Alfred Hitchcock’s films are crammed with great moments, some of which rewrote the vocabulary of the cinema.
Here are six of these extraordinary sequences.
Hitchcock fans will note that his two best movies — “Vertigo” and “Rear Window” — are not included. Why? Because these two features are so perfectly rendered, their elements so exquisitely integrated, that no “moment” stands out. “Vertigo” and “Rear Window” are, from beginning to end, flat-out brilliant.
Scream to whistle: “The 39 Steps”
This clip is only seconds long, yet it packs an incredible punch. A cleaning lady discovers a dead body. She turns to scream, but before she can make a sound, Hitchcock cuts to a locomotive emerging from a tunnel.
Plane crash: “Foreign Correspondent”
The film’s conclusion finds the main characters on a plane about to go down in the Atlantic. The segment moves effortlessly from a conversation among the passengers to a growing sense of panic as the airplane comes under fire in one of the most dramatic aviation disasters ever captured on film.
Censor-shatttering kiss: “Notorious”
“Notorious” challenged the censors at every turn. It was the story of a party girl (Ingrid Bergman) who at the insistence of the U.S. government marries a Nazi spy (Claude Raines) so that she can report on his activities. (Think of it as federally sanctioned prostitution.)
Except that she falls in love with the G-man (Cary Grant) who is her handler.
In this scene the illicit lovers share an extended clinch that drove the bluenoses at the Hollywood Production Code to distraction. The code banned “extended or lustful” kissing and set a limit on how long actors could lock lips on screen.
Hitch playfully had Grant and Bergman kiss until the time limit had been reached. Then they would pull apart (barely), whisper a few endearments and return to smooching.
The result has been called the most erotic kiss in a Hollywood film, but it never violated the Production Code rules.
The crop duster: “North by Northwest”
On the run from the authorities and commie spies, Cary Grant’s character has been told to show up at a remote Midwestern crossroads. For several minutes nothing happens, and then …
The deadly shower: “Psycho”
It’s probably the single most famous sequence in movie history.
The murder of Janet Leigh’s character in “Psycho” was so brutal, so without precedent, that thousands of traumatized viewers claimed they never again took showers (baths were deemed more secure).
And because everyone figured Leigh was the star of the movie, her gruesome death early on was even more shocking.
The editing is brilliant. If you listen closely you can hear the knife piercing her body … to get the sound Hitchcock had a red-hot knife blade plunged into a watermelon.
Seagull attack: “The Birds”
The birds of Bodega Bay have gone homicidal. This segment goes from a conversation in a diner to an exploding car and a burning gasoline service station.
And then comes the aerial shot looking down on the town as thousands of angry seagulls swoop past the camera and flap toward the ground to do murderous mischief.
“The Birds” is believed to be the first Hollywood movie to forgo a conventional musical soundtrack and rely on an electronic score (based largely on the sounds of real birds).
The animated seagulls were the work of Ub Iwerks, the Kansas City native and early collaborator of Walt Disney who first drew Mickey Mouse. The human star was Tippi Hedren, mother of Melanie Griffith and grandmother of Dakota Johnson.
Read more of Robert W. Butler’s stories at butlerscinemascene.com.