Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Hitchcock Top Ten!

Well, it's been quite a while since I've done a Fisti Top Ten (Tuesday Top Ten) and so today is as good as any other to jump right back in.  My buddy Alex, over at And So It Begins, recently gave us a look at the Top Ten directors to have never written a screenplay, and his #1 was the legendary Alfred Hitchcock.  This post gave me the final push I needed to get this particular post put together.

To be honest, this was an idea I had a few months back, when I was watching 1941's Suspicion.  First, I kind of hated that movie, but I was most intrigued by the fact that Joan Fontaine's performance (which is serviceable at best) stands as the ONLY performance in an Alfred Hitchcock film to actually win the Oscar.  Others have been nominated, but despite being deserving (Leigh and Rains arguably should have won in their respective years) they have all gone home empty handed.

But Fontaine...she wins...for that!

So, I decided that I was going to make a personal Top Ten of the most deserving performances in a Hitchcock film.  I excluded all that were actually Oscar nominated, and decided to shed light on the best performances NOT to receive any sort of Oscar attention.  Some of these are obvious, some are cult favorites and some you may not have given any past consideration to.

All are leagues better than Fontaine's mediocre work.

Let's do this!

I struggled with this final spot, mostly because I didn’t know who I wanted to highlight from North by Northwest; Saint or Grant.  I hesitantly settled on Saint, for the sheer fact that she took what could have been such a lifeless stock character and gave her this undeniable sensuality that pulls you into every single frame.  You’re locked onto her from the very first frame she’s in, and you can’t stop looking. 

I think what took me by surprise was the way she engaged her own sexuality, because up until this point I had only seen her in very homely or emotionally desperate performances.  Here though, she owns her own identity and the way she cloaks her own intentions with this self-assured confidence only adds to her character’s mystery and, in the end, aids her director and his intentions so remarkably well.  She’s an enigma, but one you can’t help but lean in closer to, aching to hear everything she has to say and anxious to scrutinize every move she makes.

It doesn’t hurt that her introduction sequence, on the train, is brilliantly directed.

Fisti Success?  She’s a surefire nominee for me, in the Supporting category, and at the moment she’s my winner (mostly because I consider Juanita Moore the Lead in her Imitation of Life), but I still have a lot to catch up with in 1959, and Lee Remick is a very close second for her trashy seductive performance in Anatomy of a Murder.

The thing that is most impressive about Doris Day’s transformation here is that this is so far removed from anything that she was known for.  The lighthearted comedic timing is gone completely and what we are left with is a very honest and intense portrayal of a mother bleeding over the loss of her child.

Day goes through so many emotional stages here, all of them sensationally played.  She completely absorbs her character’s panic and deep-seated worry, but her determined vengeance and maternal spirit is remarkably used here to help create and invest this character in the hearts of the audience.  You can feel every ounce of her fear agony, but you can also sense her internal strength.  It’s shaky, she’s crumbling, but she’s also determined to find a way.

And then you have that scream, that epic scream!

Fisti Success?  Well, 1956 is complete (and slowly being posted over on the 1950’s Fisti Awards page), and Day is a nominee, but she loses this one to a doe-eyed Italian.

Lifeboat has one of the best ensemble performances I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.  I can’t stress how much I sincerely mean that.  The entire cast fits into their respective roles so effortlessly, and really, without their dedicated and proficient performances the film would have fallen apart at the seams.  Even a singular bad egg would have spoiled the impact of the film, because everything is hinged on the interaction between this cast of characters and the way they not only embody their roles but the way they allows those roles to live in the vicinity of each other.

Slezak in at the core of everything.

Really, his performance is the most important because all of the film’s moral complexity rest in the way that we (and his co-stars) react to him.  He has to embody the moral conundrum Hitchcock is presenting to us by richly embracing the enigma of his character.  Is he human, just like the rest of us, or is he evil incarnate?  Or, is he something in between?

