Week 45: ‘North By Northwest’ – 1959

Following on from a stone cold classic, Hitchcock pulls out another one – the lighter innocent-man-on-the-run cross country caper ‘North By Northwest’. Pulling Cary Grant out of semi retirement, the director casts him in the smooth and debonair role of Roger O. Thornhill (his monogram: ROT – ‘What does the ‘O’ stand for?’ ‘Nothing’) – a mature bachelor gad about town who finds himself the victim of mistaken identity after a murder is committed. Soon he finds himself on a criss crossing country escapade as he is repeatedly mistaken for one George Kaplan – an identity that it then transpires does not exist and is an invention of the government, who are pretty mystified themselves as to who this guy is who seemingly has become their non existent agent.

Saul Bass’s titles are cool – flying up and down on the exterior windows of the United Nations buildings like lifts.

The pace of the picture is set from the start  with Bernard Herrmann’s racey theme, the office workers bustling in and around their workplace. A lovely dolly shot introduces Roger and his secretary as they pass through the business lobby with many peeps passing them by – it’s as elegant as Roger’s fantastic grey suit (if you had to nominate which of his pictures Cary Grant was smoothest in, you’d be spoiled for choice, but NXNW is right up there*). In the beautifully constructed opening bar scene (where Roger is first absconded) it’s curious that one of the guys drinking martinis seems to permanently be holding his ear – is he deaf or just distracted by the constant calling for George Kaplan?

Along the way to clearing his name, Roger encounters some bad old sorts in the shape of the sinister  ‘Lester Townsend’ (James Mason, giving Grant a run for his suave money as the actually named Vandamm) and the repressed homosexual Leonard (the now venerable Martin Landau in an early role). The whole scene in Townsend’s library sets the picture up fantastically, Roger repeatedly reiterating his innocence and the pair of them ignoring his protestations. The pair of villains try to bump off Thornhill/Kaplan by plying him with a tsunami of whiskey – pouring the stuff down his throat and then setting him off to drive off on some treacherous mountain roads.

The scene is handled very well – good rear projection and great editing (in fact the rear projection in the film is of a high standard, not nearly as jarring as TMWKTM). Grant’s gurning face is pretty funny also as he desperately tries to keep control of his vehicle.

His drunk act at the cop shop is good also and is a good summary of the tone of the film, light and humorous whilst having a dark and deadly underbelly.

The scenes in the United Nations building are interesting – when Roger comes into the lobby it looks like a matte shot, but a really good one – he walking through in a long shot with the vast architecture of the building above him.

Great cut to when he then approaches the reception desk, completely seamless. As with previous features, Robert Burks’ photography is something to behold – you could watch this movie silent and get loads of enjoyment from it. The ensuing set piece murder of the real Lester Townsend…wow! You have this funny situation where Roger has to actually be George Kaplan in order to get hold of Townsend and it turns out the latter is a totally different guy – mistaken/false identities galore. A deft thrown knife takes out Townsend and it’s run, Roger, run. Hitchcock loves a high shot and there’s the best one ever as Roger legs it from the building – a trick shot waaaaay up high as his tiny figure dashes for sanctuary, the enormous perspective looming building in the right foreground. This is beyond bravura, this is pure Hitchcockian classic cinema.

A nice little role from Hitchcock regular Leo G. Carroll as the boss at the government agency (known simply as The Professor)– not seen since ‘Strangers on a Train’. The authorities are pretty pleased with the predicament that Roger is in, deciding to do nothing rather than help the hapless innocent. ‘Goodbye Mr. Thornhill, wherever you are’ they say wryly.

Profile shots abound as Roger ‘bumps’ into Eve Kendall (the very beautiful Eva Marie Saint), as does a whole bundle of innuendo – cigarettes being lit/matches being blown out/trains powering along and some lovely flirty dialogue. Of course, the beyond innuendo end shot train-into-tunnel tops it all – the audacity to think of an idea like this and then go for it is only to be admired. Eve and Roger make a stupidly attractive couple – both immaculate, stylish and with a similar light attitude to life – then betrayed by Eve’s loyalties to Vandamm and her duplicitous (or triplicitous?) role (a great look from her over his shoulder as they hug gives her away to us viewers). The elongated kissing scene between them is slightly odd – Grant obviously directed to hold his hands behind her head in a very hands off manner as if he doesn’t want to muss her hair, it looks very strange onscreen and seems like he’s holding back all the time.

His inspection of her toiletries is cute also – he pleasantly mystified at her tiny shaving brush and razor.

Later, having evaded the cops at the station by disguising himself as a station red cap (porter) in an amusing scene where they start grabbing all the guys in red caps, Roger has to shave with this minute piece of kit. He stands next to a big guy with a cut throat piece and the two give some good quizzical looks – Roger unable to resist carving a Hitler moustache in his shaving foam. Perfect disguise also as he is lathered up when the police come in.

The set piece out in the middle of nowhere is justly praised and celebrated, the director depositing Roger on a pretty deserted road with no cover and having him attacked by aeroplane gunfire. ‘That plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops’ says a bystander and the scene accelerates in danger and threat as the plane swoops in and blasts away at the hapless Roger. It’s a scene that’s been watched to death and is very good – although I don’t quite buy that a pilot/assassin would manage to not avoid a big old gasoline lorry parked on the road and conveniently fly straight into it.

