Happy birthday to the immortally cuckoo Alfred Hitchcock. The master of suspense (and the grandmaster of gay-beloved movie thrillers) would’ve been 114 today, but the impact of his best films simply hasn’t aged a bit. This is a man who found attractive murderers life-affirming and female beauty a logical link to psychological undoing. He’s the best, and as an homage to his great oeuvre, let’s pick the five best performances in his films. Here are my picks.
5. Grace Kelly, Rear Window
Rear Window is unquestionably the Hitchcock movie that holds up best. It’s a tight, funny, and chilling thriller that feels like it could really happen. (No offense to Eva Marie Saint and her Mount Rushmore-scaling abilities.) Though James Stewart is our lens into Raymond Burr’s spooky life and Thelma Ritter is oozing stank as his aide Stella, it’s Grace Kelly who adds humanity and vulnerability to the story. At first she submits to the wheelchair-bound Jeff’s (Stewart) whims and serves as her Girl Friday, but eventually she saddles up, climbs into a potential killer’s apartment, and investigates his intrigue for herself. It’s a fabulous character arc played lovingly and smartly by Kelly, who always shined brightest with Hitchcock at the helm.
4. Joseph Cotten, Shadow of a Doubt
Never trust your favorite uncle again! Among sinister performances in Hitch’s films, Joseph Cotten’s in Shadow of a Doubt is still one of the freakiest because of how suddenly his facade shifts. Watching him sneer at and terrorize his niece Charlie (Teresa Wright) isn’t just creepy — it’s astonishing. He is viperous when he sneers that her life is “filled with peaceful, stupid dreams, and I brought you nightmares.” The combination of his unbridled evil and luminous visage make this a rewatchable, always-satisfying performance.
3. James Stewart, Vertigo
Speaking for myself, I think I’d still be able to spot a person I was infatuated with if he/she wore a wig. That’s just me! But Scotty Ferguson can’t, and that’s what makes his extraordinary arc — from voyeur to lover to born-again detective — so crazy and engrossing. There’s also the matter of James Stewart’s performance, a cerebral tour de force that feels relatable even during the movie’s zaniest, most operatically tragic moments. Craving Kim Novak and taking Barbara bel Geddes for granted — this is what life is all about.
2. Judith Anderson, Rebecca
Pretty amazing that Judith Anderson can so represent a ridiculous old cinema archetype — the queer supervillain — and manage to be dastardly, fearsome, and lovably evil within it. Mrs. Danvers is the dark priestess of Manderlay, a vicious protector of the title character’s memory who will stop at nothing to ensure that her legacy will live on and on. She strikes fear into Rebecca’s replacement (Joan Fontaine), adores and, frankly, misunderstands the estate’s master Maxim (Laurence Olivier), and fills every corridor of Manderlay with the lingering stench and terror of family tragedy. A well-deserved Oscar nomination, this one.
1. Anthony Perkins, Psycho
It’s not a novel #1 pick, but the greatest compliment you can pay Anthony Perkins for his performance in Psycho is there still isn’t another character like Norman Bates. He’s an effete and whimsical manchild who loves his cloistered existence, the only one he’s ever known, and greets Bates Motel customers with a nervous smile. He’s also dead serious when pressed about his mother, and when he’s angry he looks an awful lot like the stuffed birds in his den. This is an impossible performance: weird yet relatable, nervous yet alarmingly self-assured, beautiful but demented, disarming but chilling, human yet anything but human. Tony Perkins never had a bigger or better role, but in terms of cinematic heft and confounding charisma, no one else did either.