Slezak juggles this quandary with the right amount of confidence to pull it all off.  We don’t fully trust him, but there is a warmth in the way he presents himself that causes us to lean a little closer, not wholly afraid of what he’ll do next, even if we should be.

Fisti Success?  For now, he’s got the gold, but the 40’s are still is collective blind spot for me, so it may change.  Right now though, he doesn’t have any competition.

A lot can be said for what Cotten has done here.  His tortured exterior plays to something lurking beneath the surface that he initially is truly concerned will ruin himself and those around him, and the glimmers of actual human feeling help establish him as a character we are in fear of, but don’t want to hate.  But, as the film progresses and his motives become clearer and clearer, he is shockingly good at stripping away all doubt as to his moral disintegration and basically becoming a living, breathing human monster. 

Cotten really doesn’t have a LOT of screen time, as the film is not solely his, and not really his at all.  He is basically a plot point used to bolster the film’s true star, Teresa Wright, and the development of her character, but as such he steals so much of the show from a distance.  The way that he lingers in a scene, even after he’s left it, is such a joy to watch.  He has a true command of every moment, even the moments he doesn’t physically embody.

Fisti Success?  I’m still not sure where I place heim, categorically, as he could really go either way.  If he goes Supporting, he loses to Dana Andrews, but if he goes Lead, he’s my current frontrunner.  I doubt he’ll win the Fisti for this, simply because there is a LOT I have left to see, and while I absolutely love what he does here, he’s not best in show.

Bergman is my favorite actress, period.  Her filmography speaks for itself, and the way she has developed such astonishing characters over the course of her career is just unmatched.  The tension she instills within her own body here is uncanny.  You can sense so much internalized confliction in the way she builds this performance, and the way she plays off of her co-stars is remarkable. 

The key to this performance is the fact that Bergman has to build two separate relationships and make them compatible in the same world, Hitchcock’s world.  First, she has to put up that pretense of affections for a man she has to fear, and conveying that love AND fear in a single glance is a hard thing to do, but Bergman does is masterfully, and her reactionary timing to Rains’ astonishingly nuanced performance is impeccable.  But, on top of that, she has to build a believable romance and compatibility with Cary Grant, her love interest, and she does so with such steamy elegance.  You can feel her breath leaving her as she is enraptured in this man and his presence alongside her.

Bergman eats everyone alive.

Fisti Success?  At the moment, she’s my clear winner.  I have a lot more to see from 1946, but it would take a lot to dethrone Bergman.

The one thing that has always impressed be about Stewart’s acting was the way he used his facial expressions, namely his eyes, as a complete character on its own.  He was able to convey so much with the way he manipulated his eyelids and the way he narrowed in his pupils.  He just bled such visible emoting.  While Stewart’s career is full of memorable performance, for me his best work came with Hitchcock.  In my humble opinion, Stewart’s two finest performances are found in Rope and Vertigo, and the great thing about these two performances is that they are so different. 

I’m cheating a bit here, but I like to spread the wealth and couldn’t see Stewart taking up two spots, but there was no way I was going to remove one of these performances from the list. 

In Rope, Stewart is the perfect foil for the murderous protagonists.  He exudes such devilish charm that fills the room, but as the film progresses you can sense the turning of the wheels as he puts two and two together to uncover the truth, and the way he turns his charm into some sort of mental interrogation is uncanny.  And then you have Vertigo, where the charm is stripped away and what we have left is a sort of mental instability that is laced in fear and complete insecurity in his own steps.  The panic, the wonder, the fear; all of it is brilliantly conveyed with a single glance.

Fisti Success?  Right now, Stewart is my Supporting winner in 1948 for his work in Rope.  1958 is far trickier for me right now, as I am undecided on a winner between Stewart, Newman and Guinness.  I have more to see, obviously, but right now it’s a three-horse race with no clear victor.

