Here Are Alfred Hitchcock’s 20 Greatest Films

Alfred Hitchcock is a legendary filmmaker who worked in both England and America. Here is a ranking of 20 of his best movies.

Apr 25, 2024By Cory Claus, BA Classical Studies & English Literature

alfred hitchcock greatest films


Alfred Hitchcock had a remarkable directorial career spanning more than 50 years. Hitchcock started his career in England, making his first classic movies, but he really hit his stride when he moved to Hollywood, where he worked with the biggest names in acting. There he perfected his craft, setting the standard for the suave mystery genre while inventing that of modern horror films. Hitchcock even changed the way movies were seen. Here is a list of his 20 greatest movies—a must-read for all true cinephiles.


1. Alfred Hitchcock’s Best Movie: North by Northwest (1959)

alfred hitchcock north by northwest
North by Northwest, 1959, via IMDB


This quintessential spy thriller shows Hitchcock at the height of his powers. The film also shows Hitch as the master of his favorite trope: the everyman caught in a deadly situation. The everyman here is played by Cary Grant in a case of mistaken identity that threatens his life. All of Hitchcock’s favorite elements are present, from a desperate cross-country chase and the use of a MacGuffin to an ending at a national monument. In this movie, he worked with some of Hollywood’s top talent, with Eva Marie Saint and James Mason as co-starts. This masterpiece weaves humor and real danger throughout the movie and sets the stage for the genre’s future.


2. Rear Window (1954)

rear window alfred hitchcock
Rear Window, 1954, via IMDB


Hitchcock loved to put his audience in the place of the protagonist to heighten their tension. Nowhere does he do this better than in Rear Window. The film follows a photographer, played by Jimmy Stewart, who sits around his apartment waiting for his broken leg to heal. He spends his time as a voyeur, which is another way Hitchcock reinforces the feeling that the audience is itself a collection of voyeurs. Like Stewart, they are able to observe but powerless to act or defend themselves when the inevitable attack occurs.


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One day, Stewart thinks he saw a murder but he can’t be sure. So he enlists the ethereal Grace Kelly to sneak into the apartment across the way to find evidence. This is another layer of increased anxiety for the moviegoers: like Stewart, they can only watch as Kelly risks her life. The film is a masterclass in creating tension not just on the screen, but in the minds of the viewers.


3. Rebecca (1940)

rebecca poster 1940
Rebecca, 1940, via IMDB


In his entire brilliant career, Hitchcock won only one Oscar for Best Picture. That was for Rebecca. This was Hitchcock’s first American film and one in which he had to take more instruction from Producer David O Selznick than he wanted. Hitchcock, however, still emphasized the psychological elements of this Gothic romance mystery thriller.


Joan Fontaine stars as the new wife to a widower played by Laurence Olivier (the leading Shakespearean actor of the 20th century). But their relationship is overshadowed by the mysterious death of his first wife, Rebecca, whose memory hovers over the film like a fog. Fontaine and the audience are left to wonder how she died and what that will mean for the new wife.


4. Vertigo (1958)

vertigo movie 1958
Vertigo, 1958, via IMDB


Vertigo is perhaps the most controversial of all Hitchcock’s films. Some claim that it’s his greatest work, while others see it as too much of a mess. Either way, it stands as one of his most important films if for no other reason than the controversy.


Jimmy Stewart again stars, as he and Cary Grant were his two favorite actors to work with. Here he plays a recently retired detective who quit the force when he saw his partner plunge to his death. The event has given Stewart the debilitating titular fear. Soon after, he’s hired to follow the wife of a friend (Kim Novak) with whom he starts a romantic relationship. But the film falls entirely into the realm of psychological thriller when Stewart, paralyzed by his condition, watches helplessly as the woman falls to her death from a bell tower.


Here again, Hitchcock puts the audience in the place of the protagonist. From there, the film becomes a genre unto itself as Stewart obsesses over the dead woman. What happens when he meets her doppelganger can only be seen and not truly described.


5. Psycho (1960)

alfred hitchcock psycho movie poster
Psycho, 1960, via IMDB


Many credit Psycho as the birth of the modern horror movie. But it is also the film that changed the way audiences watched movies. The story begins with Janet Leigh leaving Los Angeles as an accomplice to a crime. She ends up staying at the Bates Motel. There she meets Anthony Perkins, who runs the hotel with his mother.


