Friday, March 28, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: North By Northwest (1959)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint
It’s one of the most iconic images in film: Cary Grant running for his life as a crop duster bears down on him. But seeing this scene is only one of the many reasons to see this wonderful, thrilling film. Like many Hitchcock movies, it is pure escapism at first glance and something deeper and darker on subsequent viewings. It’s a story lodged deep inside the paranoid Cold War era where there's governmental conspiracy around every corner and identity is nothing if not unstable.
Cary Grant is Roger O. Thornhill (the “O” stands for nothing, he says). A case of mistaken identity begins a chase which has him running for his life from both the police and the agents of a mysterious organization. The police are looking for Thornhill, the organization, led by Phillip Vandamm (George Mason), is looking for George Kaplan, a government agent whom they believe Thornhill to be. What no one knows is that there is no George Kaplan. He’s a figure made-up by the American government in an effort to trap Vandamm. This fact doesn’t save Thornhill, however, as the government is willing to let him meet his inevitable end at the hands of Vandamm in order to protect their operation and their real agent. It isn’t until they realize that Thornhill isn’t going to die easily that they decide to step in and help him and, doing so, reveal that Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), Vandamm’s girlfriend who appears at alternate points to be with and against Thornhill, is a double agent. No one is who they appear to be, or who people think they are, in this film and the story centers largely on the idea of identity as performance. The person who is best at playing his or herself will ultimately emerge victorious. “The only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead,” Thornhill declares early in the film, foreshadowing a scene towards the end when Thornhill/Kaplan does act out a death scene for Vandamm’s benefit.
There’s a lot to love about this movie, not least of which is Cary Grant. Often accused of simply playing himself, he is on closer inspection one of the most versatile and underrated actors ever to grace the screen. Few other actors are so at home in comedy – where he played both the straight man and the funny man – and drama, and few actors can so effectively mix the two in one role. There’s a lot of drama attached to this role, but some wonderful comedy, as well. Watch the auction house scene as Thornhill makes a fool of himself to cause a distraction which will allow him to escape. In the hands of another actor, this scene might seem out of place, a misstep in an otherwise finely etched film; but in the hands of Cary Grant, it works.
North By Northwest is a showcase for many of Hitchcock’s favourite tricks. You have the MacGuffin, in this case microfilm that everyone wants for reasons that aren’t exactly clear and don’t really matter. You’ve got the “wrong man” trope that plays in many of Hitchcock’s films, the latent sexual undertones (here supplied by Vandamm and his henchman Leonard, played by Martin Landau) and sexual suggestiveness (the film’s final shot must be commended for hilarious lack of subtlety). You’ve also got suspense in the way that only Hitchcock could do it. Take the crop duster scene, for example. Laying aside the fact that most people wouldn’t think to have their hero terrorized by a crop duster, look at the way it’s set up. Thornhill isn’t immediately attacked by the duster; the build-up is slow. He gets off a bus in the middle of nowhere. Across the road is another man, perhaps the man he’s meant to meet. In the background, the crop duster is flying over the fields. Thornhill approaches the other man and finds out that he’s not the person he’s supposed to meet. The man remarks that it’s funny that the duster is out, seeing as there are no crops to dust, and then gets on his bus. The bus leaves and the duster begins to change its course, heading now towards Thornhill. The rest is history. If for no other reason, Hitchcock was a masterful director because he was so patient. He didn’t just throw things at you; he put as much effort into the set-up as the pay-off, which of course only makes the pay-off even sweeter.
North By Northwest isn’t the best film that Alfred Hitchcock ever made (for me that honour goes to Rear Window, though compelling arguments can and have been made for Vertigo, Psycho, Notorious… as a matter of fact, you could probably compile a Top 10 list of Hitchcock’s films without including North By Northwest and still end up with a list that’s hard to argue with), but it’s one of his most entertaining. You can’t go wrong with this film; it’s got a little bit of everything, and all of it done to perfection.