09 February 2009

North by Northwest (1959)

d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 131 mins.

Alfred Hitchcock had been covering his tracks with Macguffins for years, but he told François Truffaut he thought the Macguffin of North by Northwest was his best: "And by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, and the most absurd." Later he would admit he didn't even know who is in the crop-duster that attacks the film's hero, and furthermore he didn't care. "So long as the audience goes through that emotion." In that way, the superficiality of North by Northwest becomes one of its greatest attributes; without the psychological baggage, it's among the purest of external Hitchcockian experiences. The director could speak at great length about the intricacies and flaws of the human mind, but he was a film craftsman first, always concerned with how the audience would respond to thrills, suspense, and romance. North by Northwest is whimsical, enrapturing, and adroit in its consummate technique, and it is a film that has often been reduced to a single frame of Cary Grant being chased by an airplane. It's so much more, but it's also nothing more, which strangely turns out to be more than enough.

For seven years Hitchcock had carried with him an idea he called "The Man in Lincoln's Nose." At first, it was just an image: someone dangling from the nostril of the sixteenth president's chiseled face on Mount Rushmore. Then the idea grew larger: a story about a CIA decoy mixed up with international intrigue and a prominent assassination, leading to a climax set atop the South Dakota landmark. It was an original idea – something Hitchcock did not dabble in often – and as such, it was in need of substantial development, which sidelined it for years while other projects, adapted from previous sources, passed through the director's mind. But he talked about it regularly with friends and associates, including Rear Window writer John Michael Hayes, and never lost interest in producing the espionage thriller.

Who knows how much longer the film might have simply been an idle thought for Hitchcock had screenwriter Ernest Lehman not taken interest. Lehman and Hitchcock were teamed up for an MGM film, and were getting along splendidly but were burning through a number of non-starters. That is, until Hitchcock mentioned "The Man in Lincoln's Nose." The idea excited Lehman, who, like Hayes before him, was part of a new generation of movie industry workers that were entirely familiar with the director's aesthetic and recurrent thematic motifs. The screenwriter famously said he wrote the film to be "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures"; while that's certainly up for spirited debate, it's clear that he and the director made what is today certainly among the Hitchcock's most famous films.

North by Northwest is the lighter side of Hitchcock's genius – and genius it must be, for few directors would have been able to pull off this extraordinarily illogical film as unquestioning entertainment. It is often dismissed as a featherweight because it falls between two heftier films (Vertigo and Psycho), and as far as psychological resonance is concerned: sure, the film could be blown over by a light gale. Yet there's something magical here, rooted in the mind of a director that knew how to entertain and manipulate an audience. By all accounts it probably shouldn't work: a rakish Manhattan advertising executive named Roger Thornhill (Grant) is mistaken for a secret agent, and nothing he can do will convince a murderous ring of spies that are stalking him that he is not the man they think he is. The police are equally immovable and don't believe there are spies at all, so Thornhill is stuck in a no-man's-land and must prove he is neither the secret agent the spies think he is nor the murderer the police think he is. Along the way there's an assassination at the United Nations, a daring stowaway on a train with a beautiful woman named Eve Kendall (Eve Marie Saint), a pissed off crop-duster pilot, a couple espionage twists, and a breathless climax atop Rushmore.

But that's not what North by Northwest is about. It's about point-A to point-Z, and rearranging the alphabet in between. The paradox in describing a Hitchcock movie is that the synopsis is never what the movie is about. Some are easier to describe than others – Rear Window is voyeurism; Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train are the science of doppelgängers; Vertigo is obsession; The 39 Steps is the thrill of the wrong man. North by Northwest is in the "thrill of the wrong man" tradition, but it is more abstract than any previous attempt at the theme. Part of its supreme joy is that it only makes sense up to the point of being a thriller; everything else is essentially illogical or unimportant, existing only to make it as much of a white-knuckle chase as possible. Even the title doesn't make any sense. (It was originally, and awkwardly, called "In a Northwesterly Direction." Hitchcock changed it, and included a quick shot of Thornhill at a Northwest Airlines counter. But those close to Hitchcock say he had known his Shakespeare front and back since boyhood, and he might have pulled the title out of Act II, Scene 2 of Hamlet: "I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.")

