The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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While travelling in continental Europe, a rich young playgirl realizes that an elderly lady seems to have disappeared from the train. (IMDb)
The lazily paced opening act kept me waiting for the thriller part to come, but then I realized it was actually super funny (see C+C at dinner with Miss Froy) and it ended up setting up the ensemble cast of characters perfectly for the uniquely comedic thriller to follow (see Caldicott during the gun fight: “We’ll never get to the match now”), with the witty banter of Gilbert and Iris carrying us breezily through the engaging mystery right to its ending that hits all the right (piano) notes.
8/10 (Great)

 

The 39 Steps (1935)

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A man in London tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and the man stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information. (IMDb)
It’s bookended by a slow beginning (Miss Smith is annoyingly cryptic) and an abrupt, too-easy ending (Hannay figures things out super quickly) but in between them is fun fugitive plot that constantly dishes out unexpected twists: Just when you think he’s getting away he gets caught; just when you think he’s done for he finds a new way out. Dashes of comedy (see the hilarious impromptu political speech scene; Hannay and Pamela’s handcuff experience) mix well with the film’s solid suspense.
7/10 (Good)

 

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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A man and his wife receive a clue to an imminent assassination attempt, only to learn that their daughter has been kidnapped to keep them quiet. (IMDb)
Technically, it’s aged badly, as poor sound editing and awkward scene cuts abound. An ill-paced story (see the sudden jump back to London) with a muddy premise (why did they need to kidnap her again?) and scenes more confusing than tense (see the unintentionally funny chair fight) don’t help, and neither does the mediocre acting (Lorre is a good villain, but the protagonists don’t grab you). A terribly repetitive climactic shoot-out scene is redeemed only slightly by its surprising female hero.
4/10 (Bad)

Psycho (1960)

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A Phoenix secretary steals $40,000 from her employer’s client, goes on the run and checks into a remote motel run by a young man under the domination of his mother. (IMDb)
The fugitive first act offers solid suspense, but the film reaches another level of intrigue with Marion’s arrival at the isolated Bates Motel run by the charmingly chatty yet discomfortingly awkward and odd Norman (Perkins’ detailed portrayal is superb–see his nervous candy eating). With some disconcerting slow pans and zooms and a few unsettling edits (see the shower murder), Hitchcock adds just the right amount of flair to the perfectly paced mystery as it builds to its shocking conclusion.
8.5/10 (Amazing)

Vertigo (1958)

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A San Francisco detective suffering from acrophobia investigates the strange activities of an old friend’s wife, all the while becoming dangerously obsessed with her. (IMDb)

What begins as an engaging but slow-paced (lots of long driving scenes) supernatural-tinged mystery comes to a tragic climax unexpectedly early, setting the stage for a uniquely extended and deliciously eerie epilogue dealing with the devilish psychological aftermath. The doppelganger intrigue could have been dragged out a little longer before the shocking twist reveal, but an excellent thread of torturous dramatic irony takes its place. A well-acted and surprisingly emotional thriller.

8/10 (Great)

Rear Window (1954)

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A wheelchair-bound photographer spies on his neighbours from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder. (IMDb)
A unique isolated apartment setting, natural city soundscape, and cinematography firm in its limited “rear window” perspective aren’t enough to stir substantial interest during a slow first act, but when the note of intrigue strikes, they take on new brilliance, crafting a tight, authentic thriller with a mostly voice-less villain that gets you to spy and speculate right along with the great characters (the charming, restless Jeff and the refreshingly competent for the 50s Lisa and Stella).
7.5/10 (Really Good)

North by Northwest (1959)

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A hapless New York advertising executive is mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies, and is pursued across the country while he looks for a way to survive. (IMDb)
An intriguing initial note of mystery doesn’t disappoint as it’s fleshed out in an exciting yet smart espionage plot full of daring escapes (see the train sequence), double-crossing damsels (Eve remains an enigma til the end), and dashes of danger (see the uniquely terrifying crop-duster scene). The climax loses some credibility thanks to a couple of cringe-worthy sets (see the fake forest and unspectacular Mt. Rushmore) but is redeemed slightly by a great foot-on-hand-on-cliff close-up shot.
7.5/10 (Really Good)