My Top 20 Favorite Hitchcockian Films
With not one but two Hitchcock-themed biopics being released late this year- HBO’s recent “The Girl” and the upcoming “Hitchcock” (Nov 23)- I thought it was as good a time as any to review some of my favorite films influenced by the Master of Suspense. Hitch ranks among the few filmmakers whose very name conjures up certain mental images and is often used as an adjective when describing certain films, as in “Hitchcockian.” (See also Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, David Lynch and, more recently, Quentin Tarantino, despite the fact that the latter gleefully pilfers from so many sources that it’s not an entirely appropriate choice for describing anything!)
Though by no means intended as a comprehensive list- one could easily garner a book’s worth of material on films influenced by the Master- it is compromised of some of my personal favorites, which may not be your own. By all means, feel free to chime in with your faves below in the comments!
It seems appropriate that one of the most highly regarded (if controversial) directors of all time would eventually get around to making a homage to the Master, and with this film, he did just that. A doctor vacationing in Paris with his wife takes a shower- never a good idea in a Hitchcockian thriller- and gets out to find his beloved missing. The rest of the film encompasses his trying to figure out what happened to her as he gets more and more- you guessed it- frantic. With Harrison Ford in his prime, this intense thriller never quite got the recognition it deserved, but when your resume is as loaded with classics as Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown), that’s understandable. A clear predecessor to not one but two Liam Neeson thrillers- “Unknown” and “Taken” (three if you count the sequel), this is a slick fun ride. See also Ford’s “What Lies Beneath” and Polanski’s “Death and the Maiden” for more Hitchcockian fun.
One of many films influenced by Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train”- see also #9- this one disappeared without a trace from theaters back in 2008, but it’s definitely worth a look. Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer play a vacationing American couple that decides to take the scenic route home via the famed Trans-Siberia Express. Along the way, they meet another couple, played by Kate Mara (sister of Rooney, best known for “American Horror Story”) and Eduardo Noriega (who played Che Guevara in the movie of the same name), both of whom seem kind of sketchy. Troubles ensue, especially when Roy gets left behind at a stop along the way and must race to catch up. Ben Kingsley also crops up in this underrated thriller.
Director Dario Argento is often referred to as the “Italian Hitchcock” and this film shows why. It’s an intense psychodrama in the “Marnie” mold (with a bit of “Frenzy” thrown in for good measure) about a young police officer, played by Argento’s own daughter Asia, who is pursuing a serial killer/rapist that attacked her years before and has been amping up his murder rate as of late. The title refers to an interesting real-life condition that occurs when the sufferer (Asia’s character here) is exposed to works of art, leading to some of the more surreal moments in the Argento canon- and that’s saying something. The result is something like “Heavenly Creatures”-meets-Hitchcock, and though Argento has better films (“Suspiria” and “Deep Red” come readily to mind), this is arguably the best of the ones directly influenced by the Master, though you might want to also check out the more obvious, if fun, homage “Do You Like Hitchcock?” which is, needless to say from that title, jam-packed with references to Hitch.
Director Wes Craven is best known for his work in the horror genre, particularly the “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream” series. His success allowed him to take a rare detour into the mainstream with this, a thriller firmly in the Hitchcock mold. “Mean Girl” Rachel McAdams plays a politician’s daughter who’s afraid of flying, but that turns out to be the least of her problems when a psychotic- and incredibly persistent- fellow passenger on her flight attempts to coerce her into aiding him in a plot to assassinate a VIP Homeland Security official. Craven deftly applies all he’s learned in his typical genre of choice in this nail-biter, which will have you on the edge of your seat to the very end. Arguably his most underrated effort, this is a red eye flight worth booking, thanks in no small part to a convincing turn by “Dark Knight”-alum Cillian Murphy as the charming but deadly psycho.
If ever there was a filmmaker more relentlessly compared to Hitch, it’s Brian De Palma. Despite the fact that many of his biggest films couldn’t be less influenced by the Master- i.e. “The Untouchables,” “Scarface,” and “Carlito’s Way,” all respected, critically-acclaimed gangster-themed films, for instance- De Palma has undeniably returned to Hitch for ideas time and again over the course of his more-varied-than-he-gets-credit-for career. The first of three of his films on this list influenced by Hitch, this one plays like demented auteur David Cronenberg’s “Scanners” (which came later) filtered through the Master’s approach, resulting in some of the most intense sequences in film history, notably the scene with the amusement park ride going awry. That scene, along with a bravura ending, makes this among one of De Palma’s most engaging thrillers. It also features an excellent cast that includes Kirk Douglas, John Cassavetes, Charles Durning and Amy Irving (hot off of De Palma’s previous “Carrie”), plus early performances from Daryl Hannah, Laura Innes (“ER”) and the debut of De Palma regular Dennis Franz (“NYPD Blue”).
