Underrated: 10 Great Hitchcock Moments

Mention Alfred Hitchcock and the term ‘Master of Suspense’ isn’t far behind. (So are a few other choice phrases, these days, but let’s not go there.) In fact Hitchcock’s extensive filmography is packed with so many great, iconic scenes that a top 10 of the very best pretty much writes itself: there’s the shower scene in Psycho. The attack on Tippi Hedren in The Birds. The crop duster and the Mount Rushmore fight in North By Northwest. The rooftop chase in Vertigo. And who could leave out the introduction to the neighbours at the beginning of Rear Window? It’s a shame, then, that so many other fantastic moments get overlooked when such lists are put together, and so after a little deliberation I’ve picked 10 magnificent Hitchcock moments that are either overlooked or perhaps don’t quite get the praise that’s deserved. Without further ado, the underrated gems are:

10. Margot is strangled in Dial M For Murder

I love this one. Hitchcock builds the tension superbly here through the simple device of Grace Kelly’s Margot repeating the line ‘Hello?’ down the phone to her husband Tony (Ray Milland), the cad who is actually trying to get her killed; the look on the face of the assassin Swann (Anthony Dawson) as he stutters with the scarf is priceless. Also worthy of note is the fantastic work by composer Dimitri Tiomkin and Tony’s flippant request ‘Oh darling, pull yourself together. What is it?’

9. An impromptu speech in The 39 Steps

On the run from the police, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) suddenly finds himself at a political rally, where he is mistaken for a guest speaker named Captain Fraser. Forced to stand up and deliver a speech to the crowd, Donat’s performance is excellent, as Hannay stumbles through his delivery at the start before gradually gaining confidence as he reads the room. By the end he’s in full flow, and it’s magnificent to watch, especially the crowd’s reaction to his non-specific words. There’s an impressive balance between tension and humour in this scene: check out the part when Hannay becomes flustered as more and more of his pursuers show up and hilariously mis-reads an upside-down name as “McCrocodile”.

8. A windmill defies the wind in Foreign Correspondent

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Foreign Correspondent was described by Francois Truffaut as a film ‘lacking in humour’ and thus at odds with much of Hitchcock’s earlier and later output, but it certainly has its share of tense moments. In this scene the superbly-named John Jones / Huntley Haverstock (Joel McCrea) is on the trail of an assassin in the Dutch countryside when he notices that the sails on one particular windmill are going in the wrong direction. While perhaps lacking in action there’s still something unnerving about John’s investigation of the windmill, partly due to the soundtrack, which includes little more than the noise of turning sails and the wind. And doesn’t that lone plane passing over the flat land remind you of something else?  See the scene in full here.

7. Roger Thornhill gets arrested

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Perhaps it is inevitable that North By Northwest is celebrated for its brilliant crop-duster attack and the tense set piece on Mount Rushmore at the very end, but it is packed with great moments and this terrific scene often gets overlooked, despite the fact it is well known. In a dramatic opening Cary Grant’s character Roger Thornhill confronts his tormentor Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) at an auction, but when Vandamm leaves Thornhill’s attempts to follow are thwarted by the spy’s henchmen, who block the exits. Cary Grant shows his impeccable comic timing as Thornhill subsequently tries to get arrested by placing outlandish bids on items before punching an auction house employee in full view of the police.

6. A fairground ride spins out of control during Strangers On A Train

The final scene in Strangers On A Train features a gripping showdown between Guy (Farley Granger) and Bruno (Robert Walker), which takes place in a fairground. Here Bruno has returned to the scene of an earlier crime in order to place crucial evidence (a cigarette lighter) that will wrongly implicate Guy as the killer of his wife Miriam (Laura Elliott). A chase leads the pair to a carousel but when a stray gunshot kills the operator the ride accelerates out of control. Hitchcock speeds up some footage, and the scenes shot on the spinning carousel are both disorienting and dizzying, while the panicked screams of innocent fairground attendees and the velocity of the turning ride contrasts brilliantly with the slowness of those attempting to intervene. There’s even time for a splash of humour as a young kid stuck on the ride is show to be having a whale of a time.

5. The safe scene in Marnie

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Unfortunately I can’t find a video of this scene online, so if you haven’t seen it you’ll just have to trust me when I say that one of the tensest moments in any Hitchcock film takes place during the oft-maligned Marnie. Here the title character, played by Tippi Hedren, is in the process of robbing a safe but remains unaware that a cleaning lady is going about her daily chores in the very next room, about to discover her in the act. Every single movement here is choreographed perfectly: it is thrilling, edge-of-your-seat filmmaking.

4. The Royal Albert Hall assassination from the original The Man Who Knew Too Much

Quite rightly the attempted-assassination sequence in the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much is regarded as one of Hitchcock’s finest moments, but it’s also worth checking out the same scene in the original from 1934. Here Jill (Edna Best) scans the crowds of the Royal Albert Hall for a killer after learning that a group intends to murder a foreign Head of State during a concert. The music, the twitching curtain and the out of focus shots combine to create a palpable tension, which is punctuated eventually by that short, shrill scream at the end.

3. Cary Grant confesses his true feelings to Ingrid Bergman at the end of Notorious

Arguably some of the greatest chemistry shared on screen exists between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious. The most famous example is the couple’s extended kiss in a cellar, but the prelude to the final scene is another worthy of any romantic’s attention. Here T. R. Devlin (Grant) confesses his love for Alicia (Bergman) as she lays in bed having been poisoned by her dastardly husband. The acting in this superbly-lit scene is magnificent, with the camera slowly revolving around their heads as they whisper sweet nothings. The video above also includes the celebrated ending as Devlin helps her to get out of the house.

