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.
09 February 2009
d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 131 mins.