I suppose a Hitchcock spoof was inevitable, and who better to tackle it than funnyman and comedy auteur Mel Brooks, of “Young Frankenstein” and “Blazing Saddles” fame? Though admittedly not his best work, if you’re a Hitch fan, you’ll love this. Indeed, the man himself was so charmed by the film he sent Brooks a case of wine to show his appreciation. It features many of Brooks’ regular cast of characters, including Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and a small role by co-writer and later “Rain Man”-director Barry Levinson. It also features arguably the most Hitch references of any film I’m aware of- way too many to get into here. The theme song, sung by Brooks himself, is priceless.
One of the most underrated and lesser-known films on this list, this film was so well-regarded by critics at the time that it helped land Aussie director Richard Franklin the highly- coveted gig of doing the (also underrated) sequel to Hitch’s classic “Psycho.” Indeed, it references that film often throughout, though the main plot is actually inspired by “Rear Window.” Made by all-time great Scream Queen Jamie Lee Curtis during her heyday (right after “Terror Train” and before “Halloween II”), for some reason this often gets left off the list of her greatest horror classics, even though it’s arguably the best after “Halloween.” Stacey Keach co-stars in this cat-and-mouse type thriller that is of a piece with Spielberg’s “Duel” and later thrillers like “The Hitcher” and “Jeepers Creepers.” Great stuff, though you may have to do some digging to find it.
One of the more bent movies on this list, this overlooked pseudo-classic is from the demented mind of director Ken Russell, best known for his filmic adaptation of the Who’s classic “Tommy” and the cerebral sci-fi epic “Altered States,” a big influence on TV’s “Fringe.” Featuring an eye-opening performance from an in-her-prime Kathleen Turner, arguably at her sexiest (and trashiest) as a role-playing happy hooker. Plus the man himself, Anthony Perkins, aka Norman Bates, as a (dubious) priest trying to get Turner’s character China Blue back on the primrose path, little knowing she is, in fact, a respected fashion designer by day who is leading a double life. Gorgeously shot by, ahem, Dick Bush (who also shot “Tommy”) and featuring a score by Yes-man Rick Wakeman, this is well-worth checking out, especially in its uncensored form, though, as with most of Russell’s films, not for every taste. Perkins dons drag during a key scene towards the end, in a nod to his most famous role, and don’t miss Turner’s recital of the “Pledge of Allegiance,” which you’ll never hear the same way again.
A nifty Noir in the vein of the Coen Brothers’ better-known debut “Blood Simple,” this underrated entry features an uncharacteristically subtle performance from the usually over-the-top Nicholas Cage, plus fellow madman Dennis Hopper and “Twin Peaks”-vet Lara Flynn Boyle as a sexy femme fatale type. It revolves around a case of mistaken identity, but with a twist- Cage is mistaken for a hit man hired to take out a man’s unfaithful wife and decides to take the money and run, but not before dubiously deciding to alert the man’s wife first, leading to all sorts of complications. Director John Dahl, a solid craftsman best known these days for his work on TV shows like “True Blood,” “Dexter,” and “Justified,” has other films in this mold well worth checking out, including his debut “Kill Me Again” and the superlative “The Last Seduction.”
The only film on this list that actually could have been a Hitchcock film in his time; the famed director apparently missed obtaining the rights to this one by mere hours. Based on the novel “She Who Was No More,” the film was instead made by Henri-Georges Clouzot, best known for “The Wages of Fear.” Hitchcock ultimately got a last laugh of sorts in that the writers of the novel went on to create another story expressly for Hitch that became one of this most highly-regarded films, “Vertigo.” Whatever the case, he would have been hard-pressed to do a better job than Clouzot did with this nail-biter, the story of a wife who colludes with her husband’s mistress to kill him, only to have the man’s body come up missing. Things only get weirder from there in this beautifully shot tale. If black and white isn’t your bag, it was remade to lesser effect with Sharon Stone in the 90s, but it’s the original that you should see.
