North by Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchcock)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Does anyone on planet Earth not love this movie? Drop every notion of its subtext in the bin for just a moment and look at it as a piece of beautiful and immaculately preserved entertainment, among the finest ever produced in any medium in the U.S. Out of the context of Hitchcock’s career, out of film school and Hollywood context even, it translates permanently as both wondrously irreverent travelogue of this country and as the most gleefully involving of all straightforward thrillers, buoyed by its script’s impeccable sarcasm and wit. We get swept up in its flight of escapist danger because, like The 39 Steps decades before it, it identifies and magnifies our own experience as its viewers. Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill is an audience vessel, a polite and mild-mannered if slightly dickish (and, of course, uncommonly great-looking) upper-middle-class normie whose complete ordinariness as a human is entirely the point, for he’s a distinctive personality but also a self-deprecating mirror image, and when he is mistakenly identified as erstwhile American secret agent George Kaplan through nothing more compelling than an arm raised at the wrong time, his plight becomes a singular shared experience with all of us. He knows no more than we do about why all this outrageous shit is suddenly happening to him — but unlike him, we’re not in danger. We can thrill and laugh and wonder breathlessly at the next turn. This is the kind of film that destroys any and all notions of any distinction between populist popcraft and great art, because it’s both — pure cinema of the highest quality ever produced in any country but also, in the tradition of Hitchcock’s earliest and craziest thrillers, the best kind of whiz-bang entertainment a high budget and A-list cast and crew can bring us. It soars just as highly now as then.
Of course, you see it enough times and it becomes second nature: camera angles, plot turnarounds, dialogue. “Games, must we?” “Seven parking tickets.” “Don’t be so modest!” Etc. Yet it remains consistently rousing and hypnotic, partially because the world it presents to us feels so alive and complete, teeming with people and life from first bustling frames on Madison Avenue to the last towering moments atop Mount Rushmore — and all of the sparkling train stations, hotel lobbies, elevators, cornfields, skyscrapers and phone booths in between. It’s a barbed vision of a modernist, chic America just as much as Steps illustrated a gothic, foreboding sprawl in the Scottish countryside of the pre-war ’30s. Of course, since 1935, Hitchcock had gained an insurmountable level of popular clout, that which came from being the most popular film director of his or possibly any era. He can bring in an assist from top screenwriter Ernest Lehman and designer Saul Bass, whose title sequence for this may be the best in film history: with disorienting lines that gradually bring us into the abstraction of a city, he suggests both the urban, titanic, progressive spread of the production’s universe and its self-distortion. But that’s merely the beginning of NxNW‘s surrealism.
When you ponder it carefully, the heft and size of North by Northwest stands in direct contrast to its own seemingly flighty, weightless aspirations; the story is deliberately set up on false leads, phoniness, and deceit. Not only is George Kaplan not a real person, we’re never even let in on the nature of the secrets he’s being concocted to protect — Hitchcock’s bolder-than-ever implication being that the MacGuffin really doesn’t matter to us, that it’s meaningless. It’s a magnificently mischievous stunt but also carries with it a hint of defeat, to which we’ll return shortly, but ponder for a moment what an achievement it is to create a monster box office hit out of a cloud of air like this, to so barely cover up its existence as a series of whooshing, galvanizing setpieces rather than a nuanced story — to so violently and cinematically, therefore, both mock and celebrate the very idea of the thriller itself. You can put this film on and bask in its sheer bigness; that’s bigness in multiple senses, its tallness and depth and urgency, and it’s even more impressive when projected in VistaVision. And then to create, all but accidentally, an entire genre on top of all this, and this just one year before the same director would virtually invent the modern horror film. Every spy flick that’s been made since North by Northwest owes everything to it, including the entire James Bond series and any number of more stonefaced and self-important films, and this is all the more objectively bizarre when you consider that Thornhill is no spy at all, just some poor dope falling into the fate decided by the ticket-buyers who are here to see a tense, exciting caper flick.