James Stewart had his eye on the role of Thornhill, but tangled post-production on Vertigo and a cancer diagnosis for Hitchcock's wife Alma delayed the start of North by Northwest and the role went to Grant, his last with Hitchcock. He had previously sworn never to work with the director again, but the money – nearly half-a-million, plus a share of the profits – lured him in. It was the prissiest he had ever been on the set of Hitchcock film, but the director knew better and shrugged it off. Almost as soon as Grant signed on, he wanted out: he complained about the script, which he repeatedly said he couldn't understand and doubted anyone else would either; he argued Hitchcock's humor wasn't funny; he kept an air-conditioned limousine on hand during the hot days of filming the crop-duster sequence; his contract charged $5,000 a day for each day the film went over schedule. But hindsight is a lovely thing. James Naremore has written Grant's performance is one of the most restrained and detail-oriented of the star's career. Hitchcock biographer Patrick McGilligan writes that after North by Northwest opened, Grant spotted Hitchcock having lunch then walked over "knelt down on the floor, and salaamed the director exaggeratedly." McGilligan writes:

Why? Take a look at Operation Petticoat, a perfectly entertaining film made in the same year as North by Northwest, but one in which Grant is reduced to mannerisms. Not only were Grant's Hitchcock films among his very best, no director gave him better roles, and extracted livelier performances.

If Grant was overly anxious on the set, it doesn't show in his loose and funny performance. The great thing about Grant is that even when his characters are out of their elements, as Thornhill certainly is in the espionage plot, he is still as graceful and cool as ever. He works well with Eve Marie Saint because the script keeps her character and motives intentionally hidden while Grant is so prominently on display. (The chemistry isn't quite as strong when we begin to know more about her.) Likewise with James Mason, as the leader of the spy-ring, and Martin Landau as Mason's henchman. Aside from harboring homicidal thoughts, everyone is on his best behavior, and watching Mason and Grant attempt to outclass each other proves one of the film's most wicked thrills.

Lehman's script is dazzling and funny, and surprisingly suggestive for the 1950s. The overtly sexual relationship between Thornhill and Eve is unmistakable, and Hitchcock tossed in a throwaway line suggesting marriage at the end to please the censors. Of course, they would miss the film's final shot: a sleek train sliding into a darkened tunnel, which Hitchcock scholar Bill Krohn calls "the most explicit depiction of the bottom-line facts of the sexual act ever pulled off under the Production Code."

North by Northwest is perhaps the director's most recognizable example of incorporating well-known public places into his thrillers, a motif that began with Blackmail (the British Museum) and continued through The Man Who Knew Too Much (the Royal Albert Hall), Saboteur (the Statue of Liberty), and Vertigo (the Golden Gate Bridge). The United Nations and Mount Rushmore are both featured prominently in the film, and both severely limited Hitchcock's on-location shooting, giving the director the only choice of trick angles and recreations to reach the effect he wanted. Production director Robert Boyle steals the technical show in North by Northwest with his elaborate set work, ranging from Rushmore to the cornfield. I'd remiss not to mention the utterly brilliant title sequence designed by Saul Bass, which is widely considered to be the first cinematic example of moving typography. (It's also a contender for my favorite first few moments of any film.) The crosshatch lines on the opening green screen reveal themselves to be a perfect overlay of the lines on the side of a skyscraper, reflecting the city below. Cinematographer Robert Burks continues the beautiful geometric patterns of crossing lines throughout the movie, and Bernard Herrmann's score is one of his best with a Hitchcock film, a balance of thunderous percussion and brass and delicate woodwinds that imitate a marching forward sensation that reflects the constant state of pursuit in the film.

Part of me would like simply to end here and pretend the infamous crop-duster doesn't exist. McGilligan, in his biography of Hitchcock, calls it a "textbook montage that will be studied and enjoyed as long as cinema exists," and quite frankly, you can't top that description. If ever a list were to be constructed of single shots that sum up the entire experience of cinema, certainly Grant and the airplane must be among the top few. It is remarkable in its execution (a series of splicing and matting), absent of music and almost all dialogue, consisting only of natural noise. For a scene that takes place in the middle of nowhere and in a wide open field, it is surprisingly suspenseful. Chapters of books have been devoted to deconstructing the sequence in all its technical glory, and there's no need in repeating them here. The image I've used above is from moments before the "famous shot," and I decided to use it because I appreciate it more for what it stands for. You don't need me to tell you it's Cary Grant. You don't need me to tell you it's North by Northwest. It's one of those things you know, one of those things you'll always know, something you'll fall back on time and time again and enjoy endlessly, something that's been imitated for years but never done as well in the fifty years since its premiere and no matter how much time passes, it'll be a mainstay. That's the genius of Hitchcock.