Another Hitchcock-inspired satire, only this time played relatively straight, with romantic comedy undertones. Sure, there’s some silliness with co-star Dudley Moore, but considering this features then-huge stars Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase, the emphasis is actually less on laughs than thrills. It’s sort of in the same vein as “Silver Streak” and “What’s Up, Doc?” but nowhere near as goofy. I genuinely love this film, yet I never hear anyone talk about it these days, even when discussing the stars’ best films. Writer-director Colin Higgins also wrote the undeniable classic “Harold and Maude,” another quirky, left-of-center romantic comedy of sorts, as well as the aforementioned “Silver Streak.” They don’t make `em like this anymore, but they really should. Just keep Katherine Heigl out of it, please.
This impressive debut feature as a director for Danny De Vito surprised a lot of people when it was released in 1987. Another riff on the aforementioned “Strangers on a Train,” this one is played for laughs, with the incredible Anne Ramsey, of “The Goonies” fame, in the role of her career as the titular Momma, for which she received an Oscar nomination. Here, De Vito and co-star Billy Crystal meet on a train, where the former offers to off the latter’s wife in exchange for his killing off his maniacal mother. Easier said than done, as she gives poor Crystal a run for his money every step of the way. This one has the definition of a quirky cast, with everyone from musician Branford Marsalis to Oprah Winfrey (as herself) cropping up. DeVito’s pitch-black comedy “The War of the Roses” came next and is well worth a look, too.
Another entry from Brian De Palma, this one is essentially a riff on “Psycho,” only with a much bloodier approach. Stylish as all get out, this revived the then-dormant career of star Angie Dickinson, who notoriously used a body double for her infamous nude shower scene, which would in and of itself go on to inspire another De Palma masterpiece, found at #3. It also features De Palma’s then-wife Nancy Allen, who was in his “Carrie” and “Blow Out,” as well as Keith Gordon (“Christine”), Dennis Franz, and a superlative turn as a psychiatrist by Michael Caine. This set the stage for countless erotic thrillers to come, including most obviously, “Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct.” Modern viewers may see the big twist coming a mile away, but it’s still a solid thriller. If you like this, be sure and check out De Palma’s “Raising Cain” and “Sisters,” which are in a similar vein- with an emphasis on veins.and cutting them.
This one is so Hitchcockian that some mistakenly think it was directed by the Master himself. It’s not, but it certainly plays as if it could have been, and may well be the film that inspired the sub-category itself. You’d be hard-pressed to go wrong with a cast that includes Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, not to mention an ace supporting cast that features James Coburn, George Kennedy and Walter Matthau. Great score by Henry Mancini, too. People who love this film really love it, and if you’re one of them, you’re probably wondering why it isn’t higher ranked. To each his own, I say, and though I love it too, I just love the other films higher on this list more. Still, you can’t do a list of films inspired by Hitchcock and not include this one, so here it is.
I was somewhat tempted to feature “Panic Room” instead, which is likely the David Fincher film most people think of when they think Hitchcockian, but I went with this one instead, as I think it’s a bit more underrated. Yes, the plot twist is a bit dubious and hard to believe, but “Inception” isn’t equally nutty? If anything, it’s even crazier! So, by those standards, this film is perfectly acceptable. The cast is uniformly great, including Michael Douglas, Sean Penn (having more fun than usual), sexy Deborah Kara Unger (who should have been a bigger star), and the legendary Carroll Baker, of “Baby Doll” fame. In many ways, this presages the real-life antics of some of the more game-oriented “reality” shows out there, so by today’s standards, maybe it isn’t so far-fetched. Whatever the case, it’s a lot of fun, and nowhere near as dark and dreary as some of Fincher’s other efforts- and I do mean that as a compliment, not a slight.
Full disclosure: I was never a huge Woody Allen fan. Sorry, but I grew up with the scandal-plagued era Allen, and it was hard to get onboard with his stuff for the longest time. To a certain degree, I’ve still never felt that compelled to actively watch most of his output, even while people whose opinions I respect clamor for me to. This was the film that changed my opinion of him and led to me giving him more of a chance, although even fans would allow it’s not Allen’s typical fare. I really loved this sun-drenched Noir, which revived Allen’s career and helped make Scarlett Johansson a star and Allen’s on-again-off-again muse, albeit with mixed results- my advice would be to stick to the ones Allen himself doesn’t appear in as an actor. (Side note: Scar Jo plays Janet Leigh in the aforementioned “Hitchcock” movie this month.) The ending to this one will stick with you, and the cast is first rate all around. It may be his best film, but then, what do I know?
