|working on the designed set|
|Director Alfred Hitchcock|
|Hitchcock arriving in Rapid City ahead of the shoot|
|Cary Grant and Hitchcock on the set|
|setting up the crop duster scene|
|James Mason, Eva Marie Saint, and Cary Grant|
|The actors relaxing behind the scenes|
NORTH BY NORTHWEST B+ USA (136 mi) 1959 d: Alfred Hitchcock
I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know the difference between a hawk and a handsaw. —Hamlet from Shakespeare, Hamlet 2.2, SCENE II. A room in the castle. - Shakespeare (MIT)
Coming on the heels of Vertigo (1958), this comedy of errors is a sunny antidote to the gloomy puzzle-piece that preceded it, among Hitchcock’s most commercially successful films, arguably the most viewed, currently listed at #4 on his all-time list (Alfred Hitchcock's most popular movies - MSN), just above NOTORIOUS (1946), REAR WINDOW (1954), and Psycho (1960), while also listed at #4 on AFI’s list of top American thrillers, AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills. This is vintage Hitchcock at the peak of his creative powers, making Psycho (1960) immediately afterwards, and then The Birds (1963), all among his most successful films and all uniquely different from one another. His only film made for MGM, this notably thrives on incorporating the shooting of the film with prominent sites that include national monuments like the United Nations building and Mount Rushmore, neither of which are real (though the arrival sequence to the UN was secretly shot), as they weren’t allowed to shoot on the premises, so the United Nations interior is a matte painting, yet the film is shot on location in New York, Chicago, and South Dakota. Accentuating the trappings of wealth, power, and prestige, the film opens with examples of 1950’s luxury in the crowded elegance of Manhattan buildings like the Plaza Hotel near Central Park and Grand Central Station, with a side journey to the Phipps Estate on Long Island (Old Westbury Gardens), followed by the 20th Century Limited train along the Hudson to Chicago, a quick jaunt to the Ambassador East Hotel, an out-of-the-way bus stop on a vast and empty plain of cornfields in Indiana, to the backdrop of the Mount Rushmore monument, where a full-scale replica was designed on a studio back lot along with a fabricated home (another matte painting) meant to look like a modernist Frank Lloyd Wright house, as in the late 50’s he was the most prominent architect in the world, making this one of the first films to openly highlight the sophistication and luxury of modernist architecture. Added to the mix is the daunting presence of 1958 white Lincoln Continental Mark III convertible, a sure sign of flaunted prosperity and extravagance, and a capitalist symbol of the Eisenhower era American identity in the 50’s, which was wrapped around the idea of consumerism and wealth, all an illusion, as the country’s failure to come to grips with contentious social issues, like a separate but unequal racial and economic divide, left a sizeable moral vacuum that would define the struggles of the next decade. However, the playfulness of the film is the most endearing quality, where much of the humor is tongue-in-cheek, displaying a sparkling wit that resembles 1930’s screwball comedy, with Cary Grant (in his 4th and final Hitchcock film) being the suave and sophisticated model of efficiency that defined that era, strangely mirroring BRINGING UP BABY (1938), where Grant goes from being strait-laced and professorial to utterly bonkers and completely irresponsible, while here he evolves from a snarky Madison Avenue wise-ass advertising executive continually making snide remarks over cocktails into a mature and capably responsible human being, ultimately redeeming himself for his earlier complacency. Buoyed by Bernard Herrmann’s exhilarating musical score, this became Hitchcock’s most successful melding of espionage, comedy, and romance, becoming a surprisingly prophetic template for the James Bond movies that would follow only a few years later. Made at the height of the Cold War, the intrigue of an international spy scandal was all the rage, allowing Hitchcock to introduce darker and more menacing elements to what is otherwise a thoroughly entertaining romance and adventure-on-the-run picture, combining darkness with light comedy, where witty humor, a love story, suspense, and mortal danger harmoniously merge in this espionage thriller, with the director displaying a mastery of building tension and creating plot twists, becoming a commercially financed luxury model for Godard’s more low-budget Breathless (À Bout de Souffle) (1959) made the same year, with main characters in each caught up in the existential angst of the times.