Well, we’ve already talked about Joseph Cotten, and while I lavished praise on his performance, I did make it clear that he was NOT the film’s true standout.  That, my friends, was Teresa Wright.  I was pretty shocked by this, as I had watched The Little Foxes right before seeing this film, and found her so underwhelming and green in that particular film.

She’s not green here.

For me, this was a star turn if I ever saw one.  Playing a young teenager, Wright infuses such honest human dilemma into her performance, capturing the lingering aspect of doubt that permeates her entire life, but she never fails to illuminate the innocence (slowly being stripped away) that brims at the surface.  She plays young Charlie’s happy moments with such warmth, and she layers her concern with something richer; such confliction.  The way that she toys, internally, with her uncle’s actions and debates her next move is utterly convincing, and she composes a complete character who remains the sole focal point of the film, even in the midst of a very devious presence.  Yes, despite sharing the screen with a very impressionable villain, the audience never wavers from their interest on Wright. 

She is compelling from start to finish.

Fisti Success?  I can almost assure you, she’ll be a Fisti nominee, but she isn’t winning.  Right now both Joan Fontaine and Ida Lupino are out in front, but all three are astonishing performances.

I have a lot of issues with this film.  I’ve been vocal before about the fact that I just didn’t like it.  My opinion is obvious skewed because of how much I loved the novel and how unfaithful this watered down censored version of it is, but nonetheless, I didn’t care for the film.

What I have always went to bat for though, is Robert Walker’s brilliant performance.

There have been a lot of actors who have delivered astonishing performances in underwhelming films, and Walker is at the top of that list.  He builds such a cunning and remarkably even villain who has so much charisma trapped inside his own awkward insecurities.  You can see the manipulation he has spent years attempting to perfect, but you never lose sight of the scared little boy, the angry young man who is trying so desperately to avenge his own self-worth.  His oppression is worn like a battle wound, but his eyes are working double time to try and deflect your attention from his sore spots.

You just can’t shake him.

Fisti Success?  He’s got the nomination, but he also has the disadvantage of starring in a film released the same year that gave us Marlon Brando’s iconic performance in Streetcar Named Desire, and there is just no way on earth he loses the Fisti.

I love a performance that does a complete 180 and shows you all of the shades of a human being in any given situation.  This is one of those performances.  Sure, a lot of characters have true arcs that shape who they are, but it is rare to find a character that does such an emotional shift that they almost become a new person.  Watching Connie go through the motions of uncovering a part of herself she has never addressed but was in need of embracing was such a real treat.

And watching Bankhead tear into every fiber of this woman was remarkable.

At the film’s start, Connie is a self-obsessed journalist who couldn’t see the truth if it smacked her in the face.  She had no true feeling outside of her own survival and self-preservation/advancement and so this caused her to become rather detached from the world around her, even those she was forced to dwell alongside.  But as her own nature gets in her way and she is forced to look at her actions and how they have affected others (including herself), she starts to chip away at her façade and uncover an entirely new woman, shaped by circumstance, hardened by reality and completely detached from her starting point.

The selfish become the selfless and the ignorant become sorely corrected.

Bankhead is astonishing to watch.  She personifies ‘movie star’ here, grabbing our attention with her charisma and obvious good looks, but there is something more to this delivery.  She isn’t merely resting, but she is building such a layered and honest portrait.  The more I watched, the more I became obsessed.

Fisti Success?  I have yet to close out the year that is 1944, but in a year that brings us true iconic performance from Barbara Stanwyck and Judy Garland, Bankhead is way out in front and my predicted Fisti winner.

The fact that Anthony Perkins was not nominated for an Oscar for his ICONIC performance in Psycho is utterly ridiculous.  I understand that the role was quite controversial, but the film was obviously on the radar of the Academy, since his co-star, Janet Leigh, was nominated.

And really, there are few performances that reach this level of unbridled insanity.

