Thursday 21 January 2010

North By Northwest (1959)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

When I first watched North By Northwest in 2004, I had problems with it but was careful to add a few disclaimers to my review. Maybe I'd have rated it higher if I had seen it before being blown away by Vertigo instead of shortly afterwards. Maybe I'd have appreciated it better on a big cinema screen rather than just a big screen TV, as it obviously makes superb use of Paramount's widescreen technology known as VistaVision. Maybe if I wasn't watching a couple of Hitchcock classics a day at that particular point in time it would have stood out more effectively from the rest of his work, which contains many undeniable classics. Maybe I'd still up my rating when I watched it again somewhere down the line. After all that was still only a first time viewing of what has been described as 'the ultimate Hitchcock thriller'.

I think I was feeling a little pressured. I'd already seen three out of the four Hitchcocks that are very highly placed in this list and this one completed the set, meaning I only had apparent lesser work to come. In 2004 it was ranked behind only Rear Window in a lofty position ahead of both Psycho and Vertigo. By 2010 it had dropped behind Psycho but is still ahead of Vertigo. Maybe if it wasn't in such select company I'd see more than just something that, to my mind, couldn't compete with those three classics, and a couple of subsequent viewings hasn't changed that viewpoint. It's a great thriller, no doubt, but it holds a strange place in my thoughts for a Hitchcock.

When Hitch does things right, which is pretty much all of the time, he draws in my interest slowly but surely to leave me tense, rivetted and smiling with admiration for his talent; and when he really turns it on, like with Vertigo, he stuns me. On the rare occasion that he fails, such as with Rope, it usually leaves me so mightily underwhelmed that it's easy to treat it as an aberration. Now North By Northwest doesn't fit any of these. It's beautifully shot, suspensefully scripted and cleverly cast. Yet it's like looking at the difference between Marilyn Monroe and Marilyn Monroe's corpse. All those magnificent components are still there but there's no spark. The life is gone.

That isn't the case to begin with because it's set up perfectly. Cary Grant is our reluctant hero, Roger Thornhill, a Manhattan advertising executive who gets mistaken for a secret agent by virtue of a quirk of circumstance. He's merely in a hotel bar when he needs to send a telegram and so hails the nearest employee to ask where he can do so. Unfortunately this very act identifies him to the villains of the piece who are trying to trap a secret agent by the name of George Kaplan. Nobody's ever seen Kaplan, you see, but they know he's registered at this hotel and what better way to identify him than to have him paged.
There are two points of pure genius here. One is the question of how anyone could possibly prove that they're not a secret agent, once someone thinks they are. How would you do it? Every bit of proof you have could have been falsified, set up deliberately as cover. Of course you have a different name, you've probably had plenty. Of course you have a driving license and credit cards and the works, but they could be government class forgeries. Of course you have photos, but they're either photoshopped or, more likely in the fifties, just someone who looks like you. So as Thornhill is walked out of the hotel and into a car at gunpoint, brought to a country estate to be asked questions by a man he's never met, he can't prove anything either and as he can't give them anything, they take that to mean he won't and stage his murder by pouring a bottle of bourbon down him and putting him behind the wheel of a car on a winding mountain road.

The other is that he's stuck with an impossible task, his only apparent salvation being in finding a man who doesn't exist, Kaplan being a fictional decoy set up by the US Intelligence Agency just like the British did during the Second World War in what would become The Man Who Never Was. He manages to escape near death on the road and gets arrested for driving under the influence, but is stupid enough to tell the truth. Naturally nobody believes a word of it, especially given that the villains of the piece have ably covered their tracks, but in the end he pays his fine and heads back to Manhattan to follow odd clues. He gets into Kaplan's room at the hotel, only to find that nobody has ever met him. He goes to see Lester Townsend at the United Nations, the man who apparently kidnapped him the night before, only to find that it's someone else entirely, someone who's never heard of Kaplan.

What's more, Townsend is promptly murdered right in front of him. Now Thornhill isn't just up against a drunk driving charge, he's up against the cold blooded murder of a high ranking Interpol man inside the United Nations building. To hammer the point home, the press are right there when it happens so next morning there's a photo of him holding the knife from Townsend's back on the front page of every paper in town. Now he's being chased by both the bad guys and the good guys, which is a pretty tough situation even for a real secret agent who is trained in the arts of evasion and disguise and going to ground. What chance does a Manhattan advertising executive have?

So while this setup is perfect, already the key problem has manifested itself. Thornhill isn't stupid and he can think on his feet, as is evident by the ease with which he can steal taxis in New York, but he's no secret agent. Once the Glen Cove police let him go, the whole thing becomes less and less believable as time passes. On one side he can't even dial a phone number because he's always had a secretary to do it for him and he pulls the knife out of Townsend's back in front of the most reliable witnesses in the world. On the other he's supposed to be able to keep one step ahead of everyone, even though even the US Intelligence Agency, for whom the non-existent George Kaplan works, doesn't believe that he can stay alive for five minutes. 'Goodbye, Mr Thornhill, wherever you are,' they say.

