Friday, October 09, 2015

North by Northwest (1959)

USA, 136 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Ernest Lehman
Photography: Robert Burks
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Editor: George Tomasini
Cast: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Leo G. Carroll, Martin Landau, Jessie Royce Landis, Adam Williams, Edward Platt

Something about North by Northwest epitomizes for me everything that is great about movies. It has always seemed to exist outside of time somehow, whirling out of my undifferentiated past to make the bill on repertory house double features, brash and colorful and vivid as ever, every time. In fact, for the longest time I was surprised again and again to learn that it came out so late in the decade, when it seems to belong more in the mid- or early '50s—indeed, in the gusto with which Cary Grant leads the cast, the strapping good spirits of it, it belongs even perhaps all the way back to wartime joie di vivre, when sunny optimism ruled the day.

Yet at the same time, arriving in the same year as the birth control bill, North by Northwest is at pains to establish its cheesy sexual sophistication bona fides. It's liberally sprinkled with lines like, "Now what could a man do with his clothes off for 20 minutes?" and has a famously lascivious last shot. The plot, in fact, turns on a frank and very delicate issue of sexual ethics—that is, within an elaborate and fanciful context of Cold War spy games. Underneath that, the motivations are as corny as anything Frank Capra ever did. As if to underline the point, the movie is equally liberally sprinkled with potent and modern symbols (for 1959) of apple-pie America: the United Nations General Assembling Building in New York, a cross-continental train trip, and ultimately a visit to Mount Rushmore in western South Dakota. Among other things it's a tourist's-eyes view of America, like in Lolita.

There's not much new here in terms of Hitchcock's usual themes—the many-leveled actions of spies, the "wrong man" premise, the figure of the maddeningly impenetrable blonde woman—but they are invigorated with a mad energy. The picture opens on the MGM logo sloshed over in supersaturated neon-glowing green, and then the musical theme of Bernard Herrmann sounds—it is perhaps Herrmann's greatest soundtrack out of many very good ones—and the crazy angles of the Saul Bass titles start, making "north by northwest" directional points until finally they resolve into the façade of the UN building. The story springs into action the second the obligatory Hitchcock cameo is out of the way, opening on the kind of sequence beloved by Aaron Sorkin and (I suspect) Mad Men creators, a long tracking shot as ad man Roger Thornhill bustles down busy New York City streets dictating to his secretary, hurrying to make a lunch with other Manhattan ad men. He is charming, obnoxious, funny, and very wise. Within a matter of minutes, he is kidnapped. And we are off.

It's a big, expensive movie going for big, expensive effect and no doubt it's not everyone's cup of tea. People who enjoy paying close attention to the credibility of plot points have no end of rational complaints. The assassination attempt at a lonely cornfields crossroads in Indiana, for example, is ludicrous, even more so the way it resolves. Granted, granted. It's the contrasts I think Hitchcock is going for: the bucolic countryside, the safe-as-rain flatlands, emphasizing its emptiness, its lack of open hostility. The assassin is introduced via the peaceful droning of a crop-dusting plane, which a country bumpkin finally notices and comments on. All is right in this peaceful world, all is safe and conventional and familiar. Except—look out! Machine gun in a kamikaze plane! (Another point for effect that depends to some degree on the shared worldview of American experience in World War II.) The byword as always is "things are not what they appear"—Hitchcock loves to create a homey sense of comfort and break it down with the creepy anxieties that live inside all of us.

It's a very busy plot but also lucid, as it wends its way. The true corn that is introduced in South Dakota (the point where complaints about the movie most register with me) is blessedly brief, with the wonderful distraction of a chase scene on Mount Rushmore. It's such a great idea and basically so well done that I usually just find myself gaping at the images at that point. Among others things, this movie also demands to be seen on big screens when possible. I'm not sure exactly what Hitchcock or anyone is doing by setting people crawling across the giant stone visages of American presidents, but I like the way it plays. It's a great, very tense chase scene there at the end. And about that corn: it's so quickly developed and disposed of, ending on the clown-nose honk of that last shot, a kind of visual rimshot, that I have to say I end up liking that too. Basically, I like everything about North by Northwest.

Top 10 of 1959
1. The 400 Blows
2. North by Northwest
3. The Human Condition
4. Rio Bravo
5. Imitation of Life
6. Pillow Talk
7. A Summer Place
8. Pickpocket
9. Floating Weeds
10. Some Like It Hot

1 comment:

  1. I usually think of North By Northwest as a height in Hollywood's imperial period-- the slick technicolor production, the immaculate craftsmanship, the wrong man/everyman ethos, the sexy playfulness, etc. Probably why some don't like it but to me pantheon popcorn movie in the best sense.