However, Hitchcock put in a plot twist very early in the film that shocked audiences (no spoilers here). There was only one problem: American audiences sometimes walked into movies whenever they felt like it. They would sit through the rest of the film, and then watch the next showing to see what they missed. But if they did that with Pyscho, they would miss the major plot twist and become confused. So Hitchcock said that no one should be admitted after the film starts. The idea took hold, and today few would think of walking into a theater in the middle of a picture.


6. The Lady Vanishes (1938)

lady vanishes hitchcock
The Lady Vanishes, 1938, via IMDB


Hitchcock often mixed humor, romance, and danger in his films. The Lady Vanishes stands as one of his earliest and greatest triumphs in incorporating those elements. The film spends the first fifteen minutes or so setting up the contentious love story between star Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. They meet at a mountain inn and then separately board the same train.


There, Lockwood meets Dame Mae Witty after being hit on the head by a flowerpot. The two strike up a friendship until Witty seemingly disappears from the moving train. Because of the bump on the head, and the conspirators all around her, no one believes Witty even exists. Enter Redgrave. He slowly comes to believe Lockwood and the two spend the rest of the movie fighting off villains in an increasingly desperate attempt to find Mae Witty.


7. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

shadow doubt poster
Shadow of a Doubt, 1943, via IMDB


Hitchcock loved to take innocent and harmless people and place them in dangerous situations. Here, however, he takes a dangerous killer, played by Joseph Cotton, and puts him in the middle of an innocent and harmless suburban neighborhood. He’s ostensibly there to visit his sister and her kids. To them, he’s the fun uncle. His niece, Teresa Wright, is especially fond of him and looks up to him. But soon, she begins to suspect that her uncle’s visit might have a more sinister motive: hiding out from the police.


Hitchcock lets the audience know early on that Cotton is indeed a killer. This revelation ratchets up the psychological tension as only the audience and Wright know just how dangerous he is. And like Wright, they are powerless to stop him. What elevates the film on this list is the performance by Cotton. He is the quintessential Hitchcockian villain. He is completely believable as the harmless uncle he pretends to be, while at the same time subtly revealing his deadly psychosis. It’s a chilling performance, maybe the best of his career.


8. Stage Fright (1950)

stage fright hitchcock
Stage Fright, 1950, via IMDB


What makes Hitchcock a master storyteller is his ability to create tension in a variety of manners. In some films, like the next one on the list, he shows us who the killer is and lets us stew in our fear. In others, like Stage Fright, Hitch keeps us guessing until the end and looking for clues in every actor’s face. But no matter which style he chooses for each film, he keeps the tension high.


Here Jane Wyman, the first wife of Ronald Reagan, plays an aspiring actress being pursued by Richard Todd. Todd is the lover of successful stage actress Marlene Dietrich but wants a more wholesome relationship with Wyman. One day, Todd goes to Wyman, desperate for help. He dreamt that Dietrich came to him with a blood-stained dress, fresh from a murder she seemingly committed. Todd hides the dress, and then Wyman hides him. But soon, she begins to suspect that Dietrich is framing him. Soon everyone suspects everyone while Todd sinks into a deranged panic. Hitchcock uses one of his favorite devices by putting the most intense action on a stage, reinforcing the idea that the movie audience can see but cannot help.


9. To Catch a Thief (1955)

catch thief hitchcock film
To Catch A Thief, 1955, via IMDB


To Catch a Thief is a lightweight compared to some of Hitchcock’s films. But rarely did he make a more entertaining film. Cary Grant stars as a retired cat burglar, or at least he says he’s retired. His cushy life in coastal France is threatened, however, when someone begins stealing expensive jewelry from tourists in precisely the same way Grant did (or is doing).


Grant convinces the insurance company responsible for paying all these claims to let him try to track the thief. Complicating matters, he gets caught up in a love triangle with Grace Kelly and Jessie Royce Landis. The tension isn’t nearly as high as in some of his other films, but the stylishness is off the charts. Add to that the talents of Grant and Kelly, and you have perhaps Hitchcock’s most enjoyable film. The movie proved to be an inspiration for Blake Edwards, who twisted the plot into The Pink Panther.


10. Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers on a Train, 1951, via IMDB


Farley Granger stars as the everyman caught up in murderous intrigue. While riding a train to one of his professional tennis matches, he meets up with an odd and excitable man played by Robert Walker. There, Walker talks to Granger about what seems an absurd idea: the two men would each kill someone the other man wants dead. The killings would seem random, and both men would get off scot-free.


But Granger doesn’t really want his wife dead; he was just blowing off steam. And he certainly has no intention of killing Walker’s mother. He leaves the train, sure it was just a strange interlude. That all changes when Granger’s wife is killed. Fear turns to panic as Walker re-enters his life and demands Granger do his part.


Hitchcock uses another of his favorite devices to reduce a scene to its essential elements. He does that here by placing Walker in the stands during one of Granger’s tennis matches. Every head turns to follow each tennis shot, except for Walker’s. His menacing and unmoving stare stands out in this oblivious crowd.


11. Rope (1948)

rope hitchcock movie
Rope, 1948, via IMDB


Hitchcock loved to experiment with no approaches to making movies. For Rope, he eschewed the conventions of multiple takes and a variety of locations. Instead, he keeps the film inside one apartment, which Hitch does again for another film, Rear Window. But he also shot the movie through ten long uninterrupted shots. The drawn-out sequences without cutaways only add to the psychological drama.


The plot is relatively simple but darker than most of Hitchcock’s films. Two men, John Dall, and Farley Granger, kill a friend of theirs to prove they live in their own moral universe. They then put the body in a trunk in the middle of the living room and proceed to host a dinner party there. Hitchcock keeps us focused on the chest by having it serve as the table for the food the two men serve. Also at the party is the man who inspired them, Jimmy Stewart. The rest of the film is a series of conversations in which the two killers try to determine if Stewart approves or lacks the courage of his professed convictions.


12. The 39 Steps (1935)

39 steps hitchcock
The 39 Steps, 1935, via IMDB


This early Hitchcock film lacks the big-name talent he would go on to work with, but it does establish many of his favorite tropes. He sets the main action on a stage, reinforcing that the movie audience is powerless to help. He sends his protagonists, played by Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, on a mad dash into the countryside. Hitchcock also has them dislike each other, thrown together by circumstances. And the focal point of the film is a MacGuffin. He would go on to use all of these in later films throughout his career.


This is also one of the films in which Hitchcock makes us wait until the last moment to learn the secret at the heart of the movie. Only then does he reveal what the title of the film means. It might not be a masterpiece, but it is brilliantly realized, wonderfully acted, and sets the stage for many of his future films.


13. Suspicion (1941)

suspicion hitchcock movie
Suspicion, 1941, via IMDB


Suspicion is one of Hitchcock’s psychological romance thrillers. Cary Grant plays a handsome flibbertigibbet who meets and marries the plain by Hollywood standards Joan Fontaine. Soon after their quickie marriage, Fontaine realizes that Grant is a gambler and layabout. But is he more than that? When her father dies, Grant is upset that her wealthy father didn’t leave her much. His reaction and general behavior make Fontaine concerned he might have killed her father for the money. But did he? And if so, is he planning on killing her? What sets the film apart from so many others is that nowhere in his oeuvre is he able to keep the tension until the last moment of the movie as he does here. He used this method first in the next film, The 39 Steps, to only slightly less success.


14. The Wrong Man (1956)

The Wrong Man, 1956, via IMDB


Many of Hitchcock’s best films are stylish and energetic. The Wrong Man isn’t really one of those. Here he casts another of Hollywood’s A-List actors, Henry Fonda, as his everyman caught up in deadly intrigue. Fonda is arrested and tried for murder, a murder we know he did not commit. But, of course, that’s only fodder for Hitchcock. He uses our knowledge to torture the audience, Fonda, and his wife, Vera Miles. What makes this film so different is the intentional lack of style and relatively slow pacing. But what ratchets up the tension is the fact that it is based on a true story, as announced by Hitchcock at the very beginning. The audience finds itself not just worried about Fonda but the actual person who was trapped in the real-life case.


15. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

alfred hitchcock man who knew too much
The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934, via IMDB


Hitchcock sometimes pulled from his old plots to make new and usually better movies. Nowhere is that more true than with The Man Who Knew Too Much. Hitch was so intrigued by the plot that he remade the film with different actors and some significant changes. But while the remake is an excellent film with a superior cast, the original still stands up as the better of the two. That’s chiefly due to the sinister performance by Peter Lorre. He’s the head of an international ring of killers planning a major assassination. The actors do a serviceable job, but it’s the other elements that stand out. The plot twists are exceptional, and the black-and-white cinematography adds so much to the movie’s dark nature.


