Of the forty-four sound films that Alfred Hitchcock directed over the course of his five-decade career, fifteen of them (or roughly one-third of his total output) are distinguished by one-word titles. Although I haven’t done a systematic study, I’d guess that’s a far greater ratio than any other director in history. Hitchcock apparently liked such brevity for its dramatic impact. The titles could be both straightforward and ambiguous, and often provided the viewer with a false sense of expectation and security. As we all know with Hitchcock, what you see is not always what you get, and in many cases the Hitchcock experience starts with the title. Most have suspense built in, so even the opening credits begin to set the mood. If, in a reel or two later, Hitchcock veers from the title’s appointed path, the film becomes even more exciting as a result.
The following is a list of Hitchcock sound films with one-word titles. How many have you seen?
‘Blackmail‘ (1929) – Hitchcock’s first talkie, this early British film follows a woman’s efforts to thwart a blackmailer who threatens to make a self-defense killing appear to be murder.
‘Murder!‘ (1930) – A woman (Norah Baring) who witnesses a murder and suffers from amnesia is convicted of the crime, but a sympathetic juror (Herbert Marshall) believes she’s innocent, and sets out to find the real killer.
‘Sabotage‘ (1936) – Adapted from the Joseph Conrad novel, this tense thriller, featuring a stellar performance from Sylvia Sidney, chronicles the detonation of a terrorist bomb in London and the messy aftermath.
‘Rebecca‘ (1940) – Hitchcock’s first American movie is a taut, romantic and fascinating examination of the fragile psyche of a young bride who feels diminished by the looming aura of her husband’s dead first wife. Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine star in this Best Picture winner (the only Hitchcock film to receive this honor), adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel.
‘Suspicion‘ (1941) – Joan Fontaine won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of another young bride with a fragile psyche who begins to worry that her good-natured, good-looking and good-for-nothing husband (Cary Grant) may be planning to kill her. This fine film is all but ruined by its ridiculous ending, which was tacked on to appease disgruntled audiences and preserve Grant’s standing as a heroic leading man.
‘Saboteur‘ (1942) – One of Hitchcock’s best chase pictures, this fast-paced, exciting yarn follows the desperate efforts of an innocent man (Robert Cummings), wrongly accused of arson, to clear his name. The thrilling climax atop the Statue of Liberty is quintessential Hitchcock.
‘Lifeboat‘ (1944) – When both an American ship and German U-boat sink after a heated battle in World War II, the survivors share a lifeboat. As they wait for an uncertain rescue, tensions mount, secrets are revealed and the fates of those in the boat hang in the balance. Stage legend Tallulah Bankhead makes a rare film appearance in this riveting study of character, patriotism and survival.
‘Spellbound‘ (1945) – One of the first movies to intelligently examine psychoanalysis, this methodical romantic thriller chronicles how a doctor (Ingrid Bergman) repairs the fractured mind of a war veteran (Gregory Peck) who suffers from amnesia and is accused of murder. The stunning dream sequences devised by avant-garde artist Salvador Dali enhance this probing tale.
‘Notorious‘ (1946) – The daughter (Ingrid Bergman) of a Nazi sympathizer goes undercover to root out the secrets of a band of Germans trying to reorganize and revitalize their party. Cary Grant plays the American agent who enlists her service, falls in love with her, and watches her become intimately involved with the group’s head honcho (Claude Rains). This is Hitchcock at his best, effortlessly mixing myriad elements to create a seamless whole. The film still stands as one of the finest espionage movies ever made.
‘Rope‘ (1948) – Notable for its supposed continuous, single-shot presentation, this arresting drama stars Farley Granger and John Dall as two conceited twentysomething friends who try to execute the perfect murder. As a lark, they kill their friend, then brazenly throw a party to test the crime’s merit and their own mettle. Their former teacher (James Stewart), who unwittingly planted the seed of violence in their brains, begins to suspect foul play. This is an unsettling social commentary and tightly constructed thriller.
‘Vertigo‘ (1958) – Some consider this mesmerizing study of obsession to be Hitchcock’s masterpiece. James Stewart stars as a detective who suffers from paralyzing acrophobia, and Kim Novak is the mysterious woman who takes him on a torturous psychological journey. Elegant, cryptic, and enthralling, this one deserves a Blu-ray release soon.
‘Psycho‘ (1960) – The granddaddy of the modern slasher film and a creepy portrait of a deranged mind, this iconic shocker features Hitchcock’s most identifiable (and frightening) sequence. Reportedly, actress Janet Leigh never took a shower again after shooting the grisly scene, though she should be remembered more for her performance than her character’s sad fate. Anthony Perkins is also superb as Norman Bates, the mother-fixated motel owner whose guests always seem to vanish.
‘Marnie‘ (1964) – Following ‘The Birds’, Tippi Hedren teams with Sean Connery in this uneven but strangely hypnotic story of a kleptomaniac with deep-seeded psychological issues who’s coerced into marriage and must ultimately face her demons.
‘Topaz‘ (1969) – A Cold War backdrop frames this slick spy tale involving NATO, the Russians and the French. A cast of largely unknown and European actors heightens the sense of authenticity that distinguishes this little-known but effective Hitchcock film.
‘Frenzy‘ (1972) – Another wrong-man drama (and Hitchcock’s penultimate film), this tight thriller follows a man’s pursuit of innocence after he’s accused of being a serial killer and rapist.
In association with the National Film Preservation Foundation, High-Def Digest is proud to join the 2012 Hitchcock Blogathon. During the week of May 14th to 18th, we will blog about topics related to the films and career of the legendary Sir Alfred Hitchcock. This year, the NFPF hopes to raise money to fund a new musical score and online streaming distribution for ‘The White Shadow’, an early silent film that young Mr. Hitchcock (then officially a writer and Assistant Director) used as a stepping stone to launch his own directorial career. To contribute, please visit the NFPF’s donations page.