2. The brutal killing of Gromek in Torn Curtain

Few people would count the by-the-numbers espionage thriller Torn Curtain among their favourite ever Hitchcock films, but it does include one great scene that is arguably the most violent in Hitchcock’s career, as Paul Newman’s American spy Armstrong kills East German agent Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) with the help of a farmer’s wife (Carolyn Conwell). In a later interview Hitchcock said he wanted to show people just how hard it can be to actually kill another person; with strangling, stabbing, the bashing in of kneecaps with a shovel and – in a fairly unsubtle political commentary – the gassing of Gromek in an oven, the scene depicts a relentless, grim struggle for life. This intense fight lasts for several minutes, is extremely well-acted by the three people involved and Hitchcock uses close-ups and variations of the camera angle to place the viewer slap bang in the middle of the action. The editing, as you would expect, is also very impressive, with fast cuts at crucial moments tricking us into thinking we see more than we actually do. The video above is interesting as it compares Bernard Herrmann’s unreleased cue to the original that was released in cinemas. The scene in full begins around the 2.20 mark and the ending, where Gromek’s hands are framed as if disconnected from the rest of his body, is nothing short of brilliant. Shower scene? Pfffft.

1. Even the camera has to pull away in Frenzy

Hitchcock’s penultimate film was actually one of his best, but perhaps doesn’t quite get the respect it deserves. After years spent battling an artistic slump the director returned to England to make Frenzy, the tale of a serial killer on the loose in London who pins his crimes on a friend. By this point the audience has already seen Robert Rusk (Barry Foster) commit rape and murder, and here he kills ‘Babs’ Milligan (Anna Massey), the girlfriend of unsuspecting stooge Richard Blaney (Jon Finch). It is incredibly powerful considering that we don’t actually see the murder taking place, as the camera slowly withdraws away from a door, retreats down a flight of stairs and then eventually moves back out into the street, where normal life carries on and people are oblivious to the acts being committed indoors. It’s all the more startling when considering scenes that occur before and after this one. As stated above we’ve already seen a rape and murder by this point and later on there’s the gruesome sight of Rusk breaking the fingers of Babs’s corpse after rigor mortis has set in so that he can retrieve his tie pin from her hand. Here, with camera movement alone, the great director implies that the killing of Babs is too gruesome to show on film and even a violence-fixated object like an inanimate Hitchcock camera refuses to bear witness. Genius.

So, those are my ten selections, but I probably ought to point out there are a lot of Hitchcock films that I haven’t seen. Even so, there are plenty more scenes I could have included here. What would be your choices for underrated Hitchcock moments?

Comments 11

  1. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop October 13, 2014

    Great post mate. There’s a great moment in Young & Innocent where the protagonists are searching for a guy with a twitch in his eye and we get a huge zoom shot right across a room right up to a guy’s face and he twitches. Hard to explain but a really cool scene.

  2. Todd Benefiel October 13, 2014

    Neat moments, Stu…thanks for bringing some Hitchcock into the mix! I absolutely LOVE that ending sequence of ‘Notorious’, another one of my favorite Hitchcock films. From the time Grant arrives at Rains’ home to when he and Bergman drive away, it’s nothing short of perfect. And the moment where Ingrid realizes that Cary is there to save her, AND tells her he loves her, never fails to mist my eyes a bit.

    This may not be completely unheralded or underrated, but I also love the sequence in ‘Strangers on a Train’ where Robert Walker follows Farley Granger’s wife throughout the carnival and kills her on that little ‘Tunnel of Love’ island; outstanding camerawork and tension, no dialogue, and a jarring end to it all.

    • Stu October 14, 2014

      They’re both great, great sequences. The scene with Grant and Bergman – I put it that high because of the acting, whereas the other ones in the list I guess revolve around action or eye-catching camerawork etc.

      Maybe I picked the wrong bit from Strangers On A Train! I also like the tennis match that takes place just before the final showdown in the fairground in that film. I must watch it again sometime but there are plenty of Hitchcock films I haven’t seen to tackle first.

        • Stu October 15, 2014

          Quite a few! Leaving aside lots of the silent or early talkie films he made in the UK I’ve never seen To Catch A Thief, Spellbound, The Trouble With Harry, Saboteur, Family Plot, Topaz, Under Capricorn…the list goes on and on! But I have at least managed to see Marnie, Suspicion, The Lady Vanishes and Shadow Of A Doubt in the past year, so I’m getting there slowly. I’d also like to see Vertigo again; I’ve only seen it once, and that was probably about 20 years ago.

        • Todd Benefiel October 15, 2014

          If you’ve never seen Rear Window or North by Northwest, those would be my ‘first to see’ suggestions! But like we hinted to earlier, I’d also highly recommend Notorious and Young & Innocent. Oh heck, just watch them all…except for Jamaica Inn!

        • Stu October 15, 2014

          I’ve seen those two many times – they’re my favourite Hitchcock films by a long way. How about you, what’s your favourite?

        • Todd Benefiel October 15, 2014

          It flip-flops between Rear Window and Notorious, with North by Northwest third. Followed by Young and Innocent, and three others – The 39 Steps, Sabotage, and Dial M for Murder – vying for the coveted fifth spot. And don’t read my review of Vertigo until AFTER you’ve seen the movie!

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