Throwback Thursday - North By Northwest
Note: Throwback Thursdays is a weekly column in which I will take an in-depth look at films of the past. A movie can be chosen for any reason, the only rule is that it has to be at least one year old. If you have any suggestions of movies you’d like to see in the future please leave a comment and let me know.
North by Northwest is a film of perpetual motion. From the opening sequence showing the busy streets of Manhattan until the final image of a train entering a tunnel, there is not a single wasted moment in the entire film. This movie never stops to breathe or reflect, it simply hurtles forward. Like the notes of a song each scene directly influences the one after it. During the making of North by Northwest Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Rear Window) said that they weren’t making a movie so much as, “constructing an organ . . . we press this chord and now the audience laughs, we press this chord and they gasp, and we press these notes and they chuckle”.
Great Directors are often praised as “great story tellers”. The important thing to remember is that this isn’t a comment on the quality of the story, but rather the quality of the telling. Robert Altman (MASH, Nashville) once said that he isn’t interested in stories, “there are only 7 or 8 stories told over and over . . . what I am interested in, is meeting characters I have never met before, and seeing things I have never seen before”. Watching North by Northwest it’s hard to imagine that Hitchcock wouldn’t agree.
The specifics of the plot for North by Northwest are so inconsequential our hero doesn’t even know them by the end of the picture. Cary Grant (His Girl Friday, Philadelphia Story) is a man mistaken for another, and as a result is swept up in a deadly game outside his control and understanding. While this may be the “story” of North by Northwest, “story” is not the reason we are on the edge of our seats for two hours. What keeps us engaged is an artist plying his craft. Like a singer uses their voice, Hitchcock uses his camera, editing, music and the actors’ performances to take us on an emotional journey. Cinema at its purest form isn’t an intellectual experience but an emotional one.
In the most famous sequence in the entire film; Cary Grant’s character is lured out into an open field, on a desolate road until he is attacked by a crop-duster. On paper this sounds completely ridiculous. There are much easier ways to kill a man than by crop-duster, but this never occurs to us during the film because we are so emotionally invested in the scene. If you are someone who has ever wondered what all the fuss about Hitchcock was, watch this scene; you will understand everything you need to about his genius. The scene lasts six minutes, has nearly no dialogue and consists mostly of cars passing by on the road. What sounds silly on paper, and would be dull directed by many, is one of the most tense and exciting scenes in the history of motion pictures.
What makes North by Northwest special isn’t an iconic scene here or there, but its many disparate elements coming together into a cohesive whole. Ernest Lehman the writer of North by Northwest said that he wanted to help make “the ultimate Hitchcock film”, and it’s easy to see what he means. Hitchcock returned to the same themes and styles over and over again throughout his career, and nearly all of them appeared in this movie; from the overbearing mother figure, the innocent man accused to the sexual jealousy he so often explored. James Mason (Lolita, A Star is Born) plays the required suave villain and Eva Marie Saint (Grand Prix, Superman Returns) is a perfect example of the Hitchcock icy blond. The danger is as real and tangible as in any Hitchcock film, yet it doesn’t shy away from comedy. It’s this very balance of light and dark that makes the casting of Cary Grant so important.
Cary Grant wasn’t just an actor, he was a brand. As much as any star before or since Grant molded an image that extended from movie to movie. Cary Grant was a character before he ever stepped foot on set. Grant was handsome, clever, funny, elegant, masculine and refined yet he never seemed shallow or distant. It was this internal tension that made him the perfect centerpiece for North by Northwest. He was able to be funny or sexy yet it never descended into camp or lessened the edge of danger.
North by Northwest is a film that hasn’t, and I suspect never will age. It is just as exciting at home in 2010 as it was on the big screen in 1959. North by Northwest was made by one of the titans of film at the peak of his abilities. While it can be argued endlessly as to what Hitchcock’s greatest film was, North by Northwest is without a doubt one of his most comprehensive and emotionally engaging. Whether you have seen the film a dozen times or this is your introduction to Hitchcock, be prepared for a ride you won’t soon forget.