Now here is a movie I have been looking forward to see for a long time. I did see it once many many years ago and my memory of it was so faint that I felt I could enjoy it as a first viewing this time round. But this is not a movie you can be ignorant about. “North by Northwest” is one of the most referenced movies around and you cannot blog about movies for long before encountering the “yeah, it is good, but compared to North by Northwest…”. So, there is that little anxiety that this movie is over-sold.
Well, I need not have worried. “North by Northwest” is exactly as good as its fame and probably better. It is one of those movies I enjoy from start to finish and all the little bits in between. It is one of those movies where all the components work to make it thoroughly enjoyable, even if it is, when you start thinking about it, a bit silly.
If you are reading this blog I would bet a fiver you already know this movie and so there is hardly any need for a summary. You will also know that this is Alfred Hitchcock, and knowing that the frequent reader will know that I am predisposed to the movie.
Alas, this is the classic Hitchcock theme of the wrong man in the wrong place, the mistaken identity theme where the protagonist is way out of his depth. Hitchcock really loved this theme. However where “The Wrong Man” was a dark and serious rendition of that theme and “The Man Who Knew Too Much” placed Mr. Ordinary in the world of spies, “North by Northwest” is a much more fun story. Yeah, there is death and destruction but the tone is much lighter and you can see how much fun Hitch had with this story. It is not a comedy, far too much tension and suspense for that, but Cary Grant as the unfortunate Roger Thornhill cannot help being charming and funny and he is helped by a script that allows him to be witty and amusing. I learned in the extra material that James Stewart were considered for the role, but that would have been an entirely different movie and he would not have hit the notes that makes this movie special. Yet, Grant also needs to be restrained. He is constantly balancing on that edge where he becomes a reprisal of those comedies that made his fame back in the thirties and forties. But a slick and charming yet superficial advertising agent is exactly the role Grant can do.
As in “39 Steps” and “Notorious” the actual crime is not really that interesting. Something about smuggling microfilm out of the country. We do not even know who the villains are working for, but it does not matter. This is all about the chase and the mixed up identities. Vandamm (James Mason) is hunting Thornhill because he thinks he is a government agent onto him, though that agent only exists is a decoy to protect the real agent. Thornhill hunts Vandamm because he is getting deeper and deeper into a mess of drunk driving, car theft and murder and Vandamm is the only one who can provide the answer. Trouble is Vandamm is a professional, Thornhill is an advertising agent. That sounds terribly uneven, especially when Thornhill is also chased by the police. Add to that a knock-out blonde who may not be what she seems to be (Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall) and you have the ingredient for a very exciting, witty and inventive double chase.
This is 1959 and the action may seem a bit lame and slow by today’s standard, but for me it works beautifully. I love when a movie takes its time at the right places, then accelerate when it matters and that is exactly what Hitchcock does. We have eight minutes in a cornfield with absolutely nothing happening and then suddenly a plane explodes out of the sky and knocks Thornhill over, tries to shoot him and finally flies straight into a gasoline truck. Woohaa. That is a master at work.
I revel in the intricacies of the story, of the plots within plots as in the old noirs and the beautiful shots, but the winning stroke is the sheer charm. You cannot watch this and not get happy. It is everywhere, even in the heavies and has a lot to do with brilliant casting. James Mason was always villain numero uno, Eva Marie Saint is cool and not dowdy at all, Martin Landau of course got a great career ahead of him and then of course Cary Grant.
Finally the inevitable question: Is this the best Hitchcock ever? I could say that I do need to watch them all first, but that is just stalling. The truth is that I could not make that decision. There are at least a handful contenders to that title already and it would depend on my mood of the day. Suffice to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with North by Northwest. It could be accused of being a remake of “39 Steps”, but it is so much better so that does not even count as a detraction.