One of the biggest barriers in getting into movies beyond our typical blockbuster fare is the sheer enormity of film history available to us; it is sometimes impossible to know where to start. Early on in my own filmic journeys I remember finding myself initially turned off by the filmographies of directors, genres, and even entire countries simply because I had picked the wrong initial movie to watch first.
A classic example for me was with Alfred Hitchcock. I had, thanks to countless other cultural references, correctly intuited that Psycho was his most famous movie and therefore assumed that he was exclusively a horror director. This mistake led me to plan the most bizarre double-bill in which I chose to watch Psycho and Vertigo, his next most famous movie, for my Halloween night-fare. While it turned out to be a pretty good double-bill it was decidedly a disappointing on the “scare” factor. Looking back now it is clear that Psycho and Vertigo are on the opposite ends of the spectrum of his sensibilities and that neither movie gives you a true sense of his filmography; in other words they were horrible first choices into the world of Hitchcock.
Fortunately I had by that point plunked down a good chunk of change on a gigantic Hitchcock Blu-ray box-set and so felt obliged to watch a dozen more of his movies which more or less rounded out my Hitchcock education (at least his output during his Hollywood years). But I was struck right then that my first initial forays did not fairly give me a sense as to who Hitchcock was as a director; there was the off-chance that I might have been turned off by a Hall-of-fame director simply because I didn’t quite know where to start.
And so this is the basis of this series. In each “Starter Pack” I humbly suggest what might be the best jumping off points for those of you who might be interested in exploring the subject but are unsure where to start, especially since first impressions are so very important. In coming up with this list I try my best to adhere two principles:
1. Accessibility – A “Starter Pack” movie should be a movie that, with little to no explanation, makes sense to the modern viewer. Vertigo is a great movie, but it is also a movie whose greatness depends on you knowing something about Hitchcock’s larger obsessions (as well as an understanding of how Jimmy Stewart is playing against type). Similarly while I am a big fan of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, it is not a great introduction either to Nolan’s filmography or science fiction. When I first started this blog I did a series on the Best Introductory foreign, classic, and art films. This new series is basically the next evolution of that concept.
2. Availability – A “Starter Pack” movie needs to be pretty easy to find. For instance, I am a big fan of King Vidor’s silent classic The Crowd and it would in fact be a near-perfect candidate for a “Starter Pack” on silent movies except for one thing: It is currently not streaming and out-of-print meaning that the only way to see it now is by plunking down over 100 dollars for a used copy (support physical media!). So for this list, I chose movies that were available whether for a VOD rental, on a streaming service, or cheaply on physical media (making it much more likely that your local library has a copy).
SHADOW OF A DOUBT
Hitchcock’s personal favorite movie is the perfect Rosetta Stone for his filmography. Set in a sleepy town in California it follows Charlie (Teresa Wright), a bored teenager whose staid life is enlivened by the news that her uncle is coming to town. Of course things turn out to be not as they seem and Hitchcock ratchets up the tension by employing his classic definition of suspense, namely providing us the audience with a lot more information than the characters in the movie. In training his eye so specifically on domestic life he manages to show its illusoriness as Shadow of a Doubt almost systematically peels back the idyllic American small-town life to show the skeletons literally lurking in its shadows.
(Available on Peacock (Premium Subscription) and most VOD rental platforms)
NORTH BY NORTHWEST
With North by Northwest we kill several birds with one stone. First it gets us a movie starring Cary Grant, who was one of Hitchcock’s most frequent collaborators. It also introduces us to the (somewhat unfortunate) trope of the “Hitchcock blonde”, the icy, sexy, and somewhat aloof heroine who manages to get under the skin of our protagonist with their allure. In this case the legendary Eva Marie Saint fulfills the role. And finally it also gets us well versed in a classic Hitchcock trope, namely that of the wrong man who suddenly finds himself thrust into peril because of a case of mistaken identity. Toss in a couple of iconic set-pieces on a corn-field and at Mt. Rushmore and you have all the makings of the most classic example of a Hitchcock movie.
(Available on HBO Max and most VOD rental platforms)
I am firmly of the opinion that creativity is best channeled not in total freedom but in trying to navigate and overcome the constraints and limitations in making the artist’s vision a reality. A classic example is Rear Window in which Hitchcock saddles his protagonist Jeff (James Stewart) with the narratively difficult impediment of literally being confined to a wheelchair in his apartment while Hitchcock himself saddled himself with only being able to shoot out of those apartment windows into the backyard courtyard and various windows of Jeff’s neighbors. Hitchcock effortlessly turns this limitation into the movie’s greatest strength as Jeff witnesses a neighbor’s murder and has to, with his reduced capabilities and the help of his housemaid Stella (Thelma Ritter) and his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), come up with the conclusive evidence to nail the killer.
(Available on Peacock and most VOD rental platforms)
STRANGERS ON A TRAIN
The premise of Strangers on a Train is instantly alluring: two men, one a tennis player and the other a psychopathic man child, have a chance encounter and discuss the possibility of committing murder for the other person, theoretically absolving them of suspicion. Hitchcock then turns the screw when one of them decides to follow through on the plan while the other gets cold feet leading to an unbelievably tense thriller involving whose DNA can be seen throughout every psychological thriller made since. It also pulls off the incredible feat of making tennis and merry-go-rounds absolutely terrifying.
(Available on Direct TV and most VOD rental platforms)
Five movies in is the perfect time to get to Hitchcock’s most famous movie. While just about everyone knows the two biggest twists in this movie (which I will not divulge here on the off-chance that you have somehow miraculously escaped this common knowledge) it hardly matters in diminishing the movie’s alluring power. Working on the cheap with his television production team, Hitchcock manages to create an absolutely chilling and dark atmosphere not only in the Bates motel, which has to be one of the most iconic horror movie locations, but in the entire lead-up to its famous shower scene where Hitchcock seems to delight in raising the audience’s anxiety to breaking point.
(Available on Peacock and most VOD rental platforms)
EXPANSION PACK: The 39 Steps, The Birds, Notorious, Rebecca, Vertigo
(Note: All media options were available when article was originally published. If they are no longer available there I suggest using either Letterboxd, a free online movie diary service, or JustWatch, a site that helpfully lets you know where a movie might be available online. Also I don’t make a single dime from any of these recommendations so please don’t feel like I am pressuring you to get any of these services if you aren’t subscribed already.)