The Best Alfred Hitchcock Scenes To Revisit After the ‘Psycho’ Shower Scene Doc ‘78/52’
It might sound like a stretch to dedicate an entire feature-length documentary to breaking down a single movie scene, but when that scene is one of the most famous in cinema history, it makes sense. Alexandre O. Philippe’s 78/52 examines the famous shower scene from Psycho, calling upon various filmmakers, actors, editors, film scholars, and even Janet Leigh’s body double Marli Renfro to discuss the making of the scene and its influence on pop culture. 78/52, a titled that refers to the scene’s 78 camera set-ups and 52 cuts, is catnip for cinephiles and a reminder of Alfred Hitchcock’s remarkable obsessive eye.
But the shower scene was just one great piece of filmmaking in a career full of phenomenal cinematic moments. From Vertigo to Rear Window, Notorious to Spellbound and beyond, Hitchcock managed to concoct suspense, passion, and fright again and again through his distinct use of editing, light, framing, sound, music, and more. I could spend days highlighting the greatest scenes from the British director’s filmography (there are plenty), but these 12 are the best of the best.
Jeff Falls Out of the Window
Rear Window (1954)
I could easily make this list a dedication to every frame of Rear Window, from the voyeuristic opening sequence across the courtyard to the moment Grace Kelly’s Lisa gets caught in Thorwald’s (Raymond Burr) apartment. But the face-off between Jimmy Stewart’s Jeff and his murderous neighbor is Hitchcockian suspense at its finest. By the time Thorwald arrives in Jeff’s apartment, the tension is so thick it’s on the cusp of exploding, but Hitchcock extends it even further. The scene opens with a silent, ominous panic as cinematographer Robert Burks obscures Thorwald in the shadows. Though light was previously what gave Jeff away when his neighbor spotted him from across the courtyard, here he uses it as his defense weapon. He frantically screws in new bulbs, as if reloading a gun, blinding Thorwald with his camera flash followed by an orange afterglow, Who knew an attack scene with a wheelchair-bound man in a cast and a bunch of light bulbs could be this thrilling?
Judy Becomes Madeleline
I originally had the bell tower scene on this list, and while it’s undeniably great, I went with a more personal favorite. Judy’s (Kim Novak) transformation into Madeleine is less boisterous and showy than some of Vertigo‘s more iconic moments, but no less potent. It uses color, lighting, and a melancholic track by Bernard Herrmann to create an atmosphere of majestic, eerie beauty. In it, Scottie (Stewart) asks the brunette Judy to pin up her newly-bleached hair like the late Madeleine Elster. This movie is all about the color green, symbolizing Scottie’s growing obsession with Madeleine – her emerald gown, her green car, the blue-green of the San Francisco Bay he rescues her from – and as he waits for Judy, he’s literally consumed by the neon green of the hotel sign. As the score swells, she emerges from the bathroom glowing green and translucent, a vision of Madeleine’s ghost; even Scottie’s eyes are electric with the green radiating from her. There’s a swooning romanticism to the sequence, but it’s equally haunting and unsettling.
Thornhill Outruns a Damn Plane
North By Northwest (1959)
First off, this scene is so gorgeously shot you could print out and hang up stills of every frame. But it also shows how much Hitchcock was a master at taking his time to sow the seeds of suspicion rather than leaping right into a climactic moment. In North By Northwest, you slowly get the idea that something is awry as soon as Cary Grant’s Thornhill gets off the bus. A strange man in a hat lurks across the road, then points out the oddity of the crop duster’s appearance – if you weren’t already on edge, now you are. We’re just as befuddled as the look on Grant’s face as the plane rushes straight toward him and a relatively quiet scene turns into a life-or-death chase sequence. It’s glorious and enthralling to watch, and all without a shred of music or a word of dialogue. Plus, no human could look as dashing as Grant does while running in a suit (not even you, Tom Cruise).
The Bread Knife
In the 1929 film, Anny Ondra plays Alice White, a woman who murders a man with a knife when he attempts to rape her. The morning after, when having breakfast with her parents, Alice is visibly upset and contemplates turning herself in to the police. A local woman stands beside the table and gossips about the murder, commenting on the brutal choice of the murder weapon. What’s most fascinating about the scene is Ondra’s performance and Hitchcock’s manipulation of sound. She grows agitated and fidgety as the neighbor rattles on, then Hitchcock cuts to a close-up of her face. Her eyebrows spike each time the woman says “knife” in her shrill tone of voice, until Alice cracks and throws a bread knife across the room. Hitchcock famously shot both a silent and a sound version of the film, and for the latter he purposely muddled every word of the woman’s dialogue except the word “knife,” putting us inside his character’s mind as she’s crippled by guilt and paranoia.
The Attempted Murder
Dial M for Murder (1954)
One of my favorite things about this scene is the minimal number of cuts. Hitchcock’s camera holds on Grace Kelly once she answers the phone call from her husband, intended to distract her while Anthony Dawson’s criminal attacks her from behind. The slow-burn intensity nearly bursts as the camera delicately swivels around her 180 degrees while Dimitri Tiomkin’s ominous score rises. The camera stays on Kelly and Dawson as the two thrash about the room, then Hitchcock cuts to only a few close-ups of her face and legs struggling to break free. And that shot of Kelly’s outstretched hand reaching towards the camera? You’d see that again three years later with Janet Leigh in the shower.
