In the rebus-like language of his shots, in the wit of his storytelling, in the endless watchability of his films, Alfred Hitchcock is the movies for many people. Rebecca (1940) may be the most assured women’s pic ever made. The darkness-in-suburbia tensions of Shadow of a Doubt (1943) have serviced a million thrillers about serial killers in the family. And then there’s Psycho (1960), which ushered in our modern age of sensation by stabbing the era of sentiment to death in the shower.
The ’50s were the man’s decade, though. He kicked off his golden run with Strangers on a Train (1951), presciently based on Patricia Highsmith’s first novel and his clearest vision yet of how a nice, boring hero can get suckered in by an evil twin. There were dull patches and mere competence to follow, but there was also Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), and North by Northwest (1959): the first a profound look into why we watch (movies, other people, anything), the second an unexpectedly personal tale of obsession, and the third the master’s greatest toy.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have them all in a box? Sorry, the lawyers say you can’t: Strangers and North are owned by Warner, while Universal controls Rear Window and Vertigo. So buy them individually—Lord knows, if any movies reward repeated viewing, it’s these. Just about all of Hitchcock’s oeuvre is available on DVD, from the low-end (LaserLight’s no-frills Hitchcock Collection puts 17 early British films in a box) to the mid-range (Universal’s two eight-disc Best of boxes haphazardly collect films great and lame, then throw in a few of the TV shows) to the high-end (Criterion Collection editions of Notorious, Rebecca, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes feature all the expected bells and whistles). But if you must start somewhere, start with those four ’50s classics—and work outward.