Widely regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema, Alfred Hitchcock earned the title of "Master of Suspense" by directing one classic thriller after another in his career, which spanned a half a century from the 1920s until the 1970s.
"In cinematographic style, 'suspense' consists in inciting a breathless curiosity and in establishing a complicity between the director and the spectator, who knows what is going to happen," the auteur wrote in a 1960 essay titled, Why I Am Afraid of the Dark.
Hitchcock certainly knew how to use the element of suspense to make his audience suffer — in the best possible way. But the director wasn't just a household name; thanks to his beloved television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour — not to mention his cameo roles in three-quarters of his own films — he became the face of the genre as well.
Whether you're new to Hitchcock's oeuvre or looking to revisit his best work, here are 10 of the master's most suspenseful films.
Along with essentials like The Lady Vanishes and the underrated Young and Innocent, The 39 Steps remains one of the gems of Hitchcock's early talkie period. This was the first and one of the best "wrong man" thrillers about an innocent sent on the run for a crime he didn’t commit. In this case, it's future Oscar winner (Best Actor for 1939's Goodbye, Mr. Chips) Robert Donat playing a hapless Canadian in England framed for the murder of a spy in his own apartment — which leads to him being handcuffed by a very unwilling fellow traveler.
Hitchcock's only Best Picture Oscar winner (though the award went to producer David O. Selznick) is this sumptuous adaptation of the bestselling Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name. The noir thriller follows a young woman (Joan Fontaine) as she is swept into a world of lies, treachery, and possible murder when she marries an aristocrat (Laurence Olivier). Judith Anderson's imposing housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, remains one of cinema's all-time great characters.
Though overshadowed at the time by his Oscar-winning Rebecca, released the very same year, this riveting thriller (and rallying cry for the U.S. to join World War II) features some of the maestro's most audacious visual flourishes, including an assassination in a sea of umbrellas, a tense windmill showdown, and a plane crash that still makes audiences jump. Joel McCrea stars as an American reporter in Europe who stumbles into a diabolical plot to undermine Allied forces. Although the film did not receive any Oscars, it was nominated for six of them, including Best Picture.
Ingrid Bergman had one of her best roles as the daughter of a late Nazi collaborator who, urged by U.S. agent and romantic interest Cary Grant, goes to extreme ends to thwart a nest of fascists just after the war. Technically dazzling and psychologically twisted, this romantic noir drama culminates in the screen's most nerve-wracking descent down a flight of stairs.
Loosely adapted from the classic mystery novel by Patricia Highsmith, this twisty tale of a rich playboy (Robert Walker) trying to force an arrangement of swapped murders with an unhappily married tennis player (Farley Granger) ushered in Hitchcock's spectacular run of '50s thrillers. Loaded with classic moments, including a nocturnal fairground murder and a harrowing carousel finale, the film has been imitated many times but never surpassed.
The theme of voyeurism running through the director's work takes center stage as photographer L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart), laid up in his Greenwich Village apartment with a broken leg, suspects that one of his neighbors might be responsible for a murder. Hitchcock's masterful direction, John Michael Hayes' gripping script, Robert Burks' stunning cinematography, Franz Waxman's electrifying score, one jaw-dropping studio set, and the brilliant performances by Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Thelma Ritter all come together to create the perfect gateway film for any Hitchcock newcomer.
Suspense films don't come much more visually dazzling or psychologically unsettling than this tour de force, which famously unseated Citizen Kane as the number one film on Sight & Sound’s list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time back in 2012. (The decennial Sight & Sound poll will once again be released later this year.) Nothing is what it seems when a traumatized detective (James Stewart) is hired to tail a friend's wife (Kim Novak), who seems to be haunted by the spirit of a dead ancestor, which leads to a maze of whiplash plot twists and sumptuously photographed tragedy.
The most extravagant of Hitchcock's "wrong man" tales stars Cary Grant as a shallow advertising exec mistaken for a spy who ends up being pursued across America from Manhattan to Mount Rushmore. The legendary crop duster scene is just one of the many joys to be found here in the sparkling script by Ernest Lehman, which packs quotable dialogue into every single scene. Co-starring Eva Marie Saint and James Mason, the film was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay.
The film that ruined showers for an entire generation, this game-changing horror classic is a master class in audience misdirection and perfectly timed shock sequences, all accompanied by composer Bernard Herrmann's most nerve-shredding musical score. Anthony Perkins found his most iconic role as lonely motel proprietor Norman Bates, who takes in thief-on-the-run Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) for a very fateful evening.
This natural thriller, based on a 1952 Daphne du Maurier short story, stars Tippi Hedren as a San Francisco socialite whose visit to a seaside town coincides with relentless, deadly attacks by the bird population. Innovative special effects, the eerie absence of a musical score, and one of the most aggressive sound mixes of the era make The Birds a chilling viewing experience.