Thursday, July 23, 2015

North by Northwest

From 1000 Frames of North by Northwest, Frame 549
Hitchcock’s 1959 film North by Northwest is an exercise in style—visually and musically. The cinematography by Robert Burks emphasizes (at key moments) starkly dramatic shots from unusual angles and perspectives. One such shot comes near the end of the United Nations scene, when the main character Roger Thornhill flees from a murder.  Another is at the beginning of the famous scene in the middle of the American prairie when Thornhill disembarks from a bus on a deserted highway, prepared to meet a mysterious George Kaplan, only to be menaced by a crop-duster with machine guns.   This beautiful, bleak scene is shot from a great distance, looking down at the small bus and the figure who emerges from it.  The most famous scene of all, cinematographically, is the chase across the faces of the American presidents atop Mt. Rushmore.

Another stylistic element is the music by Bernard Herrmann, one of the great 20th century American film composers, who wrote music for Citizen Kane, Psycho, Vertigo, and The Day the Earth Stood Still (the good 1950 version, not the Keanu Reeve version).  The score for North by Northwest is some of Hermann’s best work, and it brilliantly characterizes and defines the film.  Music, cinematography, set design, and other elements elevate the relative banal screenplay, suggesting that more is at stake here--politically, morally, philosophically--than a mere plot of espionage and mistaken identity.

Cary Grant plays the lead male role of Thornhill, an ad executive whom a foreign spy mistakes for a government agent. Mistaken identity—a plot element we see in a number of Hitchcock films—leads Thornhill into an increasingly tangled and complicated set of Cold War intrigues. Grant’s acting swaggers from superficial businessman to romantic swain to bumbling comedian to adventurous hero.  In my opinion, it is incoherent and inconsistent.  Grant is more convincing as Cary Grant than as Thornhill.  Did he ever play anyone other than himself? In 2006 Gentleman’s Quarterly designated the suit he wears throughout much of this film as “the best suit in film history.”

More consistent, but shallow and rigid, is Eva Marie Saint, who plays Eve Kendall, the complicated and enigmatic female lead.  She had earlier won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in On the Waterfront.  She is of course one of the famous Hitchcock blondes.  When I first saw this film as a teenager, she held my attention. It’s interesting to consider how much she is the victim in this film, or the seductive ingénue, or the woman who takes her own path. The confusion that underlies her character—in how men see her, in how she sees herself--makes her intriguing.  But she’s not a very convincing actor—she carries off her role well enough.

The film features a wonderful supporting cast, including Ed Platt (best known for his role as the Chief in the Get Smart TV series; Leo G. Carroll as the CIA agent “The Professor”; a very creepy young Martin Landau as the evil sidekick Leonard; and Jessie Royce Landis as Clara Thornhill, who plays Roger Thornhill’s mother. James Mason is not bad either as the villain Vandamm.

Exactly why are there so many people in this film with British accents—Grant, Mason, Carroll?

The film ranks number forty on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time.

There is also the famous scene involving a train and a tunnel.

No comments: