This list of 10 is meant not to recommend the Hitchcock movies everyone knows. Not all of these are equally good or were equally well-received. However, in my opinion, they represent the great variety of styles and subjects tackled by one of the greatest filmmakers ever.
The entries are listed in order of release year. To a great extent, each represents something of the tenor of its time, thus creating a notable evolution in the director’s use of theme and genre.
1. Foreign Correspondent (1940)
An engaging spy thriller set in pre-WWII Europe, a hungry reporter (Joel McCrea) lands a foreign correspondent assignment for his paper. Although his name is Johnny Jones, he handles his overseas duties under the pen name “Huntley Haverstock”.
Haverstock uncovers a plot to assassinate a peace advocate and diplomat, Van Meer. The story revolves around the need to find Van Meer before the bad guys (a.k.a. Nazis) torture information from the diplomat and kill him.
Fortunately, Haverstock is aided by love interest Carol (Laraine Day) (whose father is … well, never mind) and fellow reporter Scott ffolliott (George Sanders), who apparently wants to be the e.e. cummings of investigative reporters.
This film came out at a time when bombs were dropping on London. In fact, they began doing so after the film wrapped. Hitchcock returned to London just before the Blitz started. As a result, the movie features not only a spectacular (for the time) plane crash into the ocean, but a revised ending in which Haverstock (with Carol at his side) reports on the radio from London as bombs thunder in the background. An eerie foreshadowing of Edward R. Murrow.
2. Saboteur (1942)
This one is a spy thriller involving a favorite Hitchcock character—the man falsely accused. In this case, our man on the run is a factory worker named Barry Kane (Robert Cummings), who’s set up as an arsonist by a mysterious fellow named Fry (Norman Lloyd).
Kane follows the clues in search of Fry. Such a shame Kane’s name and photo are all over the papers, so everyone assumes he’s a guilty fugitive. His attempt to seek help from a blind stranger goes awry when the man’s niece Pat Martin, Famous Billboard Model (Priscilla Lane) tries to turn him in. To no avail, of course. This leads up to a wonderfully weird scene where Kane and Martin hide aboard a circus train.
Needless to say, Fry is part of a group of saboteurs—it is the name of the film, after all. So Kane and Martin have their hands full between deciding how much they can trust each other, stopping the saboteurs, and capturing the elusive Fry. This movie not only includes Hitchcock’s use of irony about the good intentions of those in so-called respectable society, but his “ticking bomb” method of creating suspense (quite literally). The film ends with a climactic fight atop the Statue of Liberty that’ll have you holding your breath.
3. Lifeboat (1944)
A drama thriller set during WWII, this movie is exactly what the title suggests—about survivors of a post-U-boat attack shipwreck who manage to cram themselves onto a lifeboat. The problems begin when one of the passengers (mostly British and American civilians) turns out to be German. Assuming he’s the U-boat captain, one survivor demands he be thrown overboard, but the others convince him to have mercy.
The film combines melodrama and suspense in a riveting way, especially considering the limited set Hitchcock was working with. The pain of lost valuables and lives lead to even more tragedy. Those who survive muddle on as best they can. But when a cold-blooded murder is thrown into the mix, any shred of humanity is ripped away and the perpetrator dispatched.
The end says everything you need to know about misplaced patriotism and the human tragedy of war, in a way that (in retrospect) veers closely to being propaganda.
This list continues next week!