I have a confession to make: I think Vertigo is incredibly dull. That being said, I can agree that Alfred Hitchcock was quite revolutionary and prolific. In particular, his popularization of the thriller and his unique usage of long takes merit high praise from this wee blog. It's a shame that his career is so often defined by a choice few films from late in his filmmaking. The following two films don't feature Hitchcock's signature glamorous blonde actresses, but they are thrilling nonetheless.
Rope (1948) is one of Hitchcock's lesser known gems, despite starring frequent collaborator Jimmy Stewart. Based on the true story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, Rope follows two young intellectuals as they attempt the perfect murder. Their crime is inspired by their professor (Stewart), whose lessons on Friedrich Nietzsche's Übermensch seemingly justifies the taking of life as a means of exercising superiority.
But what's really important about the film is its real-time action. Just a few very long takes, lasting between 4 and 10 minutes, are cut together to make the film appear to be one continuous scene. From a modern perspective, this can make the movie have a very slow pace, but it also makes the tension grow exponentially. As the audience, we feel that we are in the room, waiting for the body to be discovered at any moment. The room becomes claustrophobic, and we desperately want to escape it, for justice to be served, but the film constantly denies us relief. Indeed, the film is not particularly satisfying to watch, but it is an amazing exercise in restraint and viewership -- one that everybody should experience at least once.
So after that film (if you're not totally cursing me), you'll probably be in the mood for something with a faster pace. Look no further than Strangers on a Train (1951). Again, the camerawork makes the audience feel active in the film, but rather than being active participants, we are passive voyeurs. In the opening sequence, the camera moves through the train station, following the feet of our characters, but others travelers sometimes obscure our vision. We witness the actions unfold as though we are fellow passengers and potential alibis.
Again, the antagonist is attempting the perfect murder: two strangers commit each other's murders so that the crimes are completely without motivation and, thus, untraceable. But if Hitchcock has taught us anything, it's that there is no such thing as a perfect murder. With its quick pace and stunning score, Strangers on a Train is an excellent foil to the gradual build of Rope.