“Now you listen to me. I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself ‘slightly’ killed.”
For the sake of obtaining some formal film education, I picked up an Intro to Cinema course this semester. I’m already inspired and humbled to be among the presence of some truly talented budding filmmakers and some vastly perceptive cinephiles, and we’ve had some great discussions about evaluating film as an art. One of the greatest perks of said course is a weekly communal film screening, typically a “classic” film meant to enhance our appreciation for film as an art. We kicked off the semester with a film which I have already enjoyed in the past but have recently come to respect even more so as a wonderful piece of cinema. I hinted at a Birdman review a few days ago, but it seems far more convenient to keep up the Hitchcock streak, so today I’ll spill my thoughts on one of the most delightful adventures committed to cinema: North by Northwest.
Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a fast-talking, snarky advertising executive who finds himself on the wrong end of a case of mistaken identity. After being kidnapped, escaping, and then framed for murder, he is chased across the country by foreign spies as he aims to clear his name and uncover the truth behind his situation. It’s an exciting plot that only continues to escalate as constant misfortune and ridiculous circumstance plague Thornhill on his journey. He also meets the beautiful Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a mysterious, charming woman who soon proves pivotal to confronting his situation. As far as story goes, it’s not the most realistic of films, but it never claims to be. The dramatic music and the vibrant dialogue make this a fun, epic adventure that keeps its audience enthralled and invested without ever taking itself too seriously.
The most successful element to this film is undoubtedly its story. While Cary Grant gives his signature alluring performance, the wonderful frenzy that is North by Northwest shows its strength in its dedication to movement. Just as Thornhill moves across the country to escape his enemies and clear his name, the film flows in such a vibrant way that it appears to carry an energy of its own. Every scene takes place somewhere new and exciting, escalating the conflict to new heights both visually and in terms of the narrative until we reach a powerfully climactic conclusion. You also get a wonderful look at nearly every mode of transportation one could take in 1959 including the automobile, the train, and the airplane. Every scene in the film, such as the famous crop duster scene, fill the screen with an energy that signifies we’re literally and cinematically racing towards a conclusion where this whole ordeal will hopefully find its peace.
While the movie is a bit of a foray into a more digestible subject matter for Hitchcock, he undoubtedly brings his artistic prowess to every scene. Even for a movie that I would consider an adventure film, elements of both surprise and suspense permeate the action of the story in true Hitchcock fashion. Moments such as the knife in the back at the United Nations or Cary Grant famously dodging the crop duster are filmed with such intensity, such passion, that we only become more deeply invested in the story. And what a zany story it is. For all the information that is dropped in the film, and the constant shifts and turns of plot, Hitchcock is able to tell a perfectly clear story without missing a beat. His textbook approach to visual focus and engaging detail helps this potentially confusing story to feel like one of the smoothest movies of its kind. This is an ambitious script, and few but Hitchcock could bring out such a captivating film in 1959.
While we’re on the subject of Hitchcock, The 1001 List certainly has an affinity for him. By my crude calculations, he appears to be the most represented filmmaker on the list with a whopping 16 films. Of the three films I’ve touched on so far (Rope and Blackmail being the others), North by Northwest is probably his most refined work. It’s one of his polished epics, often hailed along with Psycho and Vertigo as some of his strongest work, and for good reason. It’s suspenseful, surprising, sharply written, endlessly dramatic, charmingly performed, and it boasts a playful story with a smile on its face. However, and maybe I’m just more inclined to the offbeat, but I’d still rather watch Rope if given the two choices. It’s a tighter, more interesting film, and it’s more of a darker, delicious joy to digest. By no means do I think North by Northwest isn’t a tremendous film, and for the fun adventure that it is, it accomplishes far more than a lot of Hitchcock’s other work is able to manage. However, for a director that’s known for far darker subject matter and a far more suspenseful approach to storytelling, this might just be a film that feels out of place given the context, no matter how well executed it is.
Let it be known that North by Northwest is unquestionably a fun movie. In its simplest form, the story is extravagant, well-paced, and led by one of the most likable actors of the time: a recipe for a great piece of film. Coupled with one of the greatest directors of the time (and perhaps of all time), it’s become an iconic piece of cinema. I’d say this is primarily due to the excitement that the story and visuals elicit, and also due to the epic scale of the project itself. It may not be the most interesting film Hitchcock has made, and I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite, but it very well could be the funnest.
Films Left to Watch: 920