I just couldn't persuade myself into buying into anything that happened after this masterful 45 minute setup. Hitchcock's talent was to take the unbelievable and make it believable. Here I couldn't suspend my disbelief and by the end I was thinking something along the lines of, 'If only Alfred Hitchcock had directed this...'. My biggest problem was with Cary Grant and how suave and sophisticated he remains. Up until this point he's all indignation and surprise, even shock, and that's how it should be, but from then on he's obviously more professional than his far more real predecessors, all now deceased. As a kidnap victim, he's great; but as a fugitive I'll stick with Harrison Ford. Or even David Janssen.
How bad does it get? Well immediately after becoming the most sought after man in America he heads over to Grand Central Station wearing a disguise comprised entirely of a pair of thick sunglasses. He sneaks onto the Twentieth Century Limited and pursues a lovely blonde by the name of Eve Kendall over trout in the dining car. She's the leading lady, Eva Marie Saint, who has been suspiciously absent up until now. Now I'm not asking for him to turn into a gibbering mass of urine in the darkest alley in town, but there are limits. Perhaps Hitch had the same problem, given that he highlights Thornhill's initials at this point. They're ROT. 'What does the O stand for?' asks Kendall. 'Nothing,' replies Thornhill.

The sad thing is that while the film has lost its credibility, there's still much to see. There are three distinct thirds to the film, each about forty five minutes long. The first is stunning: it's when Thornhill gets kidnapped and flounders around, and it's difficult to find a flaw. The second is the unbelievable one: Thornhill is on the run from everyone and his dog. He knows something is up but not who or what or why, but is both lucky enough and capable enough to keep himself safe until he can find out the important details. The third is when he knows exactly what's up but has to continue on anyway because it's simply the right thing to do. It starts solidly but ends up as just another setpiece, this being something of a prototype blockbuster.

I'm sure I'm sounding really negative here and I don't mean to. Having Thornhill turn into James Bond is a problem big enough for me not to ignore, though I do still appreciate the truly stunning filmmaking. Everything else is top notch stuff. The cinematography in particular is superb and often subtle, and I can't help but admire many of the little decisions that made such a big impact. Hitchcock really knew how to tell us things without words. One of many great examples is having our first view of Prairie Stop be from the air, setting the stage for the famous attack on Thornhill by a cropduster, even though we don't know it yet.

The entire cast is spot on. James Mason is a superb villain of the quietly spoken charmer variety, hardly surprising given that he'd been mentioned as such eleven years earlier in Hitchcock's Rope. Leo G Carroll is a great intelligence officer working his grand schemes to catch him, as always in a small role. He appeared in six Hitchcock movies and every time I wish his character had had a larger part. Eva Marie Saint is the delectable femme fatale of the piece and Martin Landau is an effectively chilling henchman, though the Hays Office were a little dismayed at how effeminate he was. The script is clever too, with little red herrings nested inside the big ones. The tension is often palpable, but after all that's what Hitchcock was best at. He could always play us like violin strings and he delighted in coming up with new tunes.

So it's a great film from a great director and for all my complaints, it's a great thriller too. Above all though, I think it's a technical masterpiece. There's certainly much to be learned here as a student of film. While I may prefer Vertigo and Psycho and Rear Window, not to mention Sabotage, Saboteur and The Lady Vanishes, this is a far better demonstration of masterclass filmmaking. In many ways it really is 'the ultimate Hitchcock thriller' because it has everything in it that made a Hitchcock film, all constructed magnificently, up to and including the finale with its chase across the face of the Mount Rushmore memorial. As a textbook it's perfect and as a ride it's a joy. It's only when you think about it that it shows its flaws. That's surprising for Hitch.


Ed Howard said...

Wow, Hitchcock definitely would've called you one of his dreaded "plausibles"! This is a movie where you really have to suspend disbelief to enjoy it; it's not a realistic film in the least, it's a fantasy. And it's one of Hitchcock's very best films, a kind of summation of his entire career, packed with references to his other films and delivering one brilliant set piece after another. The plot doesn't matter so much as the joy of Hitch's visual imagination, and the joys of his suave, sexy stars: Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint at their most glamorous. It's like To Catch a Thief, a sheer confection. It's funny, too, like all the barely disguised sex talk between Grant and Saint, or the business about the ROT monogram: the "O," of course, is the middle initial of producer David O. Selznick, and Grant's "nothing" is Hitch's not-so-subtle dig at his controlling former employer.

Anyway, Hitchcock always said that the plot wasn't nearly as important as the chemistry of the actors, and the images, and the action. This is one of his films where the whole plot is actually the MacGuffin, an implausible excuse to catapult Cary Grant into a wild adventure.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Yeah, I guess I'm a dreaded plausible sometimes. I don't need everything to be utterly realistic, as that just wouldn't be realistic... so I can often just overlook the flaws.

Sometimes there's something that I just can't ignore though. I prefer Westfront 1918 to All Quiet on the Western Front because I can't get past the latter not having German accents. It drives me nuts when people who shouldn't ever take off their masks do so, like Batman Returns, Spider-Man 2 or Judge Dredd. I hate that there's no romance in Gone with the Wind.

And I really don't buy Cary Grant suddenly becoming James Bond. Perhaps it's because the beginning sets him up as everyman, clever but flawed just like the rest of us, but suddenly he becomes a better secret agent than the secret agents. It's easier to buy into fantasy if I'm watching someone like Arnie because I can sit back and enjoy him kicking ass because there's never any association with his characters.

It sounds like we mostly agree about the film (it's a great technical piece and it's a great ride), but I remember Hitch mostly talking about actors as cattle. He was all about how he could play tricks on us through manipulation of story and image. He was all about the perfect crime and the details that made things click.

Welcome though and I hope you enjoy the site. It's as eclectic as your tastes seem to be (Merzbow and Van Morrison don't usually appear two names apart...)