There’s much more here, however, than such a cynically bare-bones reading might suggest, even if what finally matters is the audience’s gut reaction to these base elements. For the first half-hour, we’re in the familiar territory of the Wrong Man, tempered by a bit of comic anxiety (provided in large part by the perpetually exasperated mother portrayed by Jessie Royce Landis) and an extended drunk-driving-to-escape stunt sequence that ends as a hilariously minor three-car collision. It’s here that we diverge from the story as Hollywood might traditionally have told it; the spies who kidnapped Thornhill have an airtight cover, and the story could easily end. The stakes are low. It’s only curiosity that brings Roger back into the intrigue. We are thus enveloped. As much as Hitchcock might well have been designing what he called “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures,” the one that would practically mock itself in its enormity and spectacle (it’s probably worth noting that this was the only film he made at MGM), an exercise wholly separate from plot concerns, he simply can’t help it. There’s no way he and his crew can put together a dumb or senseless movie. Blockbuster piffle this isn’t. Our attachment to Roger has been so thoroughly assured by the frivolous early scenes, our interest in and fear of the actual danger of James Mason’s Phillip Vandamm (his smooth upper-crust demeanor a callback to the missing-fingered Professor Jordan played by Godfrey Tearle in The 39 Steps) that we can’t help but be consumed by the emotional heft of it all, into which we fall considerably deeper than any the seasoned resident of the surface-level suspense film might anticipate.
Maybe that’s part of the parlor trickery. But does it matter? The sensitivity of Roger’s desperation and our identification with him is as real as any movie-empathy; the danger is movie-danger but it’s sharp and carries shades of real-world disturbance; and the sexuality, well. Train-tunnel metaphors notwithstanding, it gives The Big Sleep a run for its money in frankness and eroticism. That’s neither despite nor because of the fact that the actors keep their clothes on (mostly). It’s all in the performing, the script, the photography, and pure chemistry. No question, though, that much of the dialogue is the 1959 equivalent to the romantic leads carting themselves off to a hotel room for a Lars von Trier-shot love scene; Eva Marie Saint’s eyes burn into Cary Grant’s and they both burn into us with a surge of adult pleasure. If North by Northwest is a big cover-up for a love story, it’s an unusually earthy one that embodies enough actual desire and lust to communicate something that’d warrant hopping around the country to redeem oneself with the object of heart and loins. No sanitized affection here — it’s all hot, and the world moves around both of them.
Hitchcock falls into such human resonance because he’s also incapable of making a flat or emotionless film, even if he’d wanted to. There’s a case to be made that he kind of did, having cited this to Lehman as ideally the maxed-out, definitive rendition of all his favored tropes, and recasting those traditional ploys in constructions and setpieces so florid and wild as to edge into the arena of self-parody. Though it easily allows for a straightforward reading, the sardonic nature of North by Northwest isn’t difficult to track down, like the teenager who’s exasperated at being asked to do something so does it over and over and over again. Indeed, the film forms a loose trilogy with Psycho and The Birds, his two subsequent features, as rejections of what was then perceived as the traditional Hitchcock aesthetic. NXNW is less radical than its brethren, but it bears the mark of a filmmaker at his creative peak who’d been frustrated and irked by the lukewarm reception of Vertigo. He’d remain muted about it in interviews, but the narrative seems irresistible: audience rejects deeply personal film and artistic peak, director responds with stunningly mounted satirical jab at what critics and crowds want, what’s “expected” of him. That he delivers yet another masterpiece is almost a distraction, as though the film is as grand as it is by accident. But we know that isn’t true, and maybe the whole premise isn’t. An elated Hitchcock sent Lehman a telegram about a preview screening that he declared “fan-fucking-tastic.” And the prowess of the entire picture sneers at its own subtext, but we can always wonder.