Hitchcock’s films exist entirely within a highly stylized, artifical cinematic universe, as they bear no resemblance whatsoever to reality, yet he utilizes the talents of a collective team of creative artists that draw and replicate locations that they could not legally access, using drawings, miniatures, and fake sets. Viewed by some critics as a lighthearted and trifling work when it was released, the massive popularity surrounding the film has only elevated its status over time. While it lacks the depth of some of his best films, many believe the models for the film are the British and American spy thrillers The 39 Steps (1935) and SABOTEUR (1942) respectively, yet Hitchcock has effectively improved upon a more endearing characterization of the hero, integrating him more harmoniously into the whole, using humor and charm to beguile audiences, which certainly adds to the overall appeal. The film follows the incredible story of Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant), whose name is a riff off of American producer David O. Selznick, who produced Hitchcock’s first American film Rebecca (1940), where in each the “O” stands for nothing. Caught up in a case of mistaken identity, believing he is secret agent George Kaplan, he is immediately thrust into a game of high stakes when an ignominious spy agency headed by a villainous Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and his strong-armed henchman Leonard (Martin Landau, who seems to relish his role of being one of the first gay characters to inhabit a mainstream film) kidnap him in broad daylight and whisk him off to a reclusive estate that belongs to Lester Townsend (Philip Ober), a United Nations diplomat. When he refuses to divulge state secrets, feigning ignorance, caught up in a Kafkaesque nightmare, they force a quart of bourbon down his throat and send him down a winding coastal road in a car overlooking cliffs where they expect him to crash at his own peril. But he somehow defies the odds and survives, only to be arrested for drunken driving by the police, who refuse to believe his incredible story, especially when testimony against him has been fabricated. Thinking the only way to get out of this dilemma is to find the killers himself, he only inflames the situation when he meets the real Lester Townsend at the United Nations, immediately realizing he has been set-up, as Townsend is assassinated on the spot (though he was actually the target!), while he’s photographed holding the murder weapon, making nationwide front-page news, as a police dragnet searches for him. It’s 40-minutes into the film before viewers realize what’s really behind this cloak and dagger affair, as the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) is seen consorting with his CIA colleagues, realizing Thornhill is just an innocent bystander, but they risk endangering their own agent who has infiltrated Vandamm’s organization, so they keep a safe distance, which leaves Thornhill precariously on his own. Preferring a train to an airplane, as there are more places to hide, he sneaks aboard an overnight train to Chicago without a ticket, somehow avoiding detection, accidentally encountering Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint, another Hitchcock blonde), sitting across from her at dinner, where the sophisticated banter becomes sexually provocative, where she actually offers him help, allowing him a safe place to hide while rewarding him handsomely, as she helps him escape the next morning, only to discover, after nearly paying the ultimate price, that she’s in cahoots with Vandamm. Still believing she’s an ally, however, he follows her instructions to meet the real George Kaplan (who doesn’t exist), but he ends up out in the open in the middle of nowhere where he has no means of escape, only to be attacked by a crop duster plane that relentlessly circles back after him, creating one of the most iconic of all Hitchcock set pieces, becoming one of the most analyzed and studied scenes in the entire Hitchcock repertoire, (NORTH BY NORTHWEST: Deconstruction of a Scene (The ...). A surreal auction scene in Chicago turned into a farce leads to the murky chase finale taking place on the granite stone faces of the Presidents on Mount Rushmore, measuring some sixty feet from chin to forehead, about the same size as the head of the Giza Sphynx, where their constant presence looms over what transpires, as if offering their silent countenance.
Unlike Erich von Stroheim and Orson Welles, who were destroyed by the studio system, as it stifled and thwarted their profound individualism and extreme originality, Hitchcock was largely a master craftsman, extremely well organized, preferring to shoot in a studio than actual locations, expertly navigating his way through a strangulating studio system by becoming a consummate technician, finishing his films on time without going over budget, rarely discussing the ideas his films generate, preferring instead to describe how each shot was ingeniously set-up. Written by Ernest Lehman in a rare original story for Hitchcock, ambitiously describing it as “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures,” sumptuously shot in dazzling color by Robert Burks on VistaVision, one of the most effective Hitchcock techniques here is leaving out huge chunks of information regarding each character’s true motives, identities, and intentions. Eve Kendall, for instance, continually changes in the eyes of viewers as well as to Thornhill as the story progresses, where her accidental appearance in Thornhill’s life proves to be anything but. She obviously knows all about him while the clueless Thornhill knows literally nothing about her, so her real intentions (until the end) are never clear. With the director skillfully controlling access to information, he uses distortion and exaggeration to change how characters perceive each other, emphasizing an atmosphere of deceit and distrust, which perfectly defines how it felt living through the Cold War era. This constantly changing tonal shift effectively keeps viewers off balance, continually altering the balance of alignment, where no one is safe in this Kafkaesque universe of irrationalities and absurdities. Hitchcock does achieve his primary goal of demonstrating how easily an average person can undergo a dangerous and traumatizing experience, such as a near-death tragedy, that becomes a life-altering and transforming event. Having no identity to speak of, Thornhill immerses himself in the assumed identity of George Kaplan, a man of action, one who accepts no excuses while taking on massive risks, and in the process discovers himself. Despite his star power, Cary Grant comes to resemble that average person caught up in a whirlwind of events that forever changes who they are, where it’s easy for viewers to sympathize with him, a blatantly open Mama’s boy, still attached to his mother (Jessie Royce Landis), where her constant presence continually follows him, like a good luck charm, or is it just the opposite? Hitchcock, on the other hand, seems to relish the pleasure of putting his star in constant jeopardy, literally twisting him into a pretzel and expecting him to become a contortionist to escape the perilous danger hovering around him, like a bad dream. It’s a strange twist to make a spy thriller where the lead character is an innocent bystander, knowing nothing about the spy business, drawing parallels between espionage and advertising, early on heard muttering the mantra, “In the world of advertising there is no such thing as a lie. There’s only expedient exaggeration,” yet in both worlds their ultimate success depends on their ability to manipulate and deceive others. In this film he is continually bent out of shape, caught up in a wringer and sent through the spin cycle, continually lied to and fed disinformation, yet has to remain calm and clear-headed while under constant distress. Grant has always been a character who remains cool under pressure, where his sophisticated dexterity with words allows him plenty of leeway, often getting him into and out of trouble, while Eva Marie Saint offers an alluring feminine counterbalance to his masculinity. They work well together. It’s the shadowy interjection of the Professor as a narrative device that feels weirdly off-putting and nebulous, continually recapitulating the strange plot twists for viewers and explaining things that might otherwise feel wildly convoluted, as he never really feels like part of the story, but there he is calming the waters that he has continually stirred up, always leaving Thornhill on the verge of drowning. It’s a seductive formula, feeling more like a fantasy adventure than real life, yet the romantic elements endure, feeling hard earned and well deserved.
Note – Hitchcock’s appearance comes early as he arrives too late for a bus, the door slammed in his face.