Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most iconic film directors in history and one of the most important names in the history of cinema. Hitchcock was a visionary who successfully combined his artistic visions with the commercial demands of the public of his time. And while he has made a variety of movies – from silent dramas, via comedies, to thrillers and horrors – the latter two actually are the basis of his artistic opus and the genres that have both defined his career and his epochal contribution to cinema.
Hitchcock’s works can be divided into several different groups and periods, but a notable batch of films he directed came out starting in 1956 and ending in 1960; these five movies are going to be the topic of this article.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
For Hitchcock, 1956 started with The Man Who Knew Too Much, a remake of Hitchcock’s earlier film with the same title in which he actually laid the foundations for his spy thrillers that would arrive later in his career. Hitchcock wasn’t overly passionate about the project but he considered it to be a good opportunity to fulfill his contractual demands for Paramount, so he approached the story and modernized the original script to make it more relatable for contemporary audiences. The film would go on to become one of his most famous and most iconic movies, particularly due to the inclusion of the Academy Award-winning song “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)”, which was sung by the film’s lead actress, Doris Day. Day starred along James Stewart, one of Hitchcock’s best and most frequent collaborators. Earning more than $11 million at box office, The Man Who Knew Too Much would also go on go become one of Hitchcock’s most successful films, with famous French director François Truffaut complimenting it as being superior to the original.
The Wrong Man (1956)
The series continued with The Wrong Man, also released in 1956, which was not a commercial success on par with the previous film, but remains one of Hitchcock’s best films from an artistic standpoint. Based on a true story of a man wrongly accused of a crime, this is one of a small number of Hitchcock’s movies based on real-life events (a second notable example is the 1948 movie The Rope, which was roughly based on the case of Leopold and Loeb), and starred Henry Fonda along with Vera Miles, two certified stars at the time of the movie’s premiere. The historical importance of this movie is immense – it marked the beginning of a critically and commercially successful collaboration streak between Hitchcock and his most frequent composer, Bernard Hermann, it is notable for being the movie that inspired the longest film review by famed director Jean-Luc Godard (from when he worked as a critic), and for inspiring Martin Scorsese’s cult classic Taxi Driver. Although not one of Hitchcock’s often-quoted films, The Wrong Man is nevertheless a historical masterpiece.
Our story brings us to 1958, which marked the release of – arguably – Hitchcock’s best and most important film from an artistic perspective, Vertigo. Starring, once again, James Steward – alongside the beautiful Kim Novak – Vertigo is a movie often cited as Hitchcock’s most superior film, and it is a prime example of his ability to reconcile commercial demands with artistic superiority. The thrilling story captivated fans even then – the film earned more than $7 million – but the critics were astonished by the use of special effects in the movie (Stewart’s psychedelic spinning head is still a haunting scene from the history of cinema), Bernard Hermann’s unforgettable musical score, and the psychological depths with which Hitchcock portrayed his characters on the screen, especially Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson. Vertigo is a timeless classic considered by most to be one of the best movies ever filmed and it certainly marked a peaking point in Hitchcock’s cinematic career.
North by Northwest (1959)
North by Northwest was released in 1959 and earned almost $10 million at the box office, being one of Hitchcock’s more successful films. Starring cinematic legend and frequent Hitchcock collaborator Cary Grant, alongside Eve Marie Saint and James Mason, this spy thriller was built on the success and the tropes of The Man Who Knew Too Much, although it was much deeper and darker in tone than the relatively light-hearted spy thriller from 1956. The Man Who Knew Too Much was, in a lot of ways, a prototype James Bond movie, with many tropes (the handsome protagonist facing off against a secret opponent, memorable action sequences, hidden headquarters, etc.) that were later replicated in the famous spy movie series, but also in other movies of the genre; the famous plane chase scene is still one of the most iconic ones in the history of cinema. Be that as it may, North by Northwest became another Hitchcock classic and a film that went down in history as another example of Hitchcock’s creative genius.
Finally, we have to talk about Psycho (1960), Hitchcock’s most famous movie (alongside 1963’s The Birds). Based on the novel by Robert Bloch, the film stars Anthony Perkins as both Norman and Mrs. Bates, Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, and Vera Miles as her sister, Lila Crane. Earning an incredible $50 million at the box office, Psycho was a record-breaking movie at the time and it embodies Hitchcock’s artistic vision – that people liked fear and that he was a hedonist giving the people what they wanted – in the best possible way. With a powerhouse performance by Perkins, the movie is a psychological study of the disturbed mind of Norman Bates and even after more than 60 years, it still remains one of the best studies of psychopathy in the history of cinema. The film includes many famous scenes – especially the bath scene – and memorable musical numbers by Bernard Hermann, all of which – combined with the plot, the direction, and the acting – make Psycho a timeless classic and one of Hitchcock’s most important movies.
As you can see, this period of Hitchcock’s career was marked by one success after another. The movies produced in this period were lauded by both fans and critics and they cemented Hitchcock’s place in the history of American cinema. In many ways, this period could be described as the most successful and artistically superior in Hitchcock’s whole career and that is why we thought it was important to discuss it.