One of my all-time favorite films, period, I never hear anyone talk about this one, even though it still seems relatively fresh despite being made way back in 1968. Granted, it looks sort of dated, but the plot is distinctly modern in tone. I don’t normally condone remakes but this would make for a good one. I see a lot of “Twin Peaks” characters Dale Cooper and Audrey Horne’s off-kilter relationship in this film, which chronicles the iffy relationship between a high-school cheerleader and a possible nut job claiming to be a secret agent. I don’t want to say much more, but when “Psycho”-star Anthony Perkins is playing the whacko, what more do you need? How about sexy Tuesday Weld in her prime as a teen who may be more than meets the eye? Of all the films I try and get people to watch if they haven’t seen, this one is amongst the highest on the list- any list. I can’t recommend it enough.
The final entry by De Palma on my list is also my favorite of his riffs on Hitchcock. This one is a spin on both “Rear Window” and “Vertigo,” only with cringe-inducing violence (that’s actually not as bad as critics claimed at the time, in true Hitchcock fashion) and a big dollop of sex, including a star-making turn by a young Melanie Griffith as a porn star. Plus, Frankie Goes to Hollywood! I’ve never gotten the hate for this film- I think it’s brilliant through and through, with an excellent, underrated turn by Craig Wasson, a nifty ending-credits scene and a great supporting cast that includes Scream Queen Barbara Crampton (“The Re-Animator”), Gregg Henry (“Slither”), and, of course, Dennis Franz as a wonderfully sleazy director. If you like the films by De Palma on this list, there’s plenty more Hitchcockian fun to be had in films like “Obsession,” “Snake Eyes,” “Femme Fatale” and the excellent “The Black Dahlia,” which would make for a good double-feature with this film. De Palma will return to the subgenre he pioneered with the upcoming “Passion,” with Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace next year.
Yeah, I know it’s a remake, but what a remake! Robert De Niro has rarely, if ever, been as menacing as he is here, tackling the role Robert Mitchum (who crops up here as well, as does Gregory Peck) made famous. The cast is uniformly first-rate, including Nick Nolte in the Peck role, Jessica Lange as his wife, and the Oscar-nominated Juliette Lewis as the primary focus of De Niro’s icky affections. Seeing this as a kid knocked me on my butt- I honestly can’t recall being more freaked out by a movie, and I was a hardcore horror fan. The difference is that horror movies often feel fake, and this one is all too real. The ending is almost too intense to bear, and it is brilliantly directed by another Master: Martin Scorsese. I get that a lot of old-school critics prefer the more subtle original, but that one doesn’t set me on edge like this one does, though the score is one for the ages. Scorsese tried for a similar feel in the more recent “Shutter Island,” but I think this is his suspense masterpiece, the excellence of “Taxi Driver” and his crime dramas notwithstanding. It may not be better than those films, but it may be Scorsese’s most intense work, and that’s saying something.
Most critics point to this film as director David Lynch’s unqualified masterpiece, and they might be right- although I lean more towards “Wild at Heart” and “Mulholland Drive,” depending on my mood. This one is easily his most Hitchcockian work, however, referencing “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “Shadow of a Doubt,” and, of course, “Psycho,” both thematically and visually. Was there ever a more menacing villain than Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth? Once again, as with De Niro’s Max Cady in our last entry, Hopper was almost too intense to take the first time around. I had never seen a psychopath portrayed so.psychotically as Hopper does here, with his nitrous-huffing, Roy Orbison-loving, curse-word-spouting maniac. Honestly, if I’d have ever run into Hopper after I saw this I would have immediately run in the other direction. And yet, there’s something perversely funny to the performance as well, which may well be what makes it so disturbing. Reportedly, Lynch would burst out laughing during takes of Hopper’s insane performance- but lovingly so. I love this film through and through. It’s brilliantly shot, plotted, acted, the soundtrack and score are wonderful and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. It’s cinematic perfection that would have done Hitchcock proud, had he lived to see it. Hell, it might even have scared the Master himself- and that’s saying something.