It says a lot about an actor’s commitment to a particular role when they are unable to ever shake the remnants of that performance.  Poor Perkins was cursed by this performance for the rest of his career, typecast as the creep thanks to the complete transformation made here.  To think that before this performance he was Oscar nominated as the naïve and sweet natured religious rebel in Friendly Persuasion.  All that innocence was gone after this performance, but what a performance!

The way that Perkins completely abandons himself to the role is such a privilege to witness.  He balances the character’s obvious lack of emotional growth (some may even call it childlike innocence) and his salacious evil with a remarkably astute understanding of who this man is, and the way he builds such layers in very specific scenes that help establish the backstory that lingers behind every unsaid word, and that final scene, that stare…it’s unshakable.

Fisti Success?  Well, I’ve placed Perkins in my Top Ten Lead Acting Performances of All Time, so I’d like to say that he has that much deserved Fisti win in the bag, but 1960 is an unfinished year for me (and Mastroianni just missed that list) so only time will tell.

So what do you think?  Who would you add?  What would your list look like?


  1. That's quite the selection. I really need to see more Hitchcock films (though I do have two on my blindspot list). Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant were both very good in North By Northwest and Jimmy Stewart was great in Rear Window.

    I had been planning to see a screening of Rope at Tiff but unfortunately there was a mix-up in my schedule and I ended up accidentally missing it last weekend when I thought it was next week, so I'll have to keep an eye out for that one. Lifeboat also sounds like an interesting one.

    1. Lifeboat is beyond exceptional! I also highly recommend Rope.

      I almost included Stewart for Rear Window here too, and just made it a three-way tie for 5th, but in all honesty, I don't love Rear Window as a film that much, and since the performance in Vertigo is essentially the same emotional attributes, just fleshed out fuller, I kept it at two.

      When I first caught wind of your blog, I pegged you for a diehard Hitchcock fan...LOL.

  2. Nice idea for a top 10! You've got quite a few nutjobs on your list, am I right, or am I right? :) Agree Robert Walker was memorable in Stranger on a Train(impressed you read the book). Sometimes lunatics are really clever. Part of me is scared of him, part of me feels pity towards Bruno Antony.
    Norman Bates is even creepier though :)

    1. We're all a little nutty, right!

      Yeah, Bruno Antony is a real interesting character. Highsmith's novel is outstanding, but Hollywood was so scared of the homosexual undertones that they had to white wash it so much it lost a lot of its impact. They also changed so much with regards to the characters themselves that the whole of Highsmith's story was lost.

      Still, Walker is jarringly good.

  3. Hey Andrew, what a coincidence that you made a Top 10 Hitchcock today as I just posted Rebecca review for my Blind Spot. I didn't know Joan Fontaine was in two Hitchcock films! Well I haven't seen a lot on this list but I did like Eva Marie in NbN. I'm hoping to see Vertigo later this year as it's been on my to-watch list for sometime. I really have a lot of catching up to do on Hitchcock, but the man was so prolific, he made like over 50 movies!

    – ruth

    1. Hitchcock is one of those directors that is truly great to discover, because most people associate him with the horror of Psycho and The Birds and don't realize that the bulk of his filmography is very different. He started and developed his craft with thrillers, mostly political, and it wasn't until 1960, nearly three decades into his career, that he dabbled in the horror that made him such a legend. Sure, there was murder before that, but it was of a different variety.

  4. GREAT list. I really appreciate that there are so many performances here that aren't from some of Hitch's more popular films. You really tapped into the B-side of his filmography, which is great. Perkins' performance in Psycho is also one of my Top 10 male performances of all time, so I'm thrilled to see him at number 1.

    And as for Fontaine's Suspicion win, I'm convinced that was a gift from the Academy; an attempt to make up for their egregious error in not giving her the award a year earlier for Rebecca.

    1. Yeah, the only explanation for her Suspicion win is that they felt bad for the snub the year before...but she shouldn't have even won for that one (even though she was good).

      I love how films like Lifeboat and Rope are lesser known Hitchcock films, because it really only exemplifies how awesome he was. Those films are outstanding, and two of his best works!

