When Rich at Past Offenses chooses a particularly challenging year for his monthly “Crimes of the Century” invitational – where bloggers from all over send in posts of great mysteries of the time – I am grateful that he includes films as well as books. This is particularly true when we’re dealing with the late 50’s through the early 60’s when the output of some of my favorite authors became more sporadic. There are wonderful films noir during the 50’s, and crime films, both bad and good, from the 60’s to explore.
And there’s always Hitchcock. The 1950’s was the director’s best decade, bar none! Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo,– the list goes on! And 1959, the year that blogger Bernadette chose for Rich’s blog this month, is no exception. That was the year that Hitchcock made what the film’s screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, called “the ultimate Hitchcock film”: North by Northwest.
The most amazing thing about NbyNW is that, as fresh and fun as it is, it’s made almost completely from recycled parts. It takes one of the filmmaker’s standard motifs of the innocent man on the run – one we’ve seen in The Lodger, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Young and Innocent, Saboteur, and most recently in The Wrong Man and To Catch a Thief – and whips it into a frenzy. After the darkness of the previous year’s Vertigo, Hitchcock wanted to keep it light, so in addition to some classic set pieces and plenty of the requisite suspense, the director has crafted one of his few genuinely funny movies. Both Hitchcock and Lehman would later decry those who tried to find any real significance in the film, so I won’t go there. What I will do is demonstrate how, in its use of ideas, characters and imagery, NbyNW is the epitome of a Hitchcock film.
The credits begin with one of longtime Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrman’s most thrilling scores, as geometric lines fold and unfold across the screen. Hitchcock was all about the journey, not the destination. The title North by Northwest is a puzzle: there are no actual coordinates of that name, so the idea is that we are about to embark on a journey into a strange land, one that begins on, of all places, Madison Avenue. Listen to the title soundtrack here and marvel at how director and composer collaborate to set an exciting tone from the moment the film begins.
As the film’s hero, Roger Thornhill, Hitchcock cast Cary Grant in the last of his four appearances for the Master of Suspense. (Only James Stewart starred in more films – five.) While with Stewart, Hitchcock liked to raise the tension by playing him against type, adding moral ambiguity to America’s favorite Everyman, Hitchcock tailored Grant’s roles to fit his screen persona as the dapper, elegant hero. Still, the director also recognized a darkness in Grant, perhaps stemming from his troubled childhood, and he played up this element in two films: 1941’s flawed Suspicion and the marvelous Notorious (1946). But in the 1950’s, Grant plays the dapper dan, (albeit one with a record, in 1955’s To Catch a Thief.) By NbyNW, Grant was perhaps Hitchcock’s favorite actor to work with, and they decided to have a little fun with his image.
Roger is an advertising executive and something of a ladies’ man. However, he is also a true mama’s boy, a state of being that Hitchcock held in low regard. Men, he believed, must leave their mothers and marry, just as a young Hitchcock had left his cold mother and married Alma Reville, his life partner for 54 years. The scenes between Roger and his mother, played by the marvelous Jessie Royce Landis, are the funniest in the film, but it is clear that Roger starts the proceedings in a severe state of arrested development. Something must be done!
The impetus for change begins at a business luncheon where Roger leaves his client to phone – of course – his mother and is mistaken by two strange men for a person named George Kaplan. The men grab Roger, pull guns on him, and usher him into a taxi, where he is whisked to a Long Island estate into the presence of an enemy agent named Philip Vandamm, played with great suavity by James Mason. It is no accident that Grant and Mason give off a similar vibe. Hitchcock often created hero and villain as physical and/or psychological reflections of each other. In a delectable sequence, Vandamm demands information from a befuddled Roger, thinking he is Kaplan who, it turns out, seems to be a spy for our side. When Roger can’t supply the information he seeks, Vandamm sends our hero to his doom by pouring a bottle of bourbon down his throat and sending him careening in his car down a winding cliffside road. Grant plays the perilous drive for laughs, but at the end of it all you know – he’s in trouble.
Dropped from one life-threatening situation to another, Roger always seems to hop right out of the frying pan and – you guessed it – into an even worse fire. Ultimately, Roger finds himself, like so many Hitchcock heroes before him, on the run from the police for a murder (committed at, of all places, the United Nations) and other assorted crimes. He’s also being chased by Vandamm and his associates, who need that information they are so sure he has. And he’s being sought by the U.S. Feds, who have a compelling reason to make sure that Roger stays on the run as George Kaplan.
Roger lands on a train – Hitch’s favorite transport – and meets the requisite beautiful blonde. Eve Kendall is played by Eva Marie Saint in a role that is a far cry from her breakout five years earlier in On the Waterfront. The blondes found in Hitchcock’s early films were all a little prim and harder for a hero on the run to thaw. The later blondes like Saint and my favorite, Grace Kelly, had a sexual fire smoldering under all that elegance. The other factor about Eve is that we’re not quite sure whose side she’s playing on. She offers to help Roger find Kaplan, but something goes awry and Roger finds himself both literally and figuratively at a crossroads in the center of the country fighting for his life in what is perhaps the most iconic scene in all of Hitchcock. Watch it right here.
The crop duster sequence demonstrates the director’s mastery with the camera and his ability to manipulate what we see and feel. Much of it was filmed on location, with Southern California substituting for northern Indiana, but a great deal was shot in the studio, Hitchcock’s preferred location for filming. It’s fun trying to pick out what was shot where, It’s also fun to watch Cary Grant, decked out in his finest suit, become inundated with dust and dirt. Most significantly, this sequence shows the master at work, as Hitchcock delivers a lengthy sequence that scares the pants off us with no music and almost no words. Hitchcock didn’t need those typical aids to deliver suspense.
How does one top such a scene? Well, you design a house in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright for your villains and perch it at the edge of Mount Rushmore. Hitchcock loved to put his stars in danger at famous monuments. This leads to a fabulous climactic chase as Roger and Eve get up close and personal with the giant busts of the four presidents. (One of the originally considered titles for the film was The Man in Lincoln’s Nose. Hitchcock wanted Grant to hide in the nostril and then get caught by sneezing!) The film ends with one of the greatest phallic symbols ever shot, showing that Hitchcock could work his way around the censors when he set his mind to it. That skill would serve him well in his very next film – 1960’s Psycho.
North by Northwest is not my favorite Hitchcock film – that would be 1954’s Rear Window – but it made for a fabulous exit from a decade that would raise the bar of Hitchcock’s worldwide success and make him perhaps the most well-known director of all time. It is the antithesis of Vertigo, arguably Hitchcock’s masterpiece; at 138 minutes, NbyNW is a bit long, but it’s light, frothy and sophisticated. The suspense is real, but the happy ending is never in doubt. It’s a detour from the moral ambiguity the director had explored earlier in the decade, a darker course he would return to throughout the 60’s. So let North by Northwest stand as the ultimate “good time” from the Master of Suspense.