Regardless, this stands in the middle of one of the greatest runs of outstanding films in any director’s career (has anyone ever matched the triad of Vertigo, this and Psycho in the realm of consecutive masterstrokes?), and it’s hardly a solo endeavor. With the regular stable of editor George Tomasini, cinematographer Robert Burks, art director Bob Boyle, and right-hand man Herbert Coleman, Hitchcock turned out at least a film a year in the ’50s with his crew like a well-oiled machine, their work achieving a technical seamlessness that has helped it to age impressively. And by the time of North by Northwest, they’d added maverick title designer and visual consultant Saul Bass to their corner — but it’s Bernard Herrmann, as on the prior film and the next one, who seems to most deserve billing alongside Hitchcock. The sweeping romance of his score is the primary force that keeps Lehman’s clever dialogue and bizarre plot twists from rendering the film a detached parlor game of soulless theatrics. It’s in part a testament to Herrmann’s greatness that the genuine pain in Eva Marie Saint’s face after she’s partly responsible for sending Cary Grant off to his death just before that crossfade to the cornfield is something we believe, instead of something we scoff at.
If we do position North by Northwest as a response or reaction to Vertigo, that doesn’t extend to its visual look. If anything, the two films — Hitchcock’s most sumptuous work in color — are of a piece, the strong colors and the heights and depths of the VistaVision photography a gateway into the most unreal kind of world, of course two firm unrealities free of the supernatural. Both films are a masterclass in how the huge becomes intimate, the fantastic becomes personal. Unique to NxNW is its overpowering taste for strange and inspiring architecture, which extends to the villain’s Frank Lloyd Wright-derived beautiful house in the shadow of Mount Rushmore. The sense of place, desolate and lively, nighttime and daytime, is incredibly strong, but even the “real” places don’t seem real — all a transformative, seductive dream across trains and planes and strangely alluring bus terminals. As a travelogue, the film is a miracle and an amusingly stark contrast to another “trains and boats and planes” epic, Around the World in Eighty Days (also featuring Bass’ input), which played America for laughs instead of examining and dissecting it.
But the visual splendor of America is one thing. Quite another is the nonchalance of an intelligence organization that’s accidentally doomed a man’s life but stands to profit from it, and the near-literal moving of mountains for something never any more clearly articulated than as “government secrets” and a bit of microfilm. Leo G. Carroll embodies the blasé spirit of friendly uncaring that signifies U.S. apathy toward everything outside its immediate political concern. That his extraordinarily perfect casting is in such a minor role says much about how well the other parts are filled. Eva Marie Saint was never better, sad and sublime, a model for every ’60s feminist tough-lady though she only fires a gun once (and then with blanks); Grant’s supercharged comic haplessness is a slight but significant upending of his typecasting as the suave romancer, a return of sorts to the less mysterious and seductive screwball of his younger days; and as the twins in opposition, James Mason and Martin Landau fill traditional 39 Steps stereotypes with new, rejuvenated life. Mason has the time of his life as a slimy, classy proto-Bond villain, but Landau’s sinister sycophant is a truly remarkable creation, all the sneer of Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant with a sideways touch of the perverse and the deadly. Either individually would be a cartoon; together, they provide actual dread and menace. In that point-of-view stunt wherein Mason topples his assistant after having the phony gun demonstrated to him, Hitchcock’s intimacy with hero and villain alike is triumphantly defined better than ever.
With that said, we’re completely on Roger Thornhill’s side (and George Kaplan’s!) for the duration of his picture. Like L.B. Jeffries in Rear Window, he’s nearly the peak of our identification with a Hitchcock leading man. What he knows, we know. What we’re curious about, he is. And his adventure becomes ours in a very real sense, which is why it’s as gripping as a great page-turner of a mystery. But after we know everything that’s truly happening, all the Vertigo-like questions of “real” identity resolved quickly with only a classic human rescue left to conquer, we are still so firmly attached to the happenings onscreen; everything that this bland everyman must achieve feels like a mirror of our own various plights, writ larger than we can imagine. So when we return to the film, after we know everything, why does it remain so fascinating and so gleeful an experience? Because it’s a rollercoaster ride, one with outstanding rhythm and payoff and an endless parade of pleasurable scenes. It’s as much fun as any film ever made; it’s blissful, in fact. Pretty good for a film that at one point allows Cary Grant to voice its deep and important thesis: “nothing,” he says.