The Winning Streak
Strangers on a Train (1951)
I Confess (1953)
Dial M For Murder (1954)
Rear Window (1954)
To Catch a Thief (1955)
The Trouble With Harry (1955)
Every director has its ups and downs, it's a fact of life and the discussion point brought to us with this challenge from Eric at The Movie Waffler. I don’t know much about directors and I’m aware of that, but I know that even the most celebrated directors in history have made bad movies. Even the worst director in the history of the job description (and let’s face it, I’m probably talking about Uwe Boll) has made a decent movie. The Winning Streak Blog-A-Thon is a discussion of those high points, those years where directors have done their best work. But, I had to ask myself whether the "high" points were in terms of box office returns, or the merit of their work, and I finally decided to split it down the middle.
Because of my limited knowledge of directors, I thought I’d go with someone whose work I was not only familiar with, but could spot without error. In that case, that limited me to two individuals: Alfred Hitchcock and Tim Burton, and I’d rather write about Hitchock, whose career is filled with rather more high points than lows, so I had to focus in on where I thought his best work happened, a four-year streak that starts with Strangers on a Train (1951) and ends with the 1955 release of The Trouble With Harry. I'd argue that most of Hitchcock's career is made up of these streaks, four or five really excellent movies with a cooling off point, and finally a dud or two before he ramps back up.
If I had to pick my top five Hitchcock movies, three of them would fall in this four year period. I saw Strangers on a Train for the first time last year, although I knew the story line long before I saw the movie, mostly from remakes. It’s a great movie, nearly the perfect suspense movie, and an excellent start to this particular winning streak. I know that the movie received somewhat mixed press at the time, but I think that Strangers has stood the test of time in a way that a good many movies of its day have not.
I Confess is an odd Hitchcock movie, filled with social and religious taboo, and to the best of my knowledge, the only Hitchcock film I know of that caused controversy based on fact rather than rumor (there seem to be LOTS of urban legends and rumors about Hitchcock and his movies, and most of them persist to this day). The movie has some great performances and a strong story line, although I have read in several sources that Hitchcock and Montgomery Clift spent most of the production of the movie butting heads, which makes the final product even more impressive.
Dial M For Murder is not only a great Hitchcock film, it’s arguably one of the best mystery movies ever made. It’s been remade and re-envisioned countless times in films like A Perfect Murder, and is referenced frequently in television shows, appearing in story arcs and episode titles. The story is tightly written, and by the end, if you’re like me, you’re not sure if you want to root for the wife and the police, or her husband, who has conspired to kill her.
Rear Window was the first Hitchcock my grandfather introduced me to, and is still my favorite, although it now has some competition in the form of The Lady Vanishes. Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly are perfect together in this movie, and the setting makes for an interesting backdrop to the nefarious deeds going on across from Jimmy Stewart’s window. This is the movie I ask people to watch if they don’t know anything about Hitchock movies, and I think it’s a great gateway into classic mystery/suspense.
To Catch a Thief, at least to me, represents the cooling of what was a pretty hot streak. It’s a good movie, but it’s not quite in the same caliber story-wise. I realize this won an Academy Award back in the day, but not for anything real, just cinematography, and I kind of expect good cinematography of Hitchcock movies. It’s also possible that my cooling towards To Catch a Thief is because I don’t like when Hitchcock veers from true suspense. The romance angle in this one just didn’t work for me.
The Trouble With Harry represents the end of a very hot streak, although Hitchcock would rebound quickly from the disappointment of this black comedy (a difficult genre, even at the best of times). By the standards of the day, it’s a little racy and off-beat. Even by modern standards, I think the movie is odd, and I understand all too well why it took more than 30 years for this to be available to the general public. I’ve always been a little confounded by the fact that Hitchcock considered this to be his favorite among his movies.