Ten Hitchcock Moments

Alfred Hitchcock died today in 1980. In tribute to the great director, The Recs looks back at ten fascinating sequences from his movie career which reveal why he is still revered as an incredible, influential film director.

Forty-two years ago today, Sir Alfred Hitchcock died in his Bel Air home in California aged 80. His final words marked his wry sense of humour: “One never knows the ending. One has to die to know exactly what happens after death, although Catholics have their hopes.

In his lifetime, Alfred Hitchcock made over fifty films and earned himself the nickname ‘The Master of Suspense’. To this day, “Hitchcockian” is a descriptor that is still applied to cinematic thrillers with sharp plot twists and reversals. 

Here is our selection of ten outstanding directorial sequences that demonstrate why Hitch was a master of the film medium. 

1. The 'Knife' sequence from Blackmail (1929)

The film Blackmail (1929) was a momentous film – or should we say two films? Always the innovator, Hitchcock directed the the first successful European “talking picture”. 

Although the film had started production as a silent movie, the young director was keen to exploit the new sound technology. However, as many cinemas were not equipped for ‘talkies’, two versions of Blackmail were released at the same time: one silent with title cards for the dialogue and a version with sound.

In the film, Alice White (played by Anny Ondra) is invited to an artist’s attic studio following a fight with her boyfriend,  Scotland Yard Detective Frank Webber. When the nefarious Mr Crewe attempts to rape her, she manages to stab and kill him with a bread knife and escape. 

This scene sees Alice, the following day at home, trying to behave normally, while traumatised by the previous night’s events and frightened that Frank might discover that she went to the artist’s flat. 

What is striking is that Hitchcock in his first film using sound doesn’t just record dialogue – but already he is using it evocatively to ratchet up the tension and turmoil felt by Alice White. 

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2. The 'Bomb on the Bus' sequence from Sabotage (1936)

In 1936 Hitchcock (very loosely) adapted the Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent to become the British thriller, Sabotage

Scotland Yard are on the trail of Karl Verloc (played by Oskar Homolka) and his gang of foreign saboteurs who are operating out of London. As cover, Verloc manages a small cinema with his wife and her young brother, Stevie.

In an unforgettably tense sequence, Verloc asks Stevie to deliver a film canister to another cinema – unbeknownst to the lad, the package contains a timed bomb which is set to explode at 1.45pm. 

Watch how Hitchcock builds the tension until  you are on the edge of your seat!

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As a coda to that clip, Hitchcock later regretted that scene: “I made a serious mistake in having the little boy carry the bomb. A character who unknowingly carries a bomb around as if it were an ordinary package is bound to work up great suspense in the audience. The boy was involved in a situation that got him too much sympathy from the audience, so that when the bomb exploded and he was killed, the public was resentful.”

In a different interview the director said: “I made the mistake of not relieving them at the end of the suspense. If you put an audience through the mill like that, you must relieve it. The bomb must be found and quickly thrown out of the window, then it goes off out there and the audience are relieved.”

3. The opening shot of The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Hitchcock’s second last British film before he made the move to the United States is an absolute joy of a film. The Guardian even said that The Lady Vanishes is a contender for the “title of best comedy thriller ever made”.

It has a great script which mixes whimsy with something altogether more sinister. 

Although largely absent of great directorial set pieces for which Hitchcock would become known, there is a sequence worth exploring.

At the start of the film, English tourist Iris Henderson and her friends finds an avalanche has blocked the railway line in the fictional European country of Bandrika. 

Hitchcock pans the camera down mountains, across a model of the snowbound station, past the chalets in the snow-scape, finally to alight on a window which crossfades into the interior.

While this might seem a little cheesy now, when you remember this film is eighty-three years old, you can appreciate how much Hitchcock was pushing visually what can be achieved on film.

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4. The Window Scene of Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first film after he crossed the Atlantic to begin what was to prove an uncomfortable and strained contract with David O Selznick.

It was an atmospheric and haunting adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, published two years early. With studio production at his disposal and Selznick’s ability to bring big names to work on the film, Hitchcock was quick to make his mark on Hollywood. Rebecca won the Oscar for Best Picture (although it only managed nominations for acting, directing or writing.)

A favourite scene is when housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (a wonderfully callous Judith Anderson) encourages the distraught second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) to kill herself. Standing next to the open window on the second storey of the mansion, Danvers whispers poison: “You’ve nothing to stay for. You’ve nothing to live for really, have you? Look down there. It’s easy, isn’t it? Why don’t you? Why don’t you? Go on. Go on. Don’t be afraid!” 

It’s peak psychological Gothic.

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5. The plane crash sequence in Foreign Correspondent (1940)

It’s probably one of Hitchcock’s lesser-known films but Foreign Correspondent is well worth seeking out.

It’s the story of an American crime-reporter hero despatched by the New York Globe to England to get a handle on the unfolding political situation in Europe.

For all that it is a blatant exercise in propaganda – it was Hitch’s attempt to galvanise support in the United States for his homeland as WW2 raged in Europe, it has some breathtaking sequences to enjoy. 

The umbrella assassination scene was a prime contender for the Hitchcock moment of this film, but instead we opted for the plane crash scene.

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Given the technical limitations of 1940, it’s a really thrilling and ambitious sequence that has genuine jeopardy. For the stunning moment where the plane hits the water, Hitchcock back-projected footage onto paper screens in the cockpit with huge water tanks behind. At the crucial moment, the water was released smashing through the paper windows and into the cockpit. It’s an ingenious effect! 

6. The Glass of Milk scene in Suspicion (1941)

If truth be told, Suspicion (1941) doesn’t really add up to the sum of its parts. 

