North By Northwest

North By NorthwestSynopsis: Cary Grant is the screen’s supreme man-on-the-run in his fourth and final teaming with Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock. He plays a Manhattan adman plunged into a realm of spy (James Mason) and counterspy (Eva Marie Saint) and variously abducted, framed for murder, chased, and in a signature set-piece, crop-dusted. He also hangs for dear life from the facial features of Mount Rushmore’s Presidents. Savor one of Hollywood’s most enjoyable thrillers ever in this state-of-the-art restoration: it’s renewed picture vitality will leave you just as breathless as the chase itself.
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North By Northwest 8.0

eyelights: Cary Grant. the amusing quips. the boldness of the exchanges between Grant and Marie Saint. the convoluted plot development.
eyesores: the implausibility of many of the plot twists. the sets. the rear projection work.

Roger Thornhill: “Now you listen to me, I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself “slightly” killed.”

A decade ago, I saw ‘North by Northwest’ for the first time. Initially, I was entertained by it but remained underwhelmed: this was a fun, but somewhat flighty film. It was only upon multiple viewings that my appreciation developed; given that it is filled with amusing -if not witty- repartee, it became a staple of my late night viewings when I needed something to wind down and fall asleep to. I realize that the film is primarily considered a thrill-ride, but it’s the gem-filled dialogue that hooked me first.

Then there was Cary Grant.

It was Cary Grant’s delivery in ‘North By Northwest’ (as well as his comic timing in ‘Arsenic and Old Lace‘) that piqued my curiosity about the man. Before then, I had seen him in a handful of roles and found him decent, but largely over-rated. In ‘North By Northwest’, however, I discovered that he was a multi-faceted performer able to handle comedy, romance, drama, suspense, action, …etc. all within the same part. Granted, he overplayed the comedy at times, but his performance as Roger Thornhill was nonetheless an eye-opener for me.

I’ve since checked out many more of his films and discovered in Grant an exceptionally versatile leading man. I’m a fan.

Obviously, Hitchcock was a fan as well, because Grant played in four of his motion pictures, three of which (‘Notorious’, ‘To Catch a Thief’, ‘North by Northwest’) are considered classics. This is as often as James Stewart, who was also a staple of Hitch’s films. Stewart was supposed to play the lead in ‘NxNW’, but Hitchcock wanted a younger actor for the role. Ironically, he picked Grant, who was 5 years older but looked younger.

…yet not young enough that he was totally miscast next to his on-screen mom, who was only 7 years older than he.

It’s detail like this last bit that makes it hard for me to rave about ‘North by Northwest’ like some do. While it’s a genuinely enjoyable flick, one gets a sense that Hitchcock wasn’t taking it particularly seriously (beware of spoilers):

– There’s the simple-minded set up at the Townshend residence, for instance. Not only could someone easily figure out that the villains weren’t the proper residents of the mansion, but it would also be easy for the authorities to discredit any claims against Thornhill – a quick check would find that he was kidnapped from a business meeting, that he didn’t take a cab to this place, didn’t know anyone there, and that he hadn’t stolen the car to drive home. This is just plain silly: these kinds of massive slip ups is unusual for a well-honed criminal organisation.

-There’s the derisive car chase with Grant mugging “drunkenly” at the wheel. While it was meant to be thrilling, it was also supposed to be comical, as evidenced by Grant making faces throughout the chase, driving especially recklessly, and, ironically, crashing into a parked cop car. This is goofy, not serious.

-Thornhill’s escape from the elevator is another instance. I always found the moment when his mom actually asks the hoods if they actually intend to kill her son a grossly ridiculous moment (I mean, who would do such a thing?), but the fact that Thornhill got away by letting the women out first was patently absurd. As if the bad guys would be “proper” enough to let that happen: seems to me that they would push their way through and get him at all costs. But this was done in jest by Hitchcock, thereby reducing the scene to a joke.

-There’s the contrived murder at the United Nations building. Can a knife discreetly be thrown across a crowded room like that? And would it hit its intended target, or one of the many passers-by? And why would Thornhill catch the man in a bear hug and awkwardly grab the knife as he did? It was so obviously contrived – especially the fact that a photographer was right there to capture the moment!

