For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!
If ever you thought of Alfred Hitchcock as the drab and monotone narrator, who can’t do anything, but horror and suspense, well then you need to watch “North by Northwest” again. This classic “wrong man” espionage thriller pushes all of the boundaries of what’s plausible within a spy story to their limits. Hitchcock said that real newspapers tell too many “outlandish stories from real life that drive the spinner of suspense fiction to further extremes.” These further extremes are well within Hitchcock’s repertoire and make “North by Northwest” exciting, funny and a joy to watch.
“North by Northwest” is the story of Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a self-obsessed, fast-talking, New York advertising man. At a meeting over drinks with a client Thornhill gets mistaken for George Kaplan, an Intelligence Agency operative. Mr. Thornhill gets apprehended by two gun-wielding thugs and taken to the house of Mr. Townsend.
Cary Grant’s ability to shape Thornhill into a witty, and unflappable powerhouse, all the while making it believable that he doesn’t know what’s going on, is wonderful. Thornhill becomes our unwitting American James Bond, he’s our accidental counter agent, and he does so through use of clever banter and more than a little luck.
Thornhill narrowly escapes, and unsatisfied with the police assessment of the situation, decides to do some further investigation of his own. He wants to find out more about the man he was mistaken for. With his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) along for the ride, Thornhill goes to the hotel room of George Kaplan. (Sound starts at 17 seconds.)
The interaction between Thornhill and his mother is fantastic. This scene shows why Hitchcock is a master. Tension can be built for suspense and anxiety, or humor. Here, with the addition of Thornhill’s mother, Hitchcock is able to achieve both ends simultaneously. We are worried about the continued mystery surrounding Kaplan, and yet the snide comments that the mother throws at her son get us giggling. Just the idea of an espionage thriller, which shows the suave hero with his mom, is funny. Hitchcock plays with the cycle of tension and shifts it from humor to suspense throughout the film.
Even after Thornhill gets framed for murder, when he attempts to track down the real Mr. Townsend, the first being an imposter, we still are unsure of what’s going on. Hitchcock leaves us a perfectly placed trail of breadcrumbs, only revealing enough to keep us both satisfied and yet wanting more.
We get a glimpse behind the curtains at the U.S. Intelligence Agency. (Sound starts at 4 seconds.)
At the Intelligence Agency, we learn that the supposed Mr. Townsend is actually Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). We also find out that Kaplan is a fabrication, and there is another unnamed agent that is still following Vandamm. Instead of relieving stress and breaking tension, these revelations add to the viewers’ anxiety, because in spite of the awareness that an innocent man has been pegged for crimes and covert actions, the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) chooses to do nothing. Hitchcock has let us in on the game, so now instead of being confused by what’s happening, we knowingly watch as Thornhill tries to escape the many traps that surround him.
Enter Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). Often the 1950s come off as a time of stifling sexlessness. Look at the characters in the television shows of the era. Just think of the Ward and June Cleaver, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, or Tim and Grace Warren, and you’ll understand. The list could be extended further, but the point is clear, this is not a time of open sexuality in popular media. The Production Code is still being enforced, but a savvy few could write and direct their way around it. Just watch this scene between Thornhill and Kendall. The sexual tension is palpable.
Hitchcock and Saint build Kendall into a sexually open and powerful counterpart to Thornhill. She’s a formidable and rare character even by today’s standards. Kendall’s an intelligent woman, who is in a position of power, isn’t classified as a bitch or manish, but instead is seen as desirable. In Kendall, Thornhill has met his match, both in the dining car and in the bedroom.
But Kendall’s alliances are in question, and once they get off the train, she sends Thornhill for a meeting with Kaplan.
At this point we need to talk geography. “North by Norhwest” showcases the American landscape in a way that mimics the use of Europe in other spy films. Just think of the times that James Bond has run through the streets of Paris or Rome. In “North by Northwest” Hitchcock uses the American landscape to his advantage. He could only have made the following scene in the American Midwest.
The vast rural landscape sells the vulnerability and isolation of Thornhill. We can see the plane coming and see that Thornhill has nowhere to run or hide. Even his escape into the corn feels tenuous. The location shots are gorgeous and have an effect well beyond what could have been achieved in the studio.
Thornhill again narrowly escapes, and catches up to Kendall and Vandamm at an art auction.
The intimate gesture of Vandamm’s hand on Kendall’s neck shows us that she is sexually involved with Vandamm, in addition to Thornhill. The realization and reactions that come from each character are fantastic. There are emotional responses, but the sense of decorum demanded by the location stifle any passionate outbursts. With all it gestures towards in regards to social and sexual mores, one could write a paper on this scene alone.
With all the characters in play, and a growing awareness of the actual stakes, Thornhill, with the aid of the Professor, tails Vandamm to his hideaway in the hills of South Dakota, overlooking Mt Rushmore. Lots of little things happen that lead Thornhill and Kendall to a precarious escape over the carved faces of the monument.
The colors of the night scene help to ease the compositing between the studio shots and the location shots, but even when the shots are apparent, they feel more like stylistic choices and less like limitations. You might disagree, and see aging special effects, but to me, it looks like the most exciting postcard of Mt Rushmore anyone’s ever seen.
It’s hard to argue with Hitchcock. He was a stylish cinematic visionary. He was obsessive and controlling, bordering on arrogant, but if he can make films like “North by Northwest,” well then I for one am happy to encourage any necessary personal flaws, as long as the outcome is a stellar film. We’ll see him further up the list, but it’s pretty impressive that he makes his entrance at #55.
Whenever you need a cinematic vacation, join Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint as they travel from New York to the upper Midwest in “North by Northwest.”
Next on the list #54 “M*A*S*H” (1970)
For links to #60 – 69, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #60 Duck Soup (1933)
For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)
For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)
For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)