Written by Musgo del Jefe
Musgo here again with his proverbial hat in his hand. Recently I attempted to put down a review for the Anniversary release of The Wizard Of Oz, one of my favorite films of all-time. Today, I’m faced with the 50th Anniversary of North by Northwest. It’s easily one of the top five films from my favorite director of all-time. Director Alfred Hitchcock’s films litter my Top 100 like signposts marking the way. Like The Wizard Of Oz, I’m challenged to say something about a film that others have written complete books and thesis over, and I have to review two-disc set that builds upon previous releases of the film.
North by Northwest came rather late to me in my Hitchcock journey. I started on this path with Psycho, Vertigo, and Rear Window during my high school years in the mid-'80s. It was a few years later that I first caught North by Northwest. In a year span, I saw it for the first time on the huge screen of the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, watched in on VHS, and then studied it in-depth in a Hitchcock class I took that summer.
It’s amazing to watch the title sequence of the film today and think that this is considered the first use of moving type in titles. The Saul Bass opening sequence is memorable and feels like the technique must have been around for years. Even on a smaller screen, the kinetic movement of the type and the staccato score by Bernard Herrmann hint at the restlessness that will follow the viewer throughout the film.
The film was released in 1959 through MGM, and it sits squarely between Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960). These three films form an apex that the remaining six films of his career just wouldn’t reach. As the middle of those three, it’s interesting that North by Northwest (despite being a direction slightly off-center) serves as a culmination of many of Hitchcock’s common themes dating back to the 1930s with The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes.
This film marks the fourth and last time that Hitchcock would work with Cary Grant as his “every man”. On the Special Features disc, there is a new documentary entitled Cary Grant: A Class Apart that gives an in-depth career profile of the actor. Comparing his work with Hitchcock against Jimmy Stewart’s is an interesting contrast. Cary and Jimmy are used in similar fashion to represent the “common man”. But Cary is a much classier version. In North by Northwest he is a Manhattan adman that must navigate through an adventure that covers many states and famous attractions. Jimmy Stewart was often a simpler man who dealt with the stress of being trapped and not able to maneuver through society. In Rear Window and Rope he doesn’t leave a single room in either film.
The plot of the film is relatively thin in depth but it’s long on action. The movie wastes no time introducing the viewer to Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) (the “O” stands for nothing) an ad exec who is mistaken for a Mr. George Kaplan and is kidnapped and questioned by some nefarious fellows. Since he cannot give them the information they think he has, the bad guys attempt to stage an accident to kill Thornhill. The failure of this act sets in motion the remaining two hours of the film. It puts the police after Thornhill and puts Thornhill on the trail of the people who did this to him. Along the way, he is thrown into a situation where it appears to the public that he has committed a murder, upping the stakes even more.
While fleeing from New York to Chicago on a train, Thornhill meets the beautiful Eve Kendall (the gorgeous Eva Marie Saint). Her ability to balance the ambiguity of her character strikes me as one of the brilliances of Hitchcock’s casting. If she is played any other way, the plot would ultimately start to fall apart at this point in the film. But while she is guiding Grant’s character along, we, as viewers, are now squarely invested in our hero and see something that he doesn’t in her. Or we think we do.
At this point, Hitchcock rightly starts to speed the events forward as if we are rushing towards a conclusion. The story that started in New York City and rushed towards Chicago rushes headlong into the countryside of Illinois. This iconic scene is just the twist that the film needs when the viewer feels like they are becoming accustomed to the pace of the film. All of a sudden, we’re in the middle of nowhere, in the open and surrounded by corn and quiet. It’s disconcerting. Even more so than it would be normally. I realized that few directors today play with pacing as much as Hitchcock. There is a tenseness in the distant sound of the crop duster that you can’t pull off if we hadn’t just come off the confining, loud train.
This journey North and Westward across America is detailed in the great documentary Destination Hitchcock left over from a 2000 DVD release. This extended making-of includes many interesting sidebars of thrown out ideas for the plot including ending in Alaska – a true North by Northwest journey.
The ending at Mount Rushmore is still fun and unexpected. The chase has a true James Bond feel to it with the ability to use recognizable locations to add legitimacy to the plot. The iconic nature of the location makes this truly an American film and adds “historical importance” to the espionage of the plot. I don’t get the same feeling at the end of Saboteur on the Statue Of Liberty.
Watching from the perspective of 50 years, the film is only dated in the Cold War undertones of the main plot. But the humor and arc of the story are still fresh and don’t feel as derivative as so many similar movies today. Few directors know how to control the pace of their films – much like a roller coaster, the viewer should feel pushed and pulled by unseen forces – unable to control what is happening, only being in control of one’s reactions.
The 50th Anniversary release looks amazing. It is the only MGM film for Hitchcock and one of their few Vistavision releases. In addition to the previously mentioned Special Features, there is a commentary with the screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a new documentary entitled The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style. This documentary provides some fresh perspective on the film from current directors including Guillermo Del Toro. There’s another new documentary entitled North by Northwest: One For The Ages that takes a look at the important innovations in the production of the film and its influences.
While many studios are cutting back on their restoration of classic films, Warner Bros. are to be commended on this release and The Wizard Of Oz release. These films are important works that still have impact on the works we see onscreen today.
North by Northwest is so much a culmination of themes and ideas of Hitchcock’s previous films but it goes beyond just being a jumble of scenes. It’s a blueprint that takes lessons learned in previous films and shows us how to use the film medium to tell a compelling story. And it’s quite a ride. It was for young Musgo sitting in the Michigan Theater in 1986 and it is today for old Musgo sitting in front of his computer.