16. The Birds (1963)

birds hitchcock movie poster
The Birds, 1963, via IMDB


Many of Hitchcock’s films follow a pattern and use familiar tropes. But The Birds is an entirely unique entry in his long and distinguished career. There is no murder to uncover and no innocent men pursued by killers. Instead, the psychological tension comes from the sky as a small town in California is attacked by flocks of murderous birds.


The plot is ostensibly about Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor trying to survive these attacks. But the real story is about questions that are never answered. Why are the birds attacking? How can they be stopped? Who will win this battle, man or beast? In most of Hitchcock’s films, the killer is either caught or at least identified. Here, there is no resolution outside of what happens to the main stars. When Hitchcock made this film, he created a new genre: man against nature. Had he known it would lead to films such as The Night of the Lepus, he might have thought twice.


17. Dial M for Murder (1954)

dial m murder hitchcock
Dial M for Murder, 1954, via IMDB


Ray Milland stars as the husband to Grace Kelly, who finds out Kelly is having an affair. So Milland plots to murder Kelly to inherit her wealth. But even though the plot goes awry, it still works out in Miland’s favor: Kelly is found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. So many of Hitchcock’s favorite elements are present here. There’s a jealous husband, an innocent person sent to prison, and a smiling villain only we know about.


18. The Trouble with Harry (1955)

The Trouble with Harry, 1955, via IMDB


This film is the closest Hitch ever got to making a true comedy. Of course, being Hitchcock, it is still a murder mystery. The black comedy turns many of Hitchcock’s favorite tropes on their heads. First, he sets the movie in Vermont—a less frightening locale is hard to imagine. Then he starts the film not with a murder but with a dead body. Instead of it being a secret known only to a few, this dead body is out on a hillside where everyone can see it. Another big difference is that, instead of everyone being afraid of being falsely accused, they all assume they are the killers. But who really dunnit? And what should the townsfolk do with Harry’s body? The film was the debut of Shirley Maclaine, whose comedic chops are served well in this satisfying comedy.


19. Notorious (1946)

notorious hitchcock poster
Notorious, 1946, via IMDB


Hitchcock was so well respected that every big name in Hollywood wanted to act in his films. That was never more evident than in Notorious, which starred Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains. The three make this spy thriller shine.


Grant stars as a government agent who recruits Bergman, the daughter of a Nazi spy. With her bona fides, she’s sent in to seduce Rains, leader of a Nazi spy ring. Grant assumes this will be easy for her based on her promiscuous past, but his feelings about the mission become complicated when he falls in love with her. But Rains discovers who she is and plots to kill her with his mother’s help.


In one of his most famous shots, Hitchcock showed his mastery of the tense moment. He starts a camera pointing down at a large party with Bergman in the middle. In her hand is the literal key to proving the plot. Hitchcock then lowers the camera until it is focused exclusively on the hand that holds that key.


20. Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945)

spellbound hitchcock movie poster
Spellbound, 1945, via IMDB


In no other film does Hitchcock delve so deeply into the psychological. The plot starts like so many thrillers. Ingrid Bergman is a psychoanalyst at a hospital where Gregory Peck comes to work and the two fall in love. But soon, Peck admits that he killed the actual doctor that he is portraying and is suffering from amnesia. Peck flees, pursued not by the cops but by Bergman. She finds him in a NYC hotel, where the film diverges from others of its ilk.


Instead of a mad dash across the country or a desperate attempt to find the real killer, the film turns inward. Bergman convinces Peck to undergo dream analysis in the hopes they can uncover his lost memories. It’s a fascinating film and another of Hitchcock’s unique offerings. And it features a hidden star. Hitchcock called upon the famous surrealist painter Salvador Dali to create the dream sequences that make this a must-see film.

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By Cory ClausBA Classical Studies & English LiteratureCory is an educator and twice nationally recognized award-winning novelist. He is also an art and art history lover who has traveled all over the United States and Europe in order to see some of his favorites paintings and sculptures in situ. He earned his BA from Dartmouth College and has continued his research and studies since then. His first novel, Surrounded by Chu Songs, is out now.