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A 2012 critics poll that—shockingly, to some—toppled Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane from its long-time perch atop the Sight & Sound “Greatest Films of All Time” list and replaced it with the unsettling 1958 masterpiece, Vertigo, also had two other welcome results: it sparked passionate debate among movie fans and critics about their own favorite films, and it brought Vertigo‘s singular director, Alfred Hitchcock, back into the spotlight.
Hitchcock’s movies are unlike any other filmmaker’s for reasons that have been celebrated and (over)analyzed for half-a-century. For our purposes we can state, without fear of contradiction, that his unique melding of wry humor, suspense, powerhouse performances and a healthy regard for adult relationships, i.e., sex, make Sir Alfred’s films among the most entertaining and, at the same time, aesthetically rewarding in the history of the medium.
From early gems like The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes to later classics like Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry, Psycho, The Birds and so many others, Hitchcock’s movies—even when quite genuinely disturbing—are at-once sophisticated and fun.
That he’s not above the occasional, laughably obvious visual pun—who can forget the train barreling into the tunnel at the end of North by Northwest?—adds a playfulness to his movies that might well feel utterly self-absorbed in a lesser artist’s hands.
Here, LIFE.com pays tribute to Alfred Hitchcock by celebrating the many actresses who served as muses—and, in some cases, emotional punching bags—for the demanding and often completely besotted director.