Tuesday, November 06, 2012

North by Northwest (1959)

#10: North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)

Alfred Hitchcock looms large for me as the film director who helped me understand what a film director is in the first place—I guess I used to think that a bunch of actors more or less got together and recited lines and, oh yeah, somebody must have brought a camera too. But I started figuring out how much more there was to it when I noticed that the episodes of the Hitchcock TV show actually directed by Hitchcock were noticeably better. (As a kid I was into the whole brand—watched the show, subscribed to the magazine, and read many of the books of stories, which is where I first encountered, among many others, Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life.") On the repertory theater circuit, the Hitchcock double features were always must-sees for me, most of them worth seeing again and again, simply because he was the director I could most rely on to deliver the engaging story that grabbed hold and didn't let go.

Later, in film classes and random reading, I came to better understand the kinds of deeper themes with which he was playing—the insinuations of paranoia and control in people's lives, the sly mockery of convention, and texturing it all with a disquieting, even creepy fear of women—alongside the clockwork technical aspects, which are most manifest in his gimmick movies, such as Rope, with its ostensible one long take (although you will notice that it does have a handful of old-fashioned cuts), or Rear Window, which is entirely set in a small studio apartment. I hasten to add that I count even his gimmick movies as worthwhile, sometimes even among his best, such as Rear Window (and also that it's probably possible to make an argument that all of his movies are gimmick movies).

So it was not easy picking just one; even picking two only seemed to compound the general crowding problem. Two others nearly made it: Strangers on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt, which both happen to be about as close as Hitchcock came to straightforward noirs. I also like Rear Window quite a bit; I saw it in a theater recently and noticed for the first time how subtly complex the sound design is. And more: Notorious, Rebecca, The Wrong Man, and Dial M for Murder.

But like many others I am probably most impressed with his three-year run of releases toward the end of the '50s: Vertigo (which Steven already mentioned) followed by North by Northwest followed by Psycho. Settling on North by Northwest may indicate something about my shallow attraction to big boffo Hollywood productions, but so be it. I'm not sure Cary Grant was ever better in anything, and in many ways the picture works as a summation of both Grant's career and Hitchcock's. It's a Cary Grant comedy and a Hitchcock thriller all at the same time. It doesn't make a lick of sense if you stop to think about it, but there's no time for that anyway. It leaps into motion immediately from the dynamic titles by Saul Bass and it doesn't stop until the broad punch line of its very last shot. It's got "wrong man" elements, government conspiracy plots, Mount Rushmore, Eva Marie Saint as a fallen woman who's really the girl next door who's really a fallen woman who's really the girl next door, James Mason and a youthful Martin Landau prowling around each other like cats, no end of artfully composed shots (I'm uploading one of my favorite matte shots [above], which is even more effective in its context), and some of the eeriest chase scenes ever committed to film. Plus one of Bernard Herrmann's greatest scores, a stirring soundtrack that carries the movie all the way through. Recommended with popcorn.

Titles (by Saul Bass)

Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine

Phil #10: Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007) (scroll down)
Steven #10: Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, 1970)

If it makes a difference, and it probably doesn't, I intended to keep Hitchcock out of my top 10. But I left him close enough that he could sneak in if anything happened. There are so many Hitchcock movies I could rank high. A lot of times it depends on what I've seen most recently. Currently my favorite is once again Shadow of a Doubt.


  1. Maybe not the greatest film of all time in that we want something perhaps more personal and universal in the best of the best of a art form. But as a piece of genre film this is ab as close to perfect as you're going to get.