I have often been asked what movies I would choose to watch if I were stranded on a desert island. Lately the inquiries have been more about what classics to check out while housebound. In both cases, Alfred Hitchcock’s films top my list.
Has any other director made a greater number of peerlessly entertaining movies? Before he even came to Hollywood to make “Rebecca,” he had already racked up a formidable body of work in England, not only the famous thrillers “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes” but also such lesser-known gems as “Secret Agent,” “Sabotage,” and “Young and Innocent.”
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“North by Northwest”
It is Hitchcock’s Hollywood movies that shine brightest for me, and none more so than 1959’s “North by Northwest.” It’s the ultimate escapist entertainment because it has, incomparably, everything: thrills, spills, romance, wit. Its crazy-quilt mistaken-identity plot, courtesy of screenwriter Ernest Lehman, features one classic scene after another. And of course – I almost forgot – it has Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. In top form.
One year before, Hitchcock made “Vertigo,” the brooding masterpiece starring James Stewart and Kim Novak that is also his most personally felt film. For his next movie, as recounted in the must-read 1967 book “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” Hitchcock said he wanted to do something fun and lighthearted. Grant plays suave Madison Avenue ad exec Roger Thornhill, who is mistaken for a spy and chased across the country by both government agents and nefarious villains (headed by James Mason and Martin Landau at their silkiest). Two iconic sequences stand out: Grant, on the run in a flat, open field in Indiana, being attacked by a crop duster; and the grand finale, with Grant and Saint clambering up Mount Rushmore. (Reportedly Hitchcock entertained the idea of calling the film “The Man in Lincoln’s Nose.”)
The plot has so many circumlocutions that, on a first viewing, or a fifth, it may not entirely add up. But – and here’s the crucial point – it doesn’t really matter. Much of the movie’s wit is bound up in its serial escapades. There’s always something irresistible going on. Hitchcock and Lehman are playing with us. They understand how avidly we crave all this high-flying escapism, and they know just how to deliver it.
I’ve been friendly acquaintances for many years with Saint and can’t resist one anecdote here. I asked her once what it was like to work with Hitchcock, and she said he only gave her one real piece of direction: “When you’re acting opposite Cary, always remember to look into his eyes.” Not, I would venture to guess, a difficult assignment. (Unrated)
“To Catch a Thief”
Aside from “North by Northwest” and Stanley Donen’s “Charade” – the greatest Hitchcock movie ever made that Hitchcock didn’t make – the film in which Cary Grant is at his most Cary Grant-ish is probably 1955’s “To Catch a Thief.” He plays a retired jewel thief in the French Riviera whose comfortable life growing grapes and flowers is interrupted by a string of copycat robberies. He must clear his name. Along for the jaunt is Grace Kelly (it was during filming that she met her future husband, Prince Rainier III of Monaco) as the daughter of a rich vacationing widow. (Funny footnote: The widow is played by Jessie Royce Landis, who plays Grant’s mother in “North by Northwest,” even though she was only seven years older than him.) The movie is a glorious trifle, and all that sun-drenched Riviera scenery is good for the soul. (Rated PG)
If you’re up for a somewhat darker Hitchcock movie – relax, we’re not talking “Psycho” or “The Birds” here – 1954’s “Rear Window” is just the ticket right now for our shut-in lives. James Stewart plays a news photographer laid up with his leg in a cast in his Greenwich Village apartment. He bides his time peering into the windows of his neighbors across the courtyard and gradually comes to believe that one of them has committed a murder. His gold-plated, marriage-minded girlfriend and reluctant accomplice, played by Grace Kelly, does things like ordering him dinner and champagne from “21.” This probably beats the grocery delivery service you’ve been using. It’s the ultimate movie about voyeurism featuring cinema’s most famous peeping Tom. (Rated PG)
These films are available to rent on Amazon’s Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, and iTunes.