Friday, January 6, 2012

North By Northwest (1959)

“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.”

            As far as Hitchcock’s films go after the 1940s to me North by Northwest is his best. Many reviews and books will say that the film has all of the director’s favorite themes of suspense, drama, passion, love, wit, and mistaken identity and that it is the film to end all Hitchcock films.
            Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a middle-aged man who works in an advertising firm. While out with some friends he needs to call his mother to remind her of their plans for that night. At the same time he gets up to go to the telephone a waiter is calling out for a man named George Kaplan. Two sinister looking men waiting in the wings see Roger get up at the same time, they believe he is Kaplan and they grab him.
            The two men take Roger to the home of their boss Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) who claims his is a delegate who works at the United Nations. Vandamm asks him about some intelligence. Roger has no idea what is going he repeatedly tells them they have the wrong man that his name is not George Kaplan but Roger O. Thornhill. Vandamm does not listen at all they think he is just a very good spy with great cover. The three men get Roger drunk and try to send him over a cliff but Roger comes to in time and eventually gets arrested for drunk driving. No one believes his story not even his own mother or his lawyer.
            The next day Roger goes to confront Vandamm as the UN delegate he comes face to face with the real delegate. Before he and the delegate can talk a knife is thrown into the man’s back killing him. Roger pulls out the knife; everyone around him thinks he is the murderer.
            Now Roger is sent on a wild goose chase across the country to try to find the real Kaplan (which we and Roger come to find that there is no Kaplan he was a set up to bring out Vandamm and his men) and to clear his name. Along the way he meets a beautiful blonde named Eve Kendall who has the dual role of being Vandamm’s mistress and a government agent.
            Like all of Hitchcock’s wrong man stories Roger is eventually cleared and the real murderer/criminal is brought to justice.
            North By Northwest can be looked at a the beginning of the modern spy stories we are used to seeing in the movies and on TV. Apparently Ian Flemming author of the James Bond series got the idea for his famous spy from this film. In turn many spy action films and shows have gotten their inspiration from James Bond. You can see where Bond comes from when you look at Cary Grant; you can see where the smooth  and charming villain comes when you see James Mason; you can see where the spy’s gorgeous woman and weakness comes from when Eva Marie Saint first appears on screen.
            Cary Grant is stunning as the main character. The man was the epitome of class and sophistication and I think all his class and sophistication culminates in this film. I love how he played Roger’s fear with a calm and coolness and never made the character lose his head. You can see his fear under the surface but it never comes out in full force. It seems that from the moment he meets Eve Roger turns into the smooth man looking for some comfort. The chemistry between Grant and Saint is incredible (although I will say their first make out scene is so uncomfortable to watch, it is so awkward). There is no subtle sexual dialogue between them we know exactly what Grant means when he says that he wants to be alone somewhere in private where he can do things with her.
            The one thing I have noticed about Hitchcock’s blondes, aside from Grace Kelly, is that they were not really gorgeous. Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak- they were pretty but not exactly gorgeous. Eva Marie Saint was pretty but what made her really sexy was the confidence she exuded. In her first scene where she and Cary Grant first meet I am always left wondering how any man could have kept their hands on the table and their minds from wandering. Saint’s play of sexual confidence is enough to make a man melt. I found myself never really trusting the character even after we find out that she is really good. I was waiting for her turn but of course she never did in the end we had to sympathize with her otherwise she would have had to die.
            James Mason was perfect as the charming villain. Of course we are made to hate him because he has the hero by the throat by getting him into the mess, I did not like him either but at the same time I felt like I could not hate him he was just so good.
            North By Northwest has the most memorable scene from one of Hitchcock’s film where Roger has to run for his life from a dust crop airplane in the middle of nowhere. That scene is so suspenseful and tense because Roger has nowhere to go and nowhere to hide in the wide open field. That has to be the scariest thing to see someone needing to hide but there is nowhere to go. Sure he hides a bit in a nearby cornfield but that does not provide a very good cover.
            Bernard Herrmann created one his best scores. There is a reason Hitchcock worked with the composer so much the man created such intense scores that really enhanced every scene.
            The dialogue is amazing. Today it is not shocking at all but for back in 1959 I can imagine the audiences’ cheeks turning red and them being shocked. From the moment Roger and Eve meet their dialogue is so risqué. When they meet she says “I’m a big girl” to which he responds “Yes, I see and in all the right places too.”
            North By Northwest is one of the best films Hitchcock made. Several reviewers have said the plot is ridiculous and crazy but aren’t all spy dramas? The impossibility of the story is what makes it so enjoyable and what adds to the suspense. Hitchcock created the greatest and most enduring spy thriller that has been an inspiration for spy films and shows for decades. North By Northwest is truly one of the Master of Suspense’s ultimate films.