North by Northwest (1959)

*. You have to start somewhere when talking about the classics so why not at the crossroads, with Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) waiting for Godot. A crane shot introduces the slanted grid that’s been with us since the opening credits turned into the glass façade of an office building. A kind of chessboard then, for playing a game.
*. What follows is one of the most famous scenes in film history. And, as David Thomson puts it, “one of the most far-fetched events ever filmed in an alleged drama.” For me it’s a scene — I’m talking about Thornhill being chased by the crop-dusting plane — that represents the best and the worst of Hitchcock. It’s iconic, meticulous, unforgettable. It’s also a very deliberate rude gesture at anyone who cares about story, or what Hitchcock derided as “our friends the plausibilists.”
*. I mean, this is an episode that doesn’t even begin to make sense. Apparently screenwriter Ernest Lehman had thought of it as a way to make killing Thornhill look like an accident, which wasn’t an idea worth entertaining even before the plane started firing its machine guns. Yes, as the fellow waiting for the bus points out, it is odd that there’s a crop duster up there when there are no crops to be dusted. But then there is a lonely stand of corn stalks for Thornhill to run into. The appearance of this corn only further underlines the mystery of the crop duster, since this corn is already due to be harvested. What is a crop duster doing in the fall?
*. But that’s just the way the film operates. Apparently its initial inspiration came from Hitchcock telling Lehman that he’d always wanted to film a chase on Mount Rushmore. There now, get me that. But even while shooting, Lehman, who was making parts of the story up as they went along, had a moment of crisis when he realized he had no idea why the characters would be going to Mount Rushmore.
*. You can play along with all this, saying that Hitchcock somehow “proved” that plausibility didn’t matter in the movies. For me, a card-carrying plausibilist, it’s something I’ve never been able to forgive him. Why? Because of what came after: the way movies turned into circus rides. I don’t praise Hitchcock for this development.
*. Here, for example, is someone who does praise him, John Patterson writing in the Guardian: “When Hollywood went all blockbuster-minded in the 1980s, this was the kind of structure – all thrills, no brains – it came to rate most highly. Sequences in Bond movies and the action movies that came to imitate them – Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Jack Ryan movies and everything since – are as tenuously joined to each other as theme-park rides, separate, intense experiences strung together with the merest soupçon of plot coherence or narrative plausibility, just like North by Northwest‘s famous crop-dusting sequence. A good half of every summer’s blockbusters still adhere to this approach and we’re poorer for it. It’s not Hitchcock’s fault that his imitators are such tools, but it is useful now and then to trace a tiresome phenomenon back to its not-so-tiresome source.”
*. But why is North by Northwest not-so-tiresome? It seems to me that the thrill rides that came after it actually had more brains, and in some cases even better thrills. As many have noted (including Lehman), the immediate inheritor of North by Northwest was the James Bond franchise. Vandammn’s house is a great precursor to the Bond villain’s lair, and the buzzing crop duster would turn into a helicopter in From Russia with Love. But despite upping the ante on the stunts and thrills, Bond made more sense than any of what we get here. There is no story in North by Northwest but just an excuse to have the hero run from one place to another, from one set-piece scenario to the next. Peter Ackroyd: “That is why it seems to leave audiences, after the initial euphoria of a successful entertainment, sometimes uncomfortable and dissatisfied.”

*. On the other side of this debate are those, and they are legion among writers on film, who admit to this emptiness but find in that very quality (the barren crossroads, Thornhill’s null middle initial, the cryptic title) something essential to film. Anthony Lane: “When, a couple of hundred years from now, an alien federation finally pulls in for gas on planet Earth and asks to see one of those things called ‘movies,’ we could do worse than offer it Cary Grant having cocktails on the train, or hanging off a ledge of presidential rock, as an unsurpassed demonstration of what we mean by film — what it’s all about, what it can be made to do, what it is for.” Emphasis in the original.
*. I can’t go along with this. If a ticket on fairground ride were all that movies are about, what they are for, I would have given up on them long ago. To be sure, there’s a time and a place for this kind of filmmaking, and I wouldn’t deny its entertainment value for a moment. But to claim North by Northwest is film in epitome, rather than just the essence of Hitchcock, is going much too far.
*. Of course there’s a lot to like. Bernard Herrmann’s score. The way James Mason says “Games? Must we?” I doubt there’s another actor who could have delivered that line so perfectly. Martin Landau’s icy killer eyes. (A homosexual? According to Lehman “a little hint” of that crept in, to his professed surprise. Landau says it was something he added on his own.) And of course the banter. I don’t think much of Lehman’s script as a story, but the dialogue is fun and surprisingly risky in places. I like how Eve (Eva Marie Saint) says she’s not into the book she’s started. Lehman: “I don’t write dialogue. I write repartee.”
*. Lehman says a couple of things that struck me as odd on the DVD commentary track. In the first place he talks about the amount of research he did, including getting booked for DWI and climbing part of the way down Rushmore. I wondered how this could have possibly made for a better script, since they are both entirely fanciful episodes (and how much of the chase on Mount Rushmore was written anyway?). But he claims this footwork was “absolutely vital to me” and that he “never could have written any of it without doing the research.” Which I think just goes to show that every writer has a different way of working, and takes inspiration in different ways.
*. The other thing Lehman says that I was surprised by comes during the opening scenes in New York. He remarks how little it has changed. It “looks pretty much the same . . . well this is the ’50s, I imagine it’s pretty much the same today.”
*. I found this particularly strange because one of the things that stands out the most for me watching both this movie and Vertigo today is their representation of 1950s America. It seems like I’m watching a series of postcards from the past in their evocation of San Francisco, New York, or various tourist destinations. The sky so blue, the cars so large and shiny. Every vehicle on the street of Manhattan looks like it’s just been polished. Then those hotel lobbies, those clothes, all that mid-century affluence. I can’t think of too many other movies, even of this same period, that have the same glossy quality. It all seems so rich and artificial, a vision of the past that’s still incredibly bright and new. It can’t be nostalgia, for me, but it does remind me of slideshows of my parents’ vacations. Only so much nicer.
*. It’s not a look that’s typical of Hitchcock. It’s really only in a few of his films. But I can’t think of too many other films that have it. This is the 1950s that so many people think they miss.
*. OK, it’s very nicely turned out and put together. And it’s a lark. The talk has actually aged better than many of the action sequences. It’s not a favourite movie of mine, but I like it a lot. I don’t think it’s one of the greatest movies ever made, but it’s iconic and unmissable. It does have a lot to answer for though.

8 thoughts on “North by Northwest (1959)

  1. fragglerocking

    A fair assessment I think. I loved watching Cary Grant back in the day and wasn’t really old enough to worry about wether it had a good plot, I was all about the action even back then!

    Reply
    1. Alex Good

      It’s interesting that Psycho would be next up, which many credit as kicking off the slasher genre. And that Hitch did all this without really intending to.

      Reply

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