The story – a rather dated tale of a shy heiress marrying a charming cad who she then suspects is trying to kill her – fell victim to a battle between the director and the studio.

Hitchcock’s desired leads were  Laurence Olivier and Frances Dee, but when Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine were cast the problems began.

The intention of the original novel was to portray a murderer through the eyes of his eventual victim. While they may have allowed actor Laurence Olivier to be a murderer, RKO point blank refused to have heartthrob Cary Grant with his carefully constructed ‘hero’ image to be a killer.

As such the somewhat abrupt ending is neither credible nor satisfying. 

There is no doubting the effectiveness of the “glass of milk” scene. For a film that is mostly bathed in bright sunshine, this scene plunges us into the dark shadows of suspicion. Joan Fontaine has started to believe that her husband is planning to murder her for her insurance money…

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In case you were wondering, yes they used a lightbulb inside the glass to get that surreal, glowing effect on the milk!

7. The 'Key in Hand' sequence of Notorious (1946)

Notorious is something of a melodramatic romantic/espionage thriller in which Alicia Huberman (a luminescent Ingrid Bergman), the American daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, is recruited to go undercover to infiltrate a Nazi organisation.

It wasn’t just the plot that was a little risqué. Hitchcock didn’t just bend the film code regulations of the time that restricted the length of kisses to only a couple of seconds – he smashed them with a passionate scene between Bergman and Cary Grant. Starting on the balcony before moving into the apartment where even a phone call doesn’t stop the kissing, the scene lasts around three minutes. The director manages technically not to break the code as each individual kiss stays within the regulated time limit.

That’s not the scene we’ve chosen though. We’ve selected one which shows Hitchcock’s technical expertise. From a high overhead shot of the entrance hall of the mansion down to a close-up of the key in Ingrid Bergman’s hand in one smooth descending shot, Hitchcock delivers the ultimate macro-to-micro perspective. 

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Before leaving Notorious, here’s a fantastic picture of Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock on the film set with the rather flimsy-looking crane apparatus used to film the shot as seen in the clip above. 

8. The Tunnel of Love scene from Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers on a Train comes with an embarrassment of cinematic riches. It is easily one of Hitchcock’s most crowd-pleasing thrillers – and another of his movies where a (relatively) innocent man gets caught up on a string of increasingly dangerous events. 

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel from the previous year, it follows a chance meeting between a tennis player and a superficially charming psychopath on a train where a plan is hatched that the two strangers are to kill someone the other person wants gone.

Instead of the delirious climax that features a high-speed fairground carousel, we’ve chosen Miriam’s fatal trip through the tunnel of love.

Miriam is rising tennis star Guy Haines’ promiscuous wife who he wants to divorce so he can marry the upstanding daughter of a US senator. This scene is where Bruno Antony (a chillingly callous Robert Walker) enacts his part of the strangers’ “deal”.

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The genius of Hitchcock is seen in this sequence. When Bruno’s shadow looms up on the wall in the tunnel as his boat catches up with Miriam’s and then there’s a scream, you think he’s killed her – only for Miriam’s boat to emerge still fooling about with the two males. 

Hitch then films her brutal murder reflected in the lens of her glasses that have fallen to the ground when Bruno started to strangle her. The distorted image of the killer stretching like a fun fair mirror is truly sinister. 

9. The Assassination scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

It may be slightly blasphemous to say but we find Hitchcock’s 1956 remake terribly uneven as a film.

Don’t get us wrong: Doris Day and James Stewart are both excellent leads as an American couple whose son is kidnapped which forces them to be embroiled in international intrigue. 

What saves the film for us is the incredibly bold 12-minute dialogue-free sequence near the end of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Ben and Jo McKenna attempt to stop the assassination of a British ambassador during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. 

As an audience, we know that the assassin is waiting for the cymbal clash to disguise his gunfire.

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No-one silently emotes like Doris!

Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds cantata which was used in the original 1934 Hitchcock version of the film worked so effectively that Bernard Herrmann chose to keep it for this 1956 remake. You’ll see Herrmann actually conducting the orchestra in this scene. 

As for the musician with the cymbals, his face remains entirely impassive throughout the sequence. Hitchcock said “that impassivity was extremely important since the man is unaware that he is the instrument of death. He doesn’t know it, but in fact, he’s the real killer”.

10. Scene D'amour in Vertigo (1958)

One of the reasons that Vertigo regularly tops surveys for the greatest film ever made, such as the 2012 BFI’s Sight & Sound critics’ poll, is that you’ll always find something you never notice on any rewatch. For a film about psychological obsession, it certainly inspires an addictive fascination. 

It’s a dizzying, woozy, dreamlike film that constantly folds around itself. There’s an opaqueness to the storytelling that offers a richness beyond a traditional linear narrative. 

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Vertigo is essentially one man’s attempt to recreate the image of a dead woman through another woman who’s alive. Scottie’s determine to mould Judy into the late Madeleine reaches its climax with the transformation scene in the Empire Hotel. Notice how Kim Novak is reflected in the hotel room mirror conveying the duality and duplication of Judy / Madeleine. There is a mastery of pacing when Judy finally agrees to complete the transformation. We wait alongside James Stewart as the tension builds – Hitchcock making us voyeuristic participants of the scene.

And then when Judy finally emerges, transformed into a perfect facsimile of the dead woman, the hotel’s neon sign bathes her in a mystical green fog. Novak hovers ghostlike somewhere between life and death before stepping into the corporeal world.  

When Scottie kisses her, the camera makes a 360 degree turn around them – a vertiginous spin that denotes that his obsession has completely surrounded and encircled him.