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An Education in the Classics: Movies

Updated on February 5, 2013
Alfred Hitchcock. Source: classic movie scans via flickr, CC BY 2.0
Alfred Hitchcock. Source: classic movie scans via flickr, CC BY 2.0

When I started my Netflix account, back in 2004, I vowed that I was going to use it to diversify my movie watching experience. On the top of that list was Alfred Hitchcock movies. Watching old black and white movies had never appealed to me but my favorite movies and books are mysteries. I figured I owed it to the genre to see the master at work. I had previously caught Psycho and The Birds on TV and to be honest didn’t think either was great. But I buckled in and watched many of Hitchcock’s most famous movies, which I’ll discuss briefly below. Watching Hitchcock opened the door for me to other classics like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Double Indemnity, The Third Man, It’s a Wonderful Life, 12 Angry Men, Sunset Boulevard, and Anatomy of a Murder.

1. North by Northwest (1959) Cary Grant/Eva Marie Saint- I liked this movie, the leads were good and the plot was entertaining. It was the first one on my list and it didn’t blow my mind but definitely made me want to see more Hitchcock movies.

Screenshot of North by Northwest. Source: Public Domain
Screenshot of North by Northwest. Source: Public Domain

2. Dial M for Murder (1954) Grace Kelly/Ray Milland- This one is my favorite, I love it so much because it illustrates the point about why the classics hold up. Here you have a black and white movie, shot pretty much on one set with one main character and it is great. The writing and acting are superb and when they are you don’t need anything else.

3. Vertigo (1958) James Stewart/ Kim Novak – I think this is one of the most loved Hitchcock movies based on compiled lists. But it is my least favorite out his films I’ve seen thus far. I just felt like the middle dragged on too much so by the climatic ending I was over it. Plus Stewart’s character was so obsessed he was creepy. Maybe I owe the movie a second viewing.

4. Rear Window (1954) James Stewart/Grace Kelly – Ok for me Vertigo didn’t live up to the hype, but Rear Window does. Again like Dial M for Murder, you have a primary character on one set and it just works. It’s suspenseful- the moment when Kelly goes to check things out in the neighbor’s apartment and Stewart helplessly watches from his window. Brilliant.

5. To Catch a Thief (1955) Cary Grant/Grace Kelly – This is a pretty good one even though I knew where the plot was headed. This film is a departure from Hitchcock’s minimal sets in other movies but it doesn’t feel unnatural- it works for the story.

6. Strangers on a Train (1951) Farley Granger/Robert Walker – This is probably the most reused Hitchcock film plotline, not in a bad way- I just saw Horrible Bosses and it was good. The original is great, very suspenseful. I don’t know why going into watching this list I didn’t think old movies could have you on the end of your seat- but I was happily proved wrong in this and Rear Window.

7. Rope (1948) James Stewart- This one has a macabre plot, two students murder another student just to prove they can and host a dinner party with the newly departed stashed in a chest in the same room. They invite Stewart’s character, their headmaster, and others close to the deceased to relish in their triumph of committing ‘the perfect murder’. It was pretty good, again a film set in pretty much one room and a handful of actors.

James Stewart and Doris Day on the set of 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' Alfred Hitchcock in the background. Source: Public Domain.
James Stewart and Doris Day on the set of 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' Alfred Hitchcock in the background. Source: Public Domain.

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8. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) James Stewart/ Doris Day- I love the match-up of Stewart and Doris Day in this, I appreciated how Day ‘s character was an intricate part of the plot, figuring out clues to find their son and her singing voice was cleverly worked in. Not many of Hitchcock’s films, that I’ve seen, have parents as characters. The added suspense of racing the clock to find their son really adds to the overall effect.

9. The Thirty Nine Steps (1935) Robert Donat/Madeleine Carroll- After I saw the preceding eight movies, I looked to Hitchcock fan’s lists to see which other ones I needed to watch and this one ranked high. I totally agree. One cool thing- a scene where Donat’s character, falsely accused and on the run, gets rid of trailing police by losing himself in a parade- sound familiar? (Think St. Paddy’s Day Parade and Harrison Ford.)

Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Source: Public Domain
Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. Source: Public Domain

As I said my journey into Hitchcock films braved me for some of the other classics- I still have a lot to go, but I feel like Citizen Kane lives up to the hype- sadly ‘The Simpson’s (yes the cartoon ‘The Simpson’s’ you read that right) gave away the central mystery of who/what is rosebud. But even with this knowledge I still enjoyed the film. Casablanca was good I don’t know if it totally lives up to expectations though. Double Indemnity was great, the dialogue is lightning fast and innuendo laden and the plot is clever. Anatomy of a Murder may not be one people view as one of the greats, but it stars James Stewart and he is engaging as always. I think the film brings up a lot of interesting questions regarding the case Stewart’s lawyer is defending. Sunset Boulevard was haunting; it’s an interesting dynamic between Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond and William Holden’s Joe Gillis. Swanson is phenomenal in it and it is just one of those movies that stayed on my mind for days after I saw it.

The beginning of my journey into old films, mostly documented here, has been a positive one. Now, I am definitely convinced that older movies are worth watching. My newly informed opinion is there isn’t a great way to compare old movies to new movies. I think older films are in a class by themselves and I find myself now craving an older movie from time to time. Being of the generation that I am from, I am accustomed to movie magic- special effects, amazing locations, and futuristic elements. It is interesting to think certain movies, great movies, today would not have been successful if they were made 50 years ago- take Inception for example. It needed movie magic to fully display the high concept. On the other hand movies that are modestly successfully now may be relying too much on special effects- like the Transformers series. When you take away all the movie magic from a lot of current hits, the writing and the acting does not stand on its own. On the other hand classic movies with minimal sets and casts, but with great writing and acting could stand up if remade as is today. But as someone in my 30s, I appreciate movies with special-effects for what they are and to me they have cinematic value. Which is why comparing old movies to new movies is not apples to apples.

I think an interesting topic for another time is- Are the top 100 lists created by AFI and IMDB generation-dependent? Do separate generations have varying views on what the all-time best movies are? I have some thoughts on this now that I’ve taken the time to go back and see some of the top movies from these lists and plan on seeing more. Consider it a yet-to-be written article of mine. But in the meantime next on my list- Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charade, and The Shop around the Corner. Suggestions welcome!


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