Friday, July 17, 2009


“You gentlemen aren't REALLY trying to kill my son, are you?”

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
On this date in 1959, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released what many consider to be the quintessential thriller directed by the Master of Suspense, Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock. I say “quintessential” because if someone who had never seen a Hitchcock film approached me and asked for a recommendation, I would suggest North by Northwest (1959) without hesitation. I’ve been a fan of the director’s work since I can’t remember — but if I were to single out one film that I could watch over and over again and never — ever — tire of, Northwest would get the nod.

Are there better films in Hitchcock’s oeuvre than Northwest? Each of his films has their devotees. Vertigo (1958) is often advocated as the director’s most personal film (and by default, his best); I’ve also witnessed other vehicles such as Notorious (1946), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), Rear Window (1954), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), etc. championed vociferously as well. Northwest is my favorite because it brings to a full boil all the essential elements present in his films: the “wrong man” on the run for a crime he did not commit; the icy-cold and blonde femme fatale who eventually rallies around the reluctant hero; the suave, debonair villain who is often more charming and attractive than the protagonist; the chaos that erupts from being bored in an otherwise orderly world; and the eventual plummet of the villain(s) from a great height, symbolizing a “fall from grace.” Even the celebrated MacGuffin — described as an item that moves the plot and motivates the characters, but is of little interest to the director (and the audience, by default) — is reduced to its lowest common denominator. When Roger O. Thornhill (the “hero” in the film, played by Cary Grant) asks “The Professor” (Leo G. Carroll) what the villainous Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) is trafficking in, he gets the response: “Oh…government secrets…” It’s like he read it off a grocery list.

The plot of North by Northwest is familiar to nearly all film buffs, but for the record (WARNING: spoilers ahead): An advertising man named Roger Thornhill finds himself mistaken for a government agent named “George Kaplan” and begins the adventure of a lifetime when goons employed by the chief villain (Vandamm) set out to terminate him with extreme prejudice — first by getting him drunk and placing him behind the wheel of an out-of-control car, then framing him for the murder of a U.N. diplomat. Fleeing from the authorities who want to question him about the murder, Thornhill decides to play the part of Kaplan and continue with the fictional agent’s itinerary. On board a train bound for Chicago, Roger makes the acquaintance of lovely Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who helps him elude the long arm of the law and puts him in contact with the real Kaplan (who really doesn’t exist; “Kaplan” is merely a decoy to ward off suspicion from a counterspy who’s infiltrated the ranks of the enemy)—but all Roger gets for his trouble is another attempt on his life…this time from someone who shoots at him while flying a crop-duster over a deserted cornfield. Thornhill, realizing he’s being played for a sap, confronts Eve in her hotel room and when she steps out to keep an appointment, follows her to an auction house only to see her draped over the arm of Vandamm! It is that point that the U.S. Government (“FBI, CIA, ONI... we're all in the same alphabet soup”) steps in to help the hapless Thornhill, who learns to his relief that Eve is really the counterspy who’s infiltrated Vandamm’s inner circle. But he also finds out that she’s expected to keep up the deception…and having fallen for her in a big way, is determined to rescue her from her (since she’s unaware Vandamm and his boys are on to her) in one of the most famous chase climaxes in the history of cinema.

When you think back on Hitchcock’s 50-plus films, you can’t help but remember the famous “set pieces” that enthrall you while you’re watching any of his movies…and that create lasting impressions long after the film is finished. The shower murder in Psycho. The fall from the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur (1942). The fight on the carousel in Strangers on a Train; the Albert Hall assassination attempt in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956); the difficulty shown in taking a man’s life in Torn Curtain (1966) — these and so many more moments of suspense remain in the memory years and years afterward. Northwest is fortunate to contain two of the very best: the crop-dusting sequence (in which Hitchcock demonstrates how a man can be completely out in the open and still unable to find security as a biplane continually fires upon Thornhill in a brazen attempt to eliminate him) and a scramble down Mount Rushmore, as Roger and Eve desperately try to escape Vandamm’s thugs amidst the backdrop of the stone countenances of Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln (Hitchcock had originally wanted to call this film The Man in Lincoln’s Nose.)

In his film reference book Have You Seen…? critic David Thomson describes Northwest thusly:
You see, what I realized was that North by Northwest is only pretending to be a suspense thriller, an action-adventure picture or a road movie. It’s actually a screwball comedy — and one of our greatest. And I have reached a time in life where I’d rather have a great screwball comedy than a profound tragedy. After all, tragedy is all around us and screwball is something only the movies can do.

There are always moments of levity in Hitchcock’s work, but never more blatant than in Northwest, thanks to scribe Ernest Lehman (who, as Thomson remarks, “got himself into some awkward pictures, this must have been grace and reassurance”) and star Cary Grant, who brings the same sensibility of his Bringing Up Baby character David Huxley to the role of Thornhill in portraying a befuddled individual frantically trying to make sense of it all. There are so many great lines in this movie, but these are a few of my favorites:
TICKET AGENT (to Thornhill, who’s wearing sunglasses): Something wrong with your eyes?
THORNHILL: Yes, they’re sensitive to questions…

THORNHILL (to patrolmen in police car): Well, didn't you hear what I said? I want to be taken to police headquarters. I'm a dangerous assassin; I'm a mad killer on the loose…
DRIVER: You oughta be ashamed of yourself!