-How about that farcical crop-duster incident, which is probably the most outrageous way to kill someone? Why not simply have a sniper peck Thornhill off at a distance? Why even go to the lengths of having him drive out in the middle of nowhere (quite literally!) then rent a crop duster, actually spend time crop dusting,  sneak up on Thornhill and try to shoot him down with a machine gun from the plane’s cockpit? It’s a showy move, certainly, but these villains have got to reconsider their methods! They could so easily dispose of him if they wanted to. Instead, their pilot ends up crashing into a parked truck because he/she was too busy trying to run Thornhill down to notice that it was there. Silly person.

-What about Thornhill’s “murder” at Eve’s hands? Is it just me or is it ridiculous that gun shots don’t flow a drop of blood from him? When Thornhill’s death is staged, the villains are convinced that Eve shot him (multiple times, in fact!) – despite not seeing any wounds on the dead man’s body. This alone would make me wonder, but they also didn’t inspect the body: they let a stranger do it. I don’t know… to me this was not convincing at all, and it shouldn’t have been to the villains. They and the scene can hardly be taken seriously.

…and on and on.

To me, ‘North by Northwest’ seems to have been made as a popcorn movie, a massive thrill-ride with little other consideration in mind. Let’s give the audience one show-stopper after another and don’t worry if they’re tied together loosely, I can imagine Hitchcock telling his screenwriters. This is the kind of thing that gets Spielberg in trouble too, and why I have a difficult time with many of his pictures.: they can be mindless fun and nothing else. Except that, in being mindless, they can sometimes insult their audience’s intelligence.

What I find especially interesting is how ‘North b Northwest’, to me, looks like an early blueprint for future James Bond adventures, complete with an intrigue, an adventure across many locales, a sexy but dangerous leading lady, unique stunts, and epic set pieces. One can even hear the first few notes of the James Bond theme at the end of the dining cart scene. It’s only three notes, but they are unmistakable. Coincidentally, Cary Grant had been considered for the role of 007, being a favourite of one of the producers’ wives, but he would have only been able to commit to one picture, not a series.

If there’s anything I dislike about the film, other than its lapses in logic, it’s the frequency with which it resorts to soundstages instead of location filming. I understand that it was impossible to film at Mount Rushmore or at the United Nations building, but the sets that were used could never be mistaken for the originals – they simply don’t look real. The problem is that this extends to most of the picture, with even outdoor sequences being shot in artificial environments. It was typical of the era, but I think that ‘North by Northwest’ suffers for it – all it does is cement the idea that we shouldn’t take it too seriously.

And don’t get me started on the rear-projection effects. It’s bad enough that the actors were shot in front of screens (or unbelievably poor backdrops on the sets!), but they frequently didn’t even match the on-screen motions: when Thornhill drives away drunk, he doesn’t always steer in the same direction as the road, turning before or after the turns. It’s great spoof material (as evidenced in the brilliant ‘Police Squad!’ and ‘Naked Gun’ series) but it doesn’t have a place in the Master of Suspense’s work. To me, it’s plain old lazy filmmaking and it could have been done much better.

One thing that I find interesting and somewhat appealing about the picture is how progressive it was in its own way. Firstly, there’s the fact that Eve is quite bold in her sexual advances to Thornhill (and he to her), telling him quite explicitly that she’s expecting to bed him – just not on an empty stomach. Secondly, there’s the suggestion that Martin Landau’s character was gay. While he was a villain, not a good guy, he was not effeminate in any way, and was professional, efficient – so he had his virtues. Given that this was the ’50s and that the Hays Code was still in effect, these were pretty bold moves from Hitch and company; the film could easily have been subject to complaints and censorship.

‘North By Northwest’ is considered by many as the ultimate Hitchcock motion picture. While I recognize it as one of the most effortlessly pleasing films in his lengthy career and also one of his most ambitious of them all, I can’t say that it’s his best – it’s far too full of inconsistencies and gaffes to rank at the top (I’d pick ‘Frenzy’, ‘Psycho‘, ‘Rear Window’, ‘Saboteur’, ‘Shadow of a Doubt‘, and ‘Strangers on a Train‘ above this one). It is, however, truly one of the great silver screen thrill-rides and it was likely one of the first of its kind. Without it, most of today’s blockbusters simply wouldn’t exist; like it or not, they all point to ‘North by Northwest’.

Roger Thornhill: “Handle with care, fellas. I’m valuable property.”

Date of viewing: February 5, 2013

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