Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most influential, innovative auteurs ever to wield a camera. He utilized new, creative techniques, and developed a signature visual language. Hitchcock is known for his iconic genre films—a brand that has long been considered unfashionable, or even tacky. But Hitchcock consistently imbued the fantastic with grounded characters and thematic maturity.
His films often confront the human psyche, involving our darkest flaws, sexuality, phobias, and more with unique boldness. They also contain a healthy dose of dark comedy, cynicism regarding authority, and some great collaborations with composer Bernard Herrmann. Here are ten iconic scenes that rightfully earned Hitchcock the nickname, Master of Suspense.
10 Frenzy: Potato Truck
Many critics had written off Alfred Hitchcock by 1972, but they were dead wrong. The Production Code had just been lifted, finally replaced by the MPAA rating system. The Production Code had specifically stifled the sort of macabre material Hitchcock always thrived on. Now, Hitchcock could incorporate nudity and violence in the graphic, striking, and honest manner that he desired.
The production went to London, where Hitchcock grew up. In Frenzy, a detestable loser is framed for his ex-wife’s murder and sets out to prove his innocence. Somehow, even after a graphic and repulsive rape-murder, Hitchcock still generates suspense on the killer’s side. Much like Strangers on a Train, we follow the killer as he desperately attempts to retrieve damning evidence. Hitchcock’s visual acuity can overpower our opposition to the villain, although there’s also suspense in desiring his failure.
9 The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): The Crescendo
Hitchcock loves to throw everyday people into incredible situations. This is essentially a precursor to Taken. A small family on holiday accidentally runs into the wrong place, at the wrong time. When two parents inadvertently receive a clue about an assassination plot, their child is kidnapped as leverage against them. The result is a superb ticking clock and chase movie.
In fact, it’s a remake of an equally entertaining film of the same name, also directed by Hitchcock, released twenty years prior. Remakes don’t usually prove their right to exist, but this truly stands apart. The film opens with the blunt statement that a crash of symbols spells doom. The finale, with the crescendo itself, uses that promise to full effect. The music swells, muffling everything else to escalate tension. It essentially becomes a silent movie, as the protagonists desperately attempt to foil the opera house murder.
8 Shadow Of A Doubt: Car Garage
Alfred Hitchcock considered Shadow of a Doubt to be his favorite project. The dichotomy between two characters named Charlie is utterly fascinating. The young girl, bored of her stereotypically conformist, suburban life suspects that her visiting uncle may be a killer. For 1943, the blatant social criticisms are pretty striking.
Also, Hitchcock always thrives on suspicion, deceit, and murder. In this scene, the true killer is hard at work, once again attempting to murder young Charlie. Attempting to disguise her death as an accident, she’s locked in the car garage with lethal fumes. It is such a slow murder attempt, the suspense of her desperate survival is really allowed to accumulate. Also, we’re deeply invested in the drama by now.
7 Notorious: The Wine Cellar
Mission: Impossible lifted elements from North by Northwest, and the John Woo sequel followed suit. Only, that was far more blatant and basically serves as a splashy remake of Notorious. An American agent recruits a woman to spy on her incriminated father’s Nazi associates. However, an unexpected romance springs up between them, which complicates her efforts to seduce a Nazi, Sebastian.
It is a matter of love versus duty. The stubborn protagonists carefully infiltrate Sebastian’s wine cellar and discover the Nazi’s secret. The camera cleverly follows the crucial cellar key. Viewers fear the heroes’ capture throughout, but especially once they accidentally smash a wine bottle.
6 Vertigo: The Bell Tower Finale
Vertigo is one of the most critically acclaimed movies of all time. It’s visually arresting and full to the brim with psychological vibrancy. It is both distinctly a Hitchcock movie, and quite unlike many of his other stories. It discusses the supernatural, and the music helps Hitchcock’s breathtaking visuals to conjure a surreal atmosphere.
The entire film takes place from the broken protagonist’s point of view, which makes the surreal attitude most fitting. It’s also innately immersive, and the finale is enormously tense for it. We revisit the bell tower, where Madeleine died. By this point, the main character has become the antagonist. His instability is terrifying, and he conquers his phobia as he solves the truth.
5 North By Northwest: Crop Dusting
Hitchcock was always fond of the wrongfully accused man. He also certainly loved spy movies, making the best in the genre. Hitchcock even influenced From Russia With Love, which blatantly recreates the crop-dusting scene, as Bond flees a helicopter. Roger Thornhill getting chased by a crop-dusting plane is still one of the most iconic film scenes ever made.
It begins with urbanite Roger in an isolated, rural field. He anxiously waits at a bus stop for the enemy pursuing him. The scene draws out the suspense to agonizing lengths. A bus comes by and picks up the only other man in sight. Then, an incongruous plane proceeds to hunt down the exposed Roger—an exquisitely thrilling chase, despite an odd ending.
4 Dial M For Murder: The Imperfect Murder
This story was actually based on a play, but without Hitchcock’s eye, the murder wouldn’t be so affecting. The entire film ponders the efforts of a truly intelligent, coolheaded killer. A man who blackmails someone into killing his wife for her infidelity. As such, the entire plan is laid out in detail.
That level of information allows the tension to fester, and the attempt itself is fantastic. The killer stands behind his target, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. This is especially drawn out. Then, events really deliver a subversion of expectations as things don’t go as planned. The scene is mercilessly brutal, up close and personal.
3 Rear Window: Home Invasion
Could anything be more cinematic than a voyeur? The sheer force of editing is undeniable, and the primary weapon in Rear Window. But it also has terrific actors, and a killer premise. A photographer breaks his leg and observes his neighbors in boredom. He pays for that intrusion, believing he has witnessed a murder. By the end of the movie, we realize it was all true. So, when the killer looks directly at the protagonist, he is actually looking directly at the audience.
The absolute immersion in this movie conjures unprecedented suspense. Further, the protagonist is helpless, alone and confined to a wheelchair. The final showdown with the murderer is superb, although the flashes of light haven’t dated perfectly.
2 The Birds: Schoolhouse Attack
This premise has been reused many times over, from the repulsive Birdemic to Shyamalan’s Signs. Although elements of disaster and horror are relentless and thrilling, the movie is truly a psychological study. Each character has issues, which the bird attacks force them to overcome. The bluntly supernatural premise is unusual for Hitchcock, but he loves to distort the natural. Birds are an overlooked, everyday animal. To make them frightening is clever, and gleefully mischievous.
In this scene, protagonist Melanie Daniels waits on a bench outside the schoolhouse. But all the while, the playground behind her fills with birds, their sounds obscured by singing children. And when the attack finally strikes, an entire group of children is assaulted. This was probably unprecedented then but remains disconcerting and effective even now.
1 Psycho (1960): The Shower Scene
Of course. There isn’t much praise left to give this iconic scene, with shrieking violins that have entered the collective subconscious. You’ve heard it in Spielberg’s Duel, De Palma’s Carrie, and even in Finding Nemo! A young woman steals cash from her office, so as to marry her love interest. She changes her mind, but a rainstorm forces her to stay at the Bates Motel, where she’s eventually murdered. She steps into a shower, as the employee Norman Bates spies on her.
This triggers "mother’s" impulses, and so proceeds the most famous movie scene of all time. It is the most perfect combination of directing, score, and ferocious editing on film. It’s also a shocking twist, with atypical, extreme brutality and nudity for the time. But most importantly, we’ve already invested and empathized with Marion.