To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its release, Warner Home Video recently released a two-disc DVD of the Alfred Hitchcock classic North by Northwest. I have just concluded several hours of watching the film (for the umpteenth time) and the many extras (apparently the previous DVD release was fouled up with a flaw in the last act–the Amazon reviews are a litany of complaints about it, but a flaw in the Amazon review system doesn’t differentiate between releases).
Following the box-office disappointment of Vertigo, Hitchcock teamed with screenwriter Ernest Lehman to adapt the book The Wreck of the Mary Deare. Lehman couldn’t do anything with the book, and told Hitchcock so, but the director liked the writer enough to suggest they just scrap that idea, not tell MGM about it, and do something else. Hitchcock had always wanted to make a film that had a chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore (a possible title for the film was “The Man in Lincoln’s Nose”) and that’s where they started. Hitchcock would never make Mary Deare.
The film was a hit, and has grown in time to be acclaimed as one of the greatest Hitchcock made. It is certainly his most entertaining, and in many ways is the ultimate Hitchcock film, incorporating all of the elements that he is known for in one package: the wrong man (as well as the man who’s entire world is upended), the domineering mother, the icy blonde, the spectacular set piece, the McGuffin, and mischievous humor. It is also something of a valentine from Hitchcock to his adopted country, as the film’s motion, described in its title, from New York to Chicago to the frontier of South Dakota, is essentially American.
The film begins with the double wallop of an exquisite Saul Bass title design and a swirling Bernard Hermann score. The design shows diagonal lines which eventually morph into the buildings of Madison Avenue, but over the course of the film the carefully calibrated geometry will be undone, as the life of cosmopolitan man-about-town Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) will fray until he is hiding in an Indiana cornfield and hanging for his life off of Mount Rushmore. Through a case of mistaken identity, international spies take him for a federal agent, and he is thrust into something out of Lewis Carroll, where he meets a suave villain (James Mason), then a sexy but mysterious blonde (Eva Marie Saint) and his chased across the country.
Hitchcock does some amazing things in this film, perhaps none so bold as the iconic crop-duster scene, where Grant is left standing in a wide open space for about six minutes, an incredible amount of time for nothing to happen in a mainstream Hollywood film. First one car goes by, then another, as Grant waits hopefully to meet the man who we know doesn’t exist–George Kaplan. Finally another man appears, and Hitchcock frames the two men in a wide shot without a bit of sound, a scene abundant in both suspense and absurdity. Then, finally, the plane attacks, and we react as Grant does–this can’t be happening!
This scene, one of the most famous in Hitchcock’s career if not in cinema history, is indicative of how North by Northwest works–it is a series of preposterous plot advancements that glide past the audience because of how skillfully the direction is. Let’s face it–sending a man into a cornfield to be assassinated by a crop-duster is not exactly efficient (as is being loaded drunk into a sports car hoping for a fatal accident). Mason’s international spy ring could take some lessons from the mob, who believed in a simple two shots to the head. (Additionally, there are some lapses in geography: Long Island has no rocky cliffs, and no one, not even a dapper spy, lives on top of Mount Rushmore).
Aside from the crop-duster scene, there are others that bear scrutiny. The scene in which Grant approaches Mason at the art auction scene is an example of both disrupted expectations and the recurring theme of the orderly world turned anarchic. When Grant stalks across the room, bitter at being double-crossed by Saint, the audience could expect that Mason and his stooge, Martin Landau, would strike back. But because they are in a citadel of sophistication, their stand-off is done in hushed tones and sober politeness. Then, to escape their clutches, Grant realizes he must be escorted out by police, and sets about disrupting the proceedings until they are called. He does by breaking the rules of the auction, bidding below the established bid, or by absurdly low figures. It is again a touch of Lewis Carroll, unusual for a film that is meticulous in construction.
North by Northwest has been called by some the first James Bond film, in that it anticipated the template for those films with a multitude of iconic locations and pulse-pounding derring-do. But in reality it only captures the essence of Bond in the final act, because up until that time Grant’s Thornhill character is a passive hero, acted upon. It is only after he is informed that his behavior has endangered the life of Saint does he choose to be proactive, even breaking free of the government handler and going to the villain’s lair at the end of the picture.
A few tidbits: Hitchcock loved to use iconic locations and landmarks–he used the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur, and along with Mount Rushmore he sets a scene at the United Nations (where he was banned from filming, but surreptitiously shot an establishing scene from a camera hid in a carpet-cleaning truck). The suit that Grant wears through almost the whole film was voted by GQ magazine as the greatest in film history, though there is a dispute over who made it. There is also a funny mistake in the Mount Rushmore cafeteria scene, just before Saint shoots Grant. A boy, who obviously had been through a lot of takes, can be seen putting his fingers in his ears before the gun goes off.
Speaking of humor, it is a major reason why North by Northwest is so enduring. At one point a government operative, after learning of Thornhill’s predicament, says, “If this weren’t so sad it would be funny,” which is a nice summation of Hitchcock’s style. In so many of his films there are grim circumstances, but one can’t help but be amused. Grant, careening along the highway, an entire bottle of bourbon in him, sings from My Fair Lady (a part he would eventually turn down), he sneaks into a woman’s hospital room, and she is ready to scream, until she puts her glasses on and then asks him to stay, and of course the final shot, the vulgar joke of a train hurtling into a tunnel while Grant and Saint settle into their honeymoon bed. It is hard to imagine any other director besides Alfred Hitchcock getting away with something like that.