Friday, June 4, 2010

North By Northwest

Year: 1959
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 55
Writer: Ernest Lehman
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Star: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason

It’s six decades later, and I think it’s safe to say that every frame of “North By Northwest” has been analyzed, re-analyzed and conjectured about at length. Character motivations have been questioned, explained and then re-questioned. The critical community has bent over backward to praise the movie time and again.

Somewhere, Hitchcock, Lehman and the main cast are laughing their asses off.

If there was ever a masterpiece that was better left unanalyzed, it is this film. I’ve purposely avoided talking about rank, awards, background and critical response in these essays because I feel like a classic film needs to stand on its own away from all of the hoopla surrounding it, but here it is almost unavoidable. The film easily earns its place on AFI’s top 100 list, but look at the other lists it’s on. “North By Northwest” is ranked as the seventh greatest film mystery and the fourth greatest thriller on separate AFI rankings, and you just have to chuckle about how, all these years later, the creative team is still managing to pull the wool over all these voters’ eyes.

That’s because “North By Northwest” is not a mystery or a thriller. Sure, it contains elements of both genres, but come on! As a mystery, it does not work for an instant. Of all of Hitchcock’s MacGuffins, it is the most nonexistent. Cary Grant, as Roger Thornhill, chases a nonexistent human being (we learn this very early) across America. Sure, some microfilm comes into play in the final reel, but it can’t be defined as the driving force of the film. And thrills? Puh-lease. Does any viewer of the movie believe for a second that Grant or Eva Marie Saint will take a tumble over the edge of Mount Rushmore? Lehman doesn’t even bother to give us a scene of villain James Mason being captured. Speaking of Mason, while he has played a superb villain in other films (his performance in “The Verdict” is one of the best in all film), he’s about as imposing or terrifying as a pack of twenty puppies. Even the poster at left undermines the dramatic image with the line “Cary Grant is not running just for the exercise!”

I realize that it sounds like I’m being critical of the picture, but I am not. On the contrary, I’d rank “North By Northwest” behind only “Rear Window” and “Strangers On a Train” were I to list my favorite Hitchcock films. Yes, all Hitchcock movies have major comedic undertones, but here it overtakes everything else in the picture. The only way it really works is as a featherweight comedy, and if you look at the film in that regard, it is one of the very best comedies of all time.

What the simple film boils down to is three hugely charismatic actors and some fantastic supporting players running from great set-piece to great set-piece. This formula is still used regularly in every tent pole actioner or thriller, though Hollywood has long forgotten the irony Lehman infused into his screenplay.

This film and “Charade” feature Grant at the peak of his charm and likeability, armed with some of the wittiest exchanges of his career. After being forcibly inebriated by the villains of the piece, Grant calls his Mother and says “These two men, they poured a whole bottle of bourbon into me. No, they didn't give me a chaser.” Though Saint’s performance is well-done, she does not enter to pantheon of classic Hitchcock blondes, though I wonder if it is because of her performance or because she is so overtly sexual with Grant from their first meeting that it undermines her immanent likeability. Mason is at his oily best throughout the film. Hell, even after his girl betrays him and he is captured by the police he still manages to get one last quip in: “That wasn’t very sporting, using real bullets.”

Though the characters have names, are they really “characters”? Grant is just about as typical a Hitchcock hero as you can have, though he is given ten or twenty more funny lines than normal. Saint might has well be called “Blonde Bombshell” and Mason reminds us somewhat of all the charismatic villains in the Hitchcock canon. Because their characters are so familiar to us, Lehman and Hitchcock happily spend less time explaining and more time wowing. Has a writing/directing team ever used the expectations that we, as fans of the type of movie we are about to see, had walking into a theatre, to a fuller and more glorious effect?

Even moreso than “Frenzy,” “North By Northwest” might be the most overtly sexual film in Hitchcock’s canon, though all of it is implied. Of course there is the famous train-entering-tunnel final shot, but the double entendres made between Grant and Saint surely were enough to make any censor sweat profusely. It’s well done innuendo as well—just enough to spark the imagination.

Then, of course, we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to set-pieces. Man vs. Plane! Man vs. Blank Bullet! Drunk Man vs. Vehicle! Man vs. Lincoln’s Nose! Revisiting the film today, it is surprising to see just how well the special effects of the climactic race across Mount Rushmore still hold up today. I can only remember one shot where a matte painting was obvious, and the camera seems as free to move and capture new angles in those moments as it does in any other scene in the movie.

I wonder what would have happened if another director would have played this material straight instead of winking at the audience all the way through. In this dark era of films so intent on keeping a straight face no matter the circumstances, it’s nice to remember a time when it wasn’t just okay to laugh at the preposterousness of your circumstances, but to embrace it wholeheartedly. Do you hear me, Jason Bourne?

My Score (out of 5): *****

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