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.

But the one that tops them all is the title of this post, spoken by Thornhill’s mother Clara (Jessie Royce Landis) inside an elevator crammed with wall-to-wall humanity, two of which are stooges for Vandamm. I love how brilliantly this scene plays out: the entire population of the elevator car bursts out into laughter, with Landis — after first looking around with a quizzical “What-did-I-say?” expression — joins in the mirth shortly after. (There’s also Grant’s admonition: “In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie…there's only the expedient exaggeration” — which I use every time I’m engaged in a phone conversation with a longtime friend who has a predilection for stretching the truth.)

In addition to these bon mots, Northwest contains some of the sexiest and suggestive innuendo I’ve ever heard outside a film noir or Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957):
THORNHILL: Tell me, why are you so good to me?
EVE: Shall I climb up and tell you why?

THORNHILL: When I was a little boy, I wouldn’t even let my mother undress me…
EVE: Well, you’re a big boy now…

EVE: I’m a big girl…
THORNHILL: Yeah…and in all the right places, too…

THORNHILL: Now, what can a man do with his clothes off for twenty minutes? Couldn't he have taken an hour?
EVE: You could always take a cold shower…

It’s not just the verbal banter between Roger and Eve that makes Northwest seductive and sexy — the entire film is riddled with suggestions of sex, from the short scene where an escaping Thornhill invades the hospital room of a female patient (she commands him to “Stop!” and then, after getting a closer look at how handsome he is, rephrases it in a plaintive wail: “Stopppp…”) to the gay campiness of Vandamm’s right-hand man Leonard (“Call it my woman’s intuition, if you will”). (If you’re still not convinced, the final shot of the movie will certainly drive the point home.)

The casting in this film is simply superb: Cary Grant plays…well, Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint was never more sultry and James Mason is in my opinion the perfect Hitchcock villain (even his name sounds like swearing: “Vandamm it!”). Add to this roster Landis, Carroll, Landau and character faves like Ed Binns, Edward Platt, Les Tremayne, Philip Coolidge, Josephine Hutchinson and Philip Ober…with that infectious, can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head “drunken tango” score by the incomparable Bernard Herrmann.

The very first time I saw North by Northwest, I was attending Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., and film biographer Donald Spoto had paid a visit to the MU campus to promote his forthcoming book The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. As luck would have it, I not only happened to have my copy of his reference book on Hitchcock’s films, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, back at my dorm but was invited by a professor to attend a tête-à-tête to discuss Hitchcock with Spoto along with some other classmates…allowing me to get the book autographed. I was a bit nervous to ask any questions — and besides, the professor kind of monopolized the conversation in which we took part — but when I summoned up the courage to ask him to sign it, I also asked him if he thought we’d ever be able to see Rope (1948), Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo in circulation again (at the time, all of these films were being held back in some sort of legal limbo) he sadly remarked he didn’t think so. (I’ll bet it was one of the few times in his life when he was happy to have been proven wrong.)

Spoto had also agreed to give a lecture following a showing of Psycho that same evening, something that I was positively giddy about until I remembered I had promised my old college paisan Jeff Lane I’d do his Thursday evening shift at Marshall’s radio station, FM 88 — the Mighty Mule, as we often referred to it. Again, it was my day to think about buying a lotto ticket — I would be able to do the shift and get there just in time to see the conclusion and hear Spoto’s thoughts (I had by that time seen Psycho quite a few times, so I didn’t sweat missing the beginning) of the film. But during our earlier conversation, he told us students that he was bummed about not being able to see Northwest (which MU’s film committee had scheduled for three showings on Friday), which he considered a true Hitchcock picture — as for Rebecca (1940), slated for showing on Sunday afternoon and evening, he dismissed that as “a Selznick picture.” Having not ever seen Northwest (though familiar with some of the film, courtesy of a West Virginia Public Television showing of The Men Who Made the Movies: Alfred Hitchcock), I attended the Friday afternoon showing at 3 p.m.…and again at 7 p.m. …and again at 9:30 p.m. Twenty-five some years later, I still find myself moving “in a northwesterly direction” whenever TCM has it on its schedule…and I have a feeling I’ll be running from that crop-duster as long as I am able to draw a breath.

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A great appreciation of this most Hitchcockian of films. There are a few others I perhaps like better -- Rear Window maybe, and the sublime morbid comedy of The Trouble With Harry -- but North By Northwest is among the top few for sure. It's definitely the most quintessentially Hitchcockian film he ever made, as you say: it consciously blends together his signature tropes and ideas into one big tangled plot, and it's so much fun to see the master hitting all his usual notes with such exuberance and passion for combining them.
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