscar, and of course it’s totally ridiculous that he never walked away with the golden statuette. But if you look at the years he was nominated, it starts to make a little more sense why he was winless in that twenty-one year stretch.

In the chart below, you’ll see that I’ve bolded the actual winner of the award for that ceremony, and I’ve highlighted the person who I thought should have won for that year (I know, bad me, biased me). These are the five years that Hitchcock was actually nominated for the prize:

1940 is the only one of these years which is really stacked with contenders, but the Academy got it right: Ford was the right winner. Hitchcock is absolutely no higher than third for me here, either, because Wyler’s direction on The Letter is tremendous. On the other hand, 1954 is just an absolute misfire on the part of the Academy, which went in on On the Waterfront in pretty full measure but in so doing lost out on rewarding one of the great metatextual films of all time in Rear Window. That nomination for Lifeboat is a statement about Hitchcock’s single-location aplomb, and so is Rear Window, except Rear Window uses that single location with wizard brilliance. Clearly, Hitchcock should have been at least one for five…but I don’t think he should have won more than one for this crop. I understand that Wilder for The Apartment instead of Hitchcock for Psycho is something of a hot take, and even I think that’s an extremely close call. If you think he should have won two of his five, I wouldn’t argue all that much, but even so, it’s not like he should have been sweeping the field based on what he was nominated for. Lifeboat is, again, no better than third for me compared to two essential directors of noir in 1944. And while we find a movie I don’t think Wilder should have won Best Director for in The Lost Weekend, that doesn’t mean I rate Hitchcock’s strong work on Spellbound higher than the imagistic and rich work that Jean Renoir did on The Southerner. (I actually don’t think the Academy would have gone far wrong with giving Brown an Oscar for National Velvet, which is vividly lush and shows a keen ability to mine performances from child actors.)

I can hear your objections. So what if he didn’t win for Spellbound if he wasn’t even nominated for Vertigo? Reader, I checked in:

I took the highest ranked movies in this sample group (spoilers, sorry) which didn’t garner Hitchcock a Best Director nomination, and even so…I still can’t get Hitchcock more than one more Best Director victory! The 1958 field is kind of a travesty, given that the best direction of that group belongs to the taut work Wise did on I Want to Live!, but come on, it’s not Vertigo. But even if you grant that Hitchcock should have been nominated for some of his most incredible work, like Shadow of a Doubt or Notorious, you run into some trouble. I can’t say that Shadow of a Doubt is better directed than Casablanca, and the Academy right awarded Curtiz. Strangers on a Train has panache, but to say that it’s better directed than Sunset Boulevard or The Third Man is definitely a stretch. North by Northwest is absolutely brilliant, but is it the right choice when Some Like It Hot is on the menu? And 1946…I mean, what an absolute murderers’ row that was without Notorious, and then even if you imagine a six-director field, it’s probably still only third at the absolute best! I understand that the Academy almost never gets it right, almost never picks the right option, and I get that the knock against them is that they never awarded Hitchcock as opposed to awarding him for the wrong movie. All the same, there just aren’t that many years where he would have been the right choice even given the extant fields. The funniest thing about doing this little side project is that Billy Wilder turns out to be the great Hitchcock foil, at least from my perspective. In real life, they shared a field four times; in my imaginary exercise, they share a field twice more. Maybe I should be doing this post about him instead.

Tier 1: Genre GOATs

5) Notorious / Average score: 6.4 / 20 lists

4) North by Northwest / Average score: 5.7 / 20 lists

3) Rear Window / Average score: 5.15 / 20 lists

2) Psycho / Average score: 4.15 / 20 lists

1) Vertigo / Average score: 3.85 / 20 lists

As far as this tier goes, it’s a fairly wide in terms of separation between the highest and lowest score; Notorious is 2.55 points distant from Vertigo, which is the biggest gap between top and bottom in a tier since Tier 4. Maybe Rebecca could have gone in here as well, but I decided against it. For one thing, it’s pretty far away from Notorious, which makes it untenably distant even from Psycho as far as the averages go. For another, I think this is a fairly pure top five. While you find some people going for Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, or Rope in their top five, these are emphatically the most frequent choices there.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Vertigo come away with this win, as dull as I understand that to be. The trouble is that I think the only possible outcome for this that would be duller is Psycho, which finished in a fairly comfortable second place. Curiously, Psycho doesn’t seem to occur to most people as the greatest of Hitchcock’s oeuvre; Vertigo is overwhelmingly the top choice, and then Rear Window holds a slim lead over the other three pictures for the second-most first-place votes. I was also pleasantly surprised to see Notorious get into the top five, because it’s a wonderful movie that I always worry won’t get its due. For me, that’s Hitchcock’s third-best movie and a brilliantly modern spy thriller, but probably a little less seen than something like The Birds and lacking the Oscar hook of Rebecca or the camera tricks of Rope.

In conclusion, these are five of the greatest thrillers of all time. More than that, they are arguably the greatest erotic thriller, mistaken identity thriller, paranoid thriller, slasher thriller, and psychological thriller ever made, respectively. This is the case for Hitchcock as the greatest director who ever lived. Go down thirty, thirty-five movies for Hitchcock and you’re still watching very good movies. Stay at the top five or so and you’re watching some of the very best in Hollywood history, proof that the studio system may have been orthodox and conservative and retrograde, but that for those who learned how to manipulate it, it was fertile ground. These are films which prove that great art can be great entertainment, that the finest performances can come from the biggest stars, that a great screenplay leaves room for our wondering, that the camera—its position, its movement, its voracity—is the fundament of cinema. The stillness of the camera as Judy/Madeleine appears from the bathroom in her hotel bathed in green, followed not long after by its swirling. The way that the camera holds perfectly still as a lit cigarette glows and dies, glows and dies. The camera taking a Peter Pan from a balcony which can see the whole room to peeking at a little key in the fingers of a woman’s clasped hand.

North by Northwest, which is obviously a strong favorite of the panel, is a good place to look to see this thesis of a great movie which is great because every bit of its making turns towards making it more exciting. It stars Cary Grant, a man who predated the Method and all the prestige it conferred, giving a performance which is so familiar to anyone who has seen even a handful of Grants before it. The story would absolutely be bloated with some lengthy background about the Life and Times of Roger Thornhill if it were made today, but instead we’re dropped into this silly, effluvious ad man’s life and we watch him get kidnapped straightaway. What a ludicrous idea it is to try to assassinate anyone from a crop duster, but who gives a rip when it means you have that tremendous shot of Grant running towards the camera as the plane grows impossibly big and dark onscreen? It doesn’t have to make perfect sense in Hitchcock, because if it did then Psycho would be a farce, but it does have to grok. We grok Psycho.

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