FilmDr 09 February, 2009  

Excellent review. Isn't it true that the crop-dusting scene was thought up as the opposite of how one would expect to set up a murder--in some dark alley someplace? Instead, they placed it in direct sunlight in the middle of nowhere outdoors. I like the way most of the elements of the scene appear early on (such as the plane, the specific cornfield), but you just don't know where to look. It seems in part a scene in which Hitchcock proves that he can extract great fun out of the least unpromising materials.

Isn't it true also that there's a sadistic element in Hitchcock's treatment of Grant's character?

T.S. 10 February, 2009  

@FilmDr, re: "you just don't know where to look"

Very true, sir. I'm stirred every time I watch the film by how Hitchcock sends our eyes in so many directions at once in that scene (particularly Burks's geometric camerawork), and out of seemingly nothing, manages to build the inevitable feeling that something wicked this way comes. To your first point, I've heard the crop-duster sequence was a challenge issued to Hitchcock to make something claustrophobic in the middle of nowhere, but I couldn't substantiate it in my research for the essay.

On the element of sadism, I do think there's a little of it on Hitchcock's part toward Grant, particularly the unexplainable series of fiery hoop after fiery hoop that Thornhill must jump. Their working relationship had become so strained I wouldn't be surprised to see a little bit of that in between the lines, although I think there's something to be said for Hitchcock's admiration of Grant as an "Idea" and "Concept," thus the fact that Thornhill's coolness prevents him from ever being truly at the cruel mercy of fate – he can, it seems, handle anything thrown his way, including his mother.

R. D. Finch 10 February, 2009  

Thanks for such a wonderful post on "North by Northwest." This has been my favorite movie since I saw it on the big screen when I was in jr. high (and knew nothing about Hitchcock or "cinema"). I've seen literally thousands of movies since, and it still remains my favorite of all time. I like the way you covered all the important points without repeating things that have been analyzed to death--it's hard to say something original about a movie that has received so much attention. It is a mystery why everything works so well. "Vertigo" is more complex and psychologically probing, "Psycho" is more perverse, but for me no Hitchcock movie is so purely pleasurable on the entertainment level (although "Rear Window" comes closest). If anybody ever needed to be convinced that pure entertainment can be elevated to art, then "North by Northwest" should be example #1.

the editor., 10 February, 2009  

Hi! T.S.,

Once again! a very well written, very detailed (Pointing "out" all the important details...) in your review of Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 film North By Northwest is always added to my "canon" of favorite Hitchcock films.
T.S. said,"James Stewart had his eye on the role of Thornhill, but tangled post-production on Vertigo and a cancer diagnosis for Hitchcock's wife Alma delayed the start of North by Northwest and the role went to Grant, his last with Hitchcock.
Oh! I think that actor James Stewart, would have been "miscast" in the role of Roger Thornhill.

T.S. said, "He had previously sworn never to work with the director again, but the money – nearly half-a-million, plus a share of the profits – lured him in."I wonder why? actor (Cary)Grant, sworn never to work with Hitchcock again?

DarkCityDame ;-)

the editor., 10 February, 2009  

Once again! a very well written and very detailed (With you pointing "out" all the "important" details...in this film.) review of Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 film North By Northwest.
Which by the way, is always added to my list of favorite films, when it comes to adding films from Hitchcock's "canon" to my list of favorites.)

I really must add author Patrick McGilligan's book to my shelf and Speaking of, adding, I must add Hitchcock's cropduster scene, along with actresses Gloria Swanson and Bette Davis, scenes from "Sunset Blvd.," and "All About Eve" as the most memorable scenes that have ever graced the silver screen.(Respectively,)...Well, as far as I'am concerned "unforgettable."

Dcd ;-)

MovieMan0283 10 February, 2009  

Great review, one of the best of the Hitchcock series. I didn't know that about Hitch and Grant's relationship. There always seemed to me to be a weird discrepncy between Hitchcock's misanthropic statements about actors and his actual interactions with them (at least the males), in which he exacted excellent performances and continued to work with the same stars through many pictures. But apparently things weren't so rosy.

T.S. 10 February, 2009  

@R.D.: Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed the review, since the film is your favorite. I agree with you, I think North by Northwest is Hitchcock at his lightest, most entertaining, at least since he arrived in Hollywood. Every director should have something like this in his or her oeuvre, and really, they don't come much better than this film in terms of pure entertainment.

