Still one of the world’s most famous and recognizable directors, Alfred Hitchcock earned the title “Master of Suspense” by turning out an unsurpassed string of classic thrillers from his early silent-era days in British cinema through the revolutionary 1970s. His beloved TV shows, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, helped make his face familiar to millions of viewers as well, not to mention his habit of making a cameo appearance in nearly every single one of his films. Whether you’re new to Hitchcock or looking to pay a revisit, here are just 10 of the many films you might consider.
Audiences were terrified by the granddaddy of nature attack horror films with Tippi Hedren starring as a San Francisco socialite whose prank visit to a seaside town coincides with repeated deadly attacks by the bird population. Innovative special effects, the eerie lack of a music score, and one of the most aggressive sound mixes you’ll ever hear make this a chilling viewing experience that still packs a hard punch.
Though overshadowed at the time by Hitch’s Oscar-winning classic released the same year (see below), this riveting jet-setting thriller (and rallying cry for the U.S. to join World War II) features some of the maestro’s most audacious visual flourishes, including an assassination in a sea of umbrellas, a tense windmill showdown, and a plane crash that still makes audiences jump. Joel McCrea stars as an American reporter in Europe who stumbles into a diabolical plot to undermine Allied forces.
North By Northwest
The most extravagant of Hitch’s “wrong man” tales stars Cary Grant as a shallow advertising exec mistaken for a spy who ends up being pursued across America from Manhattan to Mount Rushmore. The legendary crop duster scene is just one of the many joys to be found here in the sparkling script by Ernest Lehman, which packs quotable dialogue into every single scene.
The theme of voyeurism running through the director’s work takes center stage as photographer James Stewart, laid up in his Chelsea apartment with a broken leg, suspects one of his neighbors might be responsible for a murder most foul. Brilliant performances by Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter combine with one of the most jaw-dropping studio sets you’ll ever see for the perfect gateway film for any Hitchcock newcomer.
Ingrid Bergman had one of her best roles as the daughter of a late Nazi collaborator who, urged by U.S. agent and romantic interest Cary Grant, goes to extreme ends to thwart a nest of fascists just after the war. Technically dazzling and psychologically twisted, this dark romance culminates in the screen’s most nerve-wracking descent down a flight of stairs.
Hitchcock’s only Best Picture Oscar winner (though the award went to producer David O. Selznick) is this sumptuously mounted adaptation of the bestselling Daphne du Maurier novel about a nameless young woman (Joan Fontaine) swept up by an aristocratic new husband, Laurence Olivier, into a world of lies, treachery, and possible murder where the dead still hold a powerful sway over the living. Judith Anderson’s imposing housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, remains one of cinema’s all-time great characters.
The film that ruined showers for an entire generation, this game-changing horror classic is a master class in audience misdirection and perfectly timed shock sequences, all accompanied by composer Bernard Herrmann’s most nerve-shredding musical score. Anthony Perkins found his most iconic role as lonely motel owner Norman Bates, who lives with his invalid mother and takes in thief-on-the-run Janet Leigh for a very fateful evening.
Strangers on a Train
Loosely adapted from the classic mystery novel by Patricia Highsmith, this twisty tale of a rich playboy (Robert Walker) trying to force an arrangement of swapped murders with an unhappily married tennis player (Farley Granger) ushered in Hitchcock’s spectacular run of 1950s thrillers. Loaded with classic moments including a nocturnal fairground murder and a harrowing carousel finale, the film has been imitated many times but never surpassed.
The 39 Steps
One of the gems of Hitchcock’s early British sound period along with essentials like The Lady Vanishes and the underrated Young and Innocent, this was the first and one of the best “wrong man” thrillers about an innocent sent on the run for a crime he didn’t commit. In this case, it’s future Oscar winner Robert Donat as a hapless Canadian in England framed for the murder of a spy in his own apartment—which leads to him being handcuffed by a very unwilling fellow traveler.
Suspense films don’t come much more visually dazzling or psychologically unsettling than this tour de force that famously unseated Citizen Kane as the number one film on Sight & Sound’s list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time. Nothing is what it seems when traumatized detective James Stewart is hired to tail Kim Novak, who seems to be haunted by the spirit of a dead ancestor, which leads to a maze of whiplash plot twists and sumptuously photographed tragedy.