Saturday, October 11, 2014
NORTH BY NORTHWEST
(July 1959, U.S.)
For all that the legendary Alfred Hitchcock was associated with in his films, be it the sheer terror of PSYCHO (1960) and THE BIRDS (1963) or the psychological tensions of REAR WINDOW (1954) and VERTIGO (1958), the one element of suspense that pleased the great director most was the concept of the wrong man caught up in the wrong set of circumstances that plunged him into a world of intrigue and danger, as in THE 39 STEPS (1935) and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956). What makes Cary Grant's role as ordinary New York City advertising man Roger Thornhill is that his world of misunderstanding and survival originates from something as horribly simple as calling attention to himself in front of the wrong people when the name of George Kaplan is mentioned in the bar of the Plaza Hotel. With that act, Thornhill is mistaken for Kaplan and there's no shaking off the bad guys who are out to kill him (Kaplan) at any cost.
Now let's think about this for a moment - in most cases as this, logic would suggest that the wrong man would simply go to the police and the entire matter would likely be resolved for his own safety. Obviously, that's too damn easy and logical and then the film would be over. Interestingly, though, Thornhill does go to the police almost immediately after the bad guys try to drown him with forced bourbon down his throat and then set him off on the road while under the influence. Conveniently, for the sake of the audience, the police don't buy his story and the chase is on for Thornhill to not only clear his good name, but to survive the international spies (the bad guys played by James Mason and Martin Landau) who want him dead. Enter now, not only the wrong man in the wrong place, but the woman, or perhaps the femme fatale, who will unwittingly get caught up in these same set of harmful circumstances to try and help the wrong man out. For this film, she comes in the beautiful form of Eva Marie Saint playing Eve Kendall. She not only falls for Thornhill hard and fast and is easily willing to help him survive, but she also appears to be a little more than she seems on the surface.
In any thriller such as this, textbook plotting dictates that our hero (Thornhill) is meant to get into his world of danger just a little deeper, specifically in the role of the man accused of a crime he didn't commit. For this film, it's pure ol' fashioned murder and (again) being in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, Thornhill appears to be just a bit dumber than the average wrong man because he actually takes the time and energy to lift the knife out of the dead man's back and hold it in the air for all around him to see, including a man with camera for the newspapers (a sort of pre-requisite to our own current society where everyone around us is equipped with an iPhone camera, ready to nail us with video to be posted on YouTube!). Take a look at what I mean and tell me if you think this is the act of a thinking man??
No, I suppose not. But I also suppose Hitchcock is forcing his audience to accept the reality of suspension of disbelief to keep the film moving along. So now, as Thornhill runs for his life as the wrong man, the accused spy and alleged murderer, we enter the moment of this thriller where political espionage begins to take shape and we learn of all that's at stake and also all that Eve Kendall really is, mainly a "double agent", so to say, playing for the right team as a fake member of the wrong team while leading the innocent man (Thornhill) on with the usual assortment of lies and sexual deception. As a matter of fact, despite this film being a release of the 1950s, the implications of sex is very strong between Grant and Saint and the camera captures as much of it as the censors of the time will allow. We see the strong attraction between these two immediately and that their desire to lock lips and get inside the overhead sleeping compartment aboard their moving train is very clear, despite the fact that a woman like Eva Marie Saint is not about to say words like, "Take me up there and fuck me!" Still the implications are there, even for the 1950s.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST, as brilliant and classic a film as it is, is not exactly without it's very minor faults, and again, that can probably be chalked up to elements that qualify as suspension of disbelief. Hitchcock clearly asks us to get past that to enjoy a well-crafted thriller with classic elements of intrigue, danger and astonishing resolution. That resolution, by the way, is a stunning visual feast that not only takes place at the grand glory of Mount Rushmore, but also at a beautifully designed cantilevered house in the mountains specifically and purposely designed to emulate the great and talented architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Take a look at this residential structure and tell me you wouldn't want to live there...
I have to say, for a man who claimed he didn't particularly enjoy on-location shooting, Hitchcock repeatedly makes great use of visually-stunning locales in this film, including a luxury train moving along the edges of the water and the above-mentioned house and Mount Rushmore. As a film viewer, you not only enjoy the thrills of the plot, but you also can't help but lose yourself in another world that invites visual beauty, romance, fantasy and danger. And were it not for on-location shooting, would we ever have been thrilled by this infamous sequence at the isolated crossroads and the crop dusting bi-plane. I mean, come on, even if you haven't actually seen NORTH BY NORTHWEST, you've surely seen this iconic image of Cary Grant running for his life from that plane...
NORTH BY NORTHWEST is not only one of Hitchcock's most stylish thrillers, but a film where solid performing talents and engrossing romance is successfully mixed with gripping suspense and iconic visuals. The formulas in the plot easily lay the groundwork for countless thrillers to follow over the decades. Even the style and fashion of modern society and its representation of city hustle and bustle with a hint of dread in the air is not too far off the track from a more modern form of media entertainment such as AMC's MAD MEN (a show I don't actually watch). Hitchcock would have surely been proud that his story did not isolate itself as dated material.
Favorite line or dialogue:
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."