The Never-Ending Kiss
How do you depict passion when your characters can only kiss for three straight seconds? Have them kiss, then stop, then kiss again and stop, and hey why not some more kissing after that? Hitchcock got around the strict Hayes Code’s rules against “excessive” onscreen kissing by having his leads kiss again and again in a single scene. It’s a breathtaking thing to watch as Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia and Cary Grant’s Devlin smooch, embrace, cuddle up, then smooch some more as he makes a telephone call. Oddly enough, watching the three-minute kiss scene is more romantic than most lengthy and explicit Hollywood make-outs; it captures that feverish passion between two people who simply can’t keep their hands off one another.
The World’s Most Suspicious Glass of Milk
As someone who hates few things more than a glass of milk, I can related to Joan Fontaine’s fright in this classic scene. By this point, her Lina is convinced her husband Johnnie (Cary Grant) killed his friend and is plotting to murder her next. Hitchcock does the film’s title justice by echoing her inner paranoia. Franz Waxman’s moody score, paired with shadowy lighting makes the scene feel like something out of a horror movie. You can’t help but think of Nosferatu as Grant’s elongated shadow creeps across the carpet and he slowly ascends the stairs. A glass of milk has truly never looked so suspicious.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
After Guy (Farley Granger) and Bruno (Robert Walker) plot their murder swap scheme, the latter stalks Guy’s wife Miriam (Laura Elliott) through an amusement park. Watch how Hitchcock uses shadow to instill dread and unease. Bruno’s shadow looms over Miriam’s on a boat ride, almost smothering her giggles inside the cave. And then, in a typical Hitchcockian tease, we hear her scream just seconds before her boat emerges from the rocks. No, she’s not dead, yet. When Bruno finally catches her alone, he checks her identity with Guy’s lighter (a crucial prop later on), then strangles her. Most fascinating is how Hitchcock frames the death – we don’t see it from Miriam or Bruno’s POV, but that of an outsider looking in, watching from over his shoulder, then via the reflection in her glasses. It heightens the voyeurism of the scene, making the audience feel like a stalker witnessing something they’re not supposed to see.
The Gas Station Attack
The Birds (1963)
Poor CGI never ages well, but fantastic editing and framing is timeless. In The Birds, Hitchcock created spine-tingling suspense in the gas station attack, which begins with relatively few winged animals. The scratchy croaks of nearby birds signal impending danger, and when an attendant is knocked over, gasoline starts flooding the pavement. Hitchcock cuts back and forth between ground-level shots of gasoline rolling towards the camera and the panicked onlookers inside the restaurant. Tippi Hedron’s frightened reaction shots may feel a little corny upon rewatch today, but the juxtaposition between tight close-ups and overhead birds-eye-view (literally!), evokes the spooky notion that peril looms everywhere.
The Dalí Dream Sequence
It doesn’t get much trippier than Hitchcock combined with Salvador Dalí. For his 1960 deep-dive into psychoanalysis, Hitchcock employed the Spanish surrealist to craft a dream sequence, and it’s as unsettling and nightmarish as you’d imagine. Gregory Peck’s John Ballentyne recites a dream he had, full of signature Dalí imagery like melting clocks, bleak landscapes with stretches of sharp, incongruous architecture, giant floating eyeballs, and ghoulish faces. It’s a creepy, mesmerizing sequence. Dalí supposedly came up with 20 minutes-worth of ideas for the sequence, but since much of it was too impossible to film, the final cut only featured a three-minute segment. How marvelous and disturbing would it have been to see Ingrid Bergman covered in live ants?
The Royal Albert Hall Assassination
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
In Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of his own 1934 film of the same name, Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart’s married couple become embroiled in an assassination plot when their son is kidnapped. During an orchestra performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall, Day’s Jo McKenna spots the assassin sitting in the balcony and quickly points him out to Stewart’s Ben. The greatness of the nearly 10-minute sequence is that there isn’t a word of dialogue throughout, only the pounding music of Arthur Benjamin’s “Storm Clouds Cantata,” extended by Bernard Herrmann (who you can also spot as the conductor in the film). It’s a thrilling bit of filmmaking, from a woman’s silent, tense breathing to the slow reveal of the gun’s barrel, that culminates in Jo’s shrill scream as the assassin fires. And in a classic heroic Stewart moment, Ben wrestles with assassin and tosses him off the balcony.
Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca’s Bedroom
A cool chill spills over Rebecca the first moment Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), the Manderley housekeeper, arrives onscreen in this twisty 1940 drama. But Anderson captures the character’s icy evil vibes best when she catches Joan Fontaine in the late Rebecca de Winter’s bedroom. She speaks with a short, vacant tone that slowly reveals a buried romantic obsession. Many have read into the queer subtext of this film, and this scene is the prime case for Mrs. Danvers’ as the villainous lesbian who clearly (if, to her, latently) harbored romantic feelings for the dead woman of the title. The scene deserves a spot on this list just for Anderson’s chilly gazes and line deliveries. She and Hitchcock make it feel as if Rebecca’s ghost is haunting the room.