      Perkins...just wow!

  5. Fantastic list! The Fisti success of these performances is awesome! (I really need to see Fontaine and Lupino from '43. Also, Walker and Perkins are Supporting winners for me.)

    Oh, I love that you've finished 1956! Ugh. I've got about a dozen Fisti nominees to see from that year. Your ballots always shame me. :)

    I'd add James Stewart and Grace Kelly for Rear Window, and where is Ray Milland?!

    1. Milland was on my long list! It was hard to cut it down to ten.

      And...Perkins is Supporting? WTF!!!

      LOL, The Fistis for 1956 will be finished up by Monday. I just have the aural categories to post (Sound, Score, Song).

  6. Great list and very cool looking post! I love these films and performances. Totally agree with your top spot. Cotten, Bankhead and Wright are inspired choices. Great job. Thanks!

    1. Glad you like the list Vic! This was a lot of fun to put together. More people should see Lifeboat! I'm new to it as well, but it's not a very well known Hitchcock film, which is sad. It's one of his finest!t

      Thanks for the comment.

  7. Hmm looks like I really need to see Lifeboat!

    Interesting picks. Big YES to Bergman and Walker. Hitchcock's vision of Suspicion was never really on screen -- I think if he had had his way the movie would've been much better. The book certainly is, so.

    I'd add Grant in Notorious, loved his work with Hitch! If only they had let him kill Fontaine I might've considered his role as Johnnie, too.

    1. Yeah, I agree that Suspicion was butchered by the censors and not Hitch.

      Grant was great in Notorious and almost made this list. It was really hard to narrow it down.

      See Lifeboat this weekend!

  8. Wonderful choices. Stewart is very good in Rope but it's not one of my favorites of Hitch's films, more of an interesting experiment than an involving film.

    I love, love, love Lifeboat! It's in my top 5 Hitchcock films. It's true the entire cast works so well as a unit. While Bankhead and Slezak are definite standouts Canada Lee, Henry Hull, William Bendix, even Heather Angel in her tiny role as the tragic Mrs. Higgins add so much texture to the overall picture. I've shown it to many people and not a single person has ever disliked it.

    I'm sure it was incredibly difficult to get down to only ten. Don't know if I could do it. In my favorite of his films, Saboteur, I have several actors I'd have trouble eliminating. There's Norman Lloyd as the mysterious Fry, Otto Kruger as the silkily evil Tobin, and all the wonderful members of the circus troupe although that's really a group performance. In The Birds I'm crazy about what Suzanne Pleshette does with what could have been a throwaway role of Annie Hayworth as well as Ethel Griffies as Mrs. Bundy the bird expert. Her part is so small but she makes it pop in just a few minutes of screen time. Jessie Royce Landis all but steals To Catch a Thief and the director's daughter Patricia is super in both Stage Fright as Chubby Bannister and Ruth Roman's sister Barbara in Strangers. I'd have included Cary Grant in Notorious and Barbara Harris in the otherwise scattershot Family Plot. But then I'd include all your choices too! There are many others, like I said I don't think I could do it.

    I might have put Robert Walker first over Tony Perkins, that's an expert piece of work. Really tragic that when he was really coming into his peak years as a performer death took him so abruptly.

    I'm a big fan of Ingrid Bergman too. She's not my favorite but she was always interesting to watch on screen, not just in Hitchcock but in pretty much everything she did. Even if she was miscast she managed to add something intriguing to the role.

    1. It's funny you mention Saboteur, because Vaughan Glaser was just outside my Top Ten! I love his small work as the blind Mr. Miller. Such a tremendously effective small role.

      There are so many wonderful performances within the walls of Hitchcock's world that it really is a shame more of these performances weren't recognized at the time for their greatness.

  9. What did you think of Kim Novac in Vertigo?

    1. She's great, and I'd certainly nominate her at the moment. It's a subtle yet powerful turn.