Film discussion

Looking back at North By Northwest

Baz Greenland revisits Hitchcock's 1959 masterpiece...

This month, North By Northwest is being re-released in selected UK cinemas One of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films (my personal favourite) it’s also one of his most cinematic, full of dramatic set pieces, thrilling spy drama and an amazing score by Bernard Herrmann. This was Hitchcock’s only film for MGM but even after nearly sixty years, it stands as one of the greatest cinematic thrillers ever made.

It all rest on Cary Grant,  the original Mad Man, a cool, suave New York advertising executive Roger Thornhill who would make Don Draper look like a buffoon.

“Now you listen to me, I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself “slightly” killed.”

It’s a great quote and expertly delivered by Grant and perfectly sums up who Thornhill is, a man with a self-knowing charm and full of wit but who is ultimately the good guy. Mistaken for the mysterious Mr Kaplan, he is whisked away from drinks with friends and brought into the shady machinations of James Mason’s equally cool, suave villain Phillip Vandamm.

There are great theatrics at play in the first act; Thornhill is framed as a drunk driver and forced to defend his innocence as he attempts to track down the mysterious Kaplan with the aid of his feisty, disapproving mother (a wonderfully sardonic performance from Jessie Royce Landis). Hitchcock really embraces the humour of the situation, making the shocking murder at the United Nations – for which Thornhill is framed – all the more surprising, forcing him to flee New York.

Before James Bond was first immortalised on screen by Sean Connery, Thornhill feels very much like a Bond prototype and his encounter with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) is very From Russia With Love. Eve is a proper Femme Fatale and proto Bond girl in one, the mysterious woman Thornhill encounters on the train and sleeps with to escape the henchmen hunting him down. The twists surrounding her identity keep on coming, first revealed as the mistress of Vandamm ordered to sleep with Thornhill and then as an agent of the FBI…or is it CIA? The film certainly suggests it is the latter.

In fact, there is a very Bond-feel to the structure of the movie, from that first encounter with Eve to the thrilling cropduster attack where Thornhill is lured into a meeting in the middle of nowhere and pursued by the plane, bullets flying as he takes cover in the cornfield. Along with the end sequence, it’s one of Hitchcock’s most daring action pieces and one that has been deservedly played homage to in everything from the aforementioned From Russia With Love to The X Files movie and most recently Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.

There’s a clever act of misdirection and intrigue to the very end; Thornhill tries to evade Vandamm’s henchmen at the auction house and finds himself freed by the FBI and coerced into a mission to save Eva and retrieve the stolen files. Hitchcock certainly plays a blinder in the shooting scene in the cafe near Mount Rushmore, turning the tables again as he and Eva are reunited and she leaves him for the mission.

This leads to one of the best final set pieces in any action thriller (Bond films included) as Thornhill breaks free of the FBI to rescue Eva and sneaks into the house on the cliffs. The design of the house itself is amazing; the supports huge geometrical shapes rising out of the cliff face upon which Thornhill makes his perilous ascent to rescue Eva, while he overhears Vandamm and his main henchman, Martin Landau’s ruthless Leonard. The discovery that Eva used blanks on Thornhill raises the tension, leading to the perilous escape down the front of Mount Rushmore with the stolen files, while the enemy closes in.

It’s incredibly well done; the sense of grandeur and danger making for a truly climactic ending to North By Northwest. Bernard Herrmann’s score, which is big, bold and tense from the opening title sequence, is used effectively here as the two heroes literally crawl over the giant carved face of a former President to escape. Done today with modern effects, this would probably be spectacular but the film does a spectacular job nonetheless. The close up of the carved steps and sloping surfaces make for a perilous journey.

But North By Northwest doesn’t ever need to be remade. There are plenty of modern great action thrillers but they rest on the shoulders of Hitchcock’s superb direction. The performances from all are great; Cary Grant is smooth, suave and utterly daring, Eva Marie Saint has the perfect blend of femme fatale and vulnerability, Martin Landau is a daring threat and James Mason is an expertly understated villain. Even Jessie Royce Landis is a delight in those early scenes. It’s a film that influenced so many that followed and has the grandiose scale you would see in any modern blockbuster. If you can see this on the big screen, you’ll certainly be in for a treat.

What’s your favourite Hitchcock? Let us know in the comments below.

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