An auction scene – always entertaining (see the lovely one in ‘The Skin Game’). Here, there’s a fantastic one, ripe with tension as Roger realizes Eve is in cahoots with Vandamm and Leonard, the strong arm guy ready to attack – what does he do? He derails the proceedings by floating out random and ridiculous bids and get himself hauled out by the cops. The whole thing observed by the benevolent eyes of The Professor who will then step in to clear Roger’s name. It’s a great scene – dark and dangerous and threatening whilst simultaneously being light, silly and perfectly played. In a movie with astonishing set pieces, this one is not as famed as the crop dusting or Mount Rushmore climax – but just as clever and well handled. Grant is second to none at this kind of play acting comedy – what a wonderful actor he is.

‘FBI, CIA – we’re all in the same alphabet soup’ – says The Prof. as he escorts Roger to a private plane, the two of them clearly against rear projection (but looking good) and perambulating on a treadmill of some variety. Playing with sound has always been a Hitchcock habit and here he has a plane start up to mask their dialogue as Prof. explains all. Very neat. What is revealed is that Eve is actually an agent of the government and thus Roger agrees to the plan that is proposed. A good big close up of Grant gives way to the first shot of Mount Rushmore, equating the star’s iconic face with the venerable stone Presidents. As usual, there’s an interesting mixture of rear projection and location shots in the Rushmore sequences.

It’s a bit odd that when Roger is ‘shot’ by Eve and pronounced dead by The Professor, he’s taken to the ambulance without his face covered – I would have thought it de rigeur to cover the deceased in this way. Good plan though, Professor. A lovely composition follows as Roger and Eve meet in the (studio built) woods – two cars diagonally parked and the pair of them positioned on the sides of each frame – as far apart as a couple can be**.

A fantastic array of grey suitage proliferates – Roger has the best one, but Vandamm looks pretty good, plus Leonard and The Professor. Even Eve is dressed in a dark shade of grey – is this the point, that the Cold War that is referred to is not black and white but different shades of grey? Regardless, they look cool as heck.

Good punch to camera by a burly ranger to take Roger out also – well done!

Visions of Grant as cat burglar Robie come to mind as he gets himself out of the hospital/prison – finding his way into a young lay’s room – ‘stop!’ she says passionately, seeing the face of the intruder. He then deftly scales the exterior of Vandamm’s elegant Frank Lloyd Wright style home – lucky he had that practice a few years before in ‘To Catch a Thief’. The tension among the crooks rises as Leonard pulls out Eve’s gun and shoots Vandamm – with the blanks that supposedly killed Roger. Vandamm is genuinely anguished whilst Leonard is pretty pleased with getting shot of the woman so he can have his boss to himself.

Another fist smack straight to camera – this time on Leonard, with Vandamm regaining his composure fast. ‘This matter is best disposed of from a great height – over water’, as Hitchcock’s camera elegantly cranes above the two men (an irresistible camera move).

The closing of the picture (high drama atop the perilous Rushmore monument) is justifiably famous – all technically good rear projection footage and day for night shots. What a magnificent structure Rushmore is, by the way – who else but the Americans would see a mountain and decide to blast massive sculptures into it?*** As we have come to expect, after extremes of tension, a pounding Herrmann score, baddies leaping out all over the shop and a final saving of Eve the ending is pretty fast – but great fun. As Roger pulls her up, Hitchcock cuts to her being pulled onto the top bunk on a train, a lovely little idea as she is the new (the third) Mrs. Thornhill. The final train into tunnel shot is cheeky and fun – nothing wrong with that.

‘North By Northwest’ is Hitchcock royale – the absolute peak of storytelling, style, location hopping, set pieces and star driven immaculate entertainment. It lacks the depth of ‘Vertigo’ and the technical challenges of ‘Rear Window’ but is squarely part of this all conquering Technicolor triumvirate. If you haven’t seen it…what the heck are you doing reading this?

Miscellaneous notes

Interesting MGM logo on the front – a black and white Leo on a light green background, tailor made for this – the green matching the colour of the striking main titles.

Hitchcock appears just missing a bus two minutes in – getting his iconic appearance over early so as not to distract later.

*although his grey trousers are a tad high up his tummy for my liking, I suppose the fashion of the day. He does look fantastic.

**it reminded me of the classic shot in ‘West Side Story’ where Maria and Tony face each other at the dance on opposite sides of the widescreen frame. When they show ‘WSS’ pan and scanned they always go to full letterbox for this one shot as it would make no sense otherwise and lose the point.

***I went to Mount Rushmore a few years back and it’s pretty amazing. From about 20 miles away they’ve cleared whole swathes of trees so you can spy the monument as you approach. It’s pretty mind boggling. Lesser known is that a few miles away they’ve been building a similar monument to the great Native American chief Crazy Horse: four times the size of Rushmore! One guy – who has since died – started it about 60 years ago and it’s still going on. Wowee, pretty scary.



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