@dcd: Oh, I know... Stewart is perhaps my favorite actor of all time, but he would have been so mismatched here (just as Grant would have been mismatched in all of Stewart's roles, even though he was in mind for the headmaster in Rope, which ended up going to Stewart). I hope you enjoy the McGilligan book, too... it's been my primary source of research during this retrospective.

@MovieMan: Thank you, sir. Hitchcock and Stewart had a much better working relationship than Hitchcock and Grant; Stewart, in fact, was a creative partner on his films with Hitchcock, although it usually consisted of telling associate producers to relax and let Hitchcock have his way. (Reportedly he told Herbert Coleman to let Hitchcock go with the radical flashback in Vertigo where Judy discloses everything because "the picture's not that important.") I think Hitchcock had a special affinity for actors, despite what he said publicly, particularly the ones who worked well in his movies – Leo G. Carroll, Hume Cronyn, Stewart, Grant, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, etc. His relationship with Grant was decidedly weird because Grant was so demanding, but Hitchcock put up with so much (even taking a paycut on To Catch a Thief so the studio could afford Grant) because of what Grant brought him onscreen. The two didn't work with each other for almost a decade – Notorious (1946) to To Catch a Thief (1955) – primarily over a flap to do with Rope. Grant and Montgomery Clift were attached the project, but were uncomfortable with the heavy homosexual overtones and began backing out. At the time Grant swore he'd never work with Hitchcock again (and then the money was right) and Hitchcock swore he'd never go back to Grant (except the roles were perfect).

Sam Juliano,  10 February, 2009  

This is simply a fantastic review by any barometer of measurement, and one that flows so eloquently, with authority and a passion for it's subject. I dare anyone to find a better review of NORTH BY NORTHWEST from anyone on the net (or anywhere else for that matter) As always, I enjoy greatly the historical context--in this case the prima-donna antics of Cary Grant, who still (according to your reference to Naremore) delivered one of his finest career performances--an assessment I could hardly challenge. Your paragraph talking about the film's 'meaning' and bringing in the other high-profile 50's films with the same capsule assessment is magisterial.
Similarly you do a fabulously authoritative job dexplaining the use of set pieces in the film, in fact tracing the famed ones in NBN to previous films like BLACKMAIL, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and SABOTEUR.
Other fascinating points/observations include the 'moving typography title sequence', Robert Burks' 'geometric pattern' cinematography, yet another superlative Bernard Herrmann score (brass-woodwind dominated)Ernest Lehman's brilliant, and funny script, and the thrilling interplay between Grant and James Mason.

And then we have this magnificence:

"You don't need me to tell you it's Cary Grant. You don't need me to tell you it's North by Northwest. It's one of those things you know, one of those things you'll always know, something you'll fall back on time and time again and enjoy endlessly, something that's been imitated for years but never done as well in the fifty years since its premiere and no matter how much time passes, it'll be a mainstay. That's the genius of Hitchcock.

A beautiful conclusion to a classic review that is one of your landmark series' very best.

Joe,  12 February, 2009  

Wow, and I thought Allan Fish's review was great! This should be part of a book.

T.S. 12 February, 2009  

@Sam: Thanks so much. I was going for the spine-tingling, bone-chilling effect in the final lines. It looks like I may have succeeded. Ha ha. But seriously, thanks for the comments – after writing something here, and then others with Vertigo and Rear Window and Strangers on a Train, I'm happy to stopped myself from trying to cram them all in during October. I wouldn't have reached this length if I had.

@Joe: Wow, thanks. If you know anyone looking for a chapter, send them my way. Ha ha. Hope you'll come back for the rest of the Hitchcock series over the next few weeks.

Farzan 13 February, 2009  

Great in depth review. I love the details you included and the film simply rocks. I cant believe its been 50 years already. This masterpiece still stands tall even to this day.

Allan Fish,  13 February, 2009  

Well, I wish I'd read this before I posted my own mini piece on WitD - I'd just have saved myself the effort and just posted a link here. Can't be topped, truly excellent piece.

DarkCity 20 February, 2009  

Hi! T.S.,
I think that you may find the link below of interest...that is if you have not checked it out already.


One commenter who(m) post over there on Joel Gunz's blog (My former guest) said, something very revealing about Hitchcock in his comment on Joel's blog and that was that "Hitchcock's name is still very recognizable."

But of course! I agree with him "Hitchcock's" name is very recognizable even today.

Dcd ;-D

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