Director Alfred Hitchcock began his career in the silent-movie era and ended it in the 1970s. Along the way he became one of the most successful filmmakers in the Hollywood studio system, a source of inspiration for the French New Wave movement, and a pioneer of B-movie marketing techniques. He was a TV host whose own onscreen presence is as recognizable as many of the legendary actors he cast. His influence can be seen in thrillers and horror movies made by later generations of filmmakers who may not even be familiar with his work.
Over the course of his lengthy and prolific career, Hitchcock worked in a variety of genres, but he’s still best known as a master of suspense. Hitchcock thrillers like Rear Window, Rope, and Lifeboat spawned entire subgenres of their own, and 1958’s Vertigo, starring James Stewart and Kim Novak, was voted the greatest film of all time in the most recent edition of the British Film Institute’s influential Sight & Sound poll. Decades before terms like “elevated horror,” Hitchcock proved that genre films could be sophisticated, complex, and enduring works of art.
One of Hitchcock’s greatest strengths was finding the right source material, and many of his most beloved films are based on mystery and thriller novels and short stories. There’s no bad place to start with Hitchcock, really, but for avid readers looking for a Hitchcock primer, here are six brilliant Hitchcock films based on brilliant works of literature.
The 39 Steps (1935)
Part of a string of hit films that established Hitchcock as a British box-office force, The 39 Steps is a briskly-paced espionage thriller based on the 1915 novel by John Buchan. It stars Robert Donat as an innocent man accidentally caught up in a grand conspiracy, a favorite theme of Hitchcock’s that receives one of its earliest and most effective treatments here.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The movie that proved Hitchcock’s appeal to Hollywood studios, The Lady Vanishes is a twist-filled closed-room mystery set primarily on a train. The first of several film adaptations of Ethel Lina White’s novel The Wheel Spins, it’s a witty and suspenseful story about a tourist who discovers that her compartment mate is missing, and has to figure out why no one else on the train believes that the woman was ever there in the first place.
Hitchcock’s Hollywood debut is a lavish production based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, whose work Hitchcock adapted multiple times. This brooding, romantic story of a young woman who marries a wealthy older man and feels stifled by the memory of his late first wife is also the only Hitchcock film to win a Best Picture Oscar. Hitchcock and stars Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier bring du Maurier’s haunting gothic tale to life.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Hitchcock turned to a novel by fellow thriller icon Patricia Highsmith for this tale of a pair of would-be murderers. Farley Granger and Robert Walker play strangers who meet on a train, striking up a conversation about people in their lives they’d like to eliminate. Walker’s Bruno proposes a swap, each murdering the other’s target, but when Bruno is the only one who follows through, he becomes disturbingly insistent on finishing the deal.
In a career full of highlights, Psycho might be Hitchcock’s most famous film, with its iconic killer Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and its notorious mid-film bait-and-switch. The story originated in the book by renowned horror novelist Robert Bloch, which remains his best-known work. Hitchcock brings Bloch’s disturbing characters and ideas to life in a movie that remains terrifying more than 60 years after it first shocked audiences.
The Birds (1963)
Hitchcock collaborated again with Daphne du Maurier for this eerie horror movie based on the short story from her 1952 collection The Apple Tree. In the small town of Bodega Bay, California, birds start suddenly and inexplicably attacking people, and the residents must escape the relentless and unpredictable onslaught. It’s the closest Hitchcock has come to supernatural horror, but, as always, he brings thoughtfulness and craftsmanship to a potentially absurd premise.
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Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He’s the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and the former TV comedies guide for About.com. He has written about movies, TV, and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Inverse, Crooked Marquee, and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.