Oscars schmoscars

I have always had an ambiguous attitude to the Oscars. The Academy’s track record over the past almost 90 years has not been good. The judgement has too often favoured the big over the great, the shallow over the profound and the mawkish over the moving. Then, in my more generous moments, I have thought that they, at least, provide a carrot for filmmakers to elevate their work over the lowest common denominator level that seems to be the norm for much of Hollywood’s output.

I don’t even want to get into the question of non-English language cinema except to say that how Almodovar’s Talk to Her (Hable con Ella) failed to be nominated for Best Picture, which it most certainly deserved to win, I fail to understand, especially as Almodovar himself won most deservedly for Best Original Screenplay, and it was a year of relative midgets won by Chicago. But there are just too many voters who can’t be bothered to read the subtitles (even in Spanish, which is the second language of California!!).

This is not to say that I am making my remarks primarily on the basis of my own likes and enthusiasms. But one looks for the winners of the past to be the most admired classics of today.  But no, Citizen Kane regarded as inferior to How Green was my Valley, Vertigo wasn’t nominated in any category! No Best Director Oscar for Hitchcock, Welles, Lubitsch, Chaplin… I could go on and on. Nor do less ‘intellectual’ categories fare very well. No best actor for Cary Grant, nor best actress for Marlene Dietrich, or Jean Arthur,  whom James Stewart described as “the best actress I ever worked with.”

Perhaps even worse than this is the way that, over the last decade or so, the marketing departments have gone bananas with carefully crafted ‘Oscar-ready’ productions. Thematic threads abound with Good Things  – tolerance of a host of minorities, battling against injustice, and, bizarrely, the British Royal Family! Then there are the equally obligatory Bad Things to be roundly condemned – slavery, war, social prejudices, as if art is disguised sociology, and this decade’s social obsessions will last as long as Shakespeare’s plays.

But hey, there must be some good things in the Oscars, even for a Grumpy Old Film Critic like me. Well, at least once in the last decade and a half, they made an heroic and great choice – Million Dollar Baby. But, as I pass backwards in time, I can’t understand how they chose Birdman over Boyhood12 Years a Slave to virtually anything and certainly Her and Nebraska,  etc., etc.

And, of course, there are years like 2009 when nothing deserved an Oscar and like 2008 when nearly all those nominated (except, possibly, Michael Clayton), were better than most of the winners in surrounding years.  I well recognise that the Best Picture Oscar is not meant to be a foolproof value judgement for the future, but couldn’t they “get it right” once in three years rather than once in ten, as, approximately, at present.

Here is my list of Best Picture Oscar “should have beens” since 2000.
2000 –  Requiem for a Dream
2001 – Mulholland Dr
2002 – Hable con Ella
2003 – Goodbye Lenin
2004 – Million Dollar Baby
2005 – The New World*
2006 – Letters from Iwo-Jima
2007 – Atonement
2008 – In Bruges
2009 – Fantastic Mr Fox
2010 – Inception (with reservations)
2011 – The Tree of Life
2012 – To the WONDER
2013 – Her
2014 – Boyhood.

* In fairness, The New World was excluded from consideration as Malick re-edited the film after poor audience response to its US release.

So, what should win this year – I don’t know because, regrettably, I have only seen one nominated film – that is Carol, which, in spite of  its Good Thing leanings, is full of classical filmic qualities and makes a fascinating companion piece to Far From Heaven. If it wins, which I doubt, I won’t be rejoicing, but at least I won’t be tearing my hair out.

North By Northwest


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About a week ago I had a great urge to see some Cary Grant films, and, in particular, North by Northwest.  When the DVD arrived I hurriedly darkened the room, meditated for a few minutes and off it went. Over two hours of pure creative bliss.

Of course, I have seen the film in the cinema at least half a dozen times and on broadcast television several times as well, but this was my first DVD experience of the film. I was immediately struck by the extraordinary clarity of the image, and it took me a good few minutes to realise that this must be thanks to VistaVision, which had been used by Hitch previously for Vertigo.  For those unfamiliar with this now still wonderful but almost obsolete process, it allows a much larger negative  by shooting the frames horizontally along the length of the film, not across the width, which was the choice of the Brothers Lumières for their cinematographe system, on which almost all films were shot until the creation of digital film cameras in the last twenty years.


The UN Building interior studio set which has an extraordinary visual impact.


This, combined with brilliant lighting by the great Robert Burks enabled the film’s images to have a sort of super-reality of almost three dimensional quality. The well known story originated in an idea given to Hitch by the journalist Otis Guernsey. This was honed by scenarist Ernest Lehman and re-honed by Hitchcock and his wife into the story of Roger Thornhill (Grant),  an advertising executive who is mistaken for a non-existent spy and finds himself on the run from both foreign spies and the police.

As in several of Hitchcock’s greatest works,  the film metamorphoses a few times during its course – from mystery to murder story, political thriller and romance. We should remember that, in 1959, when it was made, Hitchcock was two-thirds through his golden era that stretched from Rear Window (’54) until The Birds (’63) in which there wasn’t a single dud. These films were characterised, often, by stylistic and structural experimentation. Rear Window, for exampleis shot, almost entirely, from within a single room. Dial M for Murder was in 3D, Psycho  kills its heroine off after an hour and The Birds has no music.

Beside most of these, North By Northwest is more conventional, but it is also, in its way, somewhat like his famous Buchan adaptation, The 39 Steps  in which a debonair hero is on the run after an Eve Kendall-like spy is stabbed in his apartment.

It also has the characteristic of all great narrative art, that once the wheels of the plot have been set in motion, there is nothing that can stop them. At a business lunch, Thornhill wants to call his mother and hails a bellboy, by coincidence, immediately after a call for George Kaplan had been made. The heavies make the false inference and kidnap ‘Kaplan'(Thornhill) who is blissfully unaware of what is going on.

In that era, Hitchcock was heavily into using the idea of a ‘void’. Remember the opening sequence of  Vertigo (’58) .   Thornhill, here, is thrown  into a ‘logical void’. Seen from his point of view, nothing makes sense. This allows Hitchcock’s playful sense of humour full rein  – Hitch was a noted practical joker and sometimes went to extraordinary lengths to set up embarrassing situations.

The UN Building exterior showing the sense of plummeting out of control following the stabbing
Compare with this famous image following the ‘death’ of Madeleine in Vertigo.


This aspect of the film is beautifully and extensively augmented in a dialogue absolutely full of repartee and innuendo. It is the logical root of several of the film’s most famous lines:

You gentlemen are not really trying to kill my son, are you?

Mother (Clara Thornhill – to the two heavies that are trying to re-abduct Thornhill in the hotel lift): You gentlemen are not really trying to kill my son, are you!?  The heavies and everyone else in the lift except Thornhill laugh!

It is the humour of incongruousness, which we had encountered moments before when Thornhill is examining Kaplan’s clothing in the hotel room.  Naturally, Hitchcock makes the point visually that Kaplan ‘is’ smaller than Thornhill by having the latter try on the former’s clothes. The point here is that Thornhill realises that he has not been mistaken for Kaplan by any visual resemblance.

The other key dialogue line is the famous one in which the stranger at the prairie crossroad says “That’s funny, that plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.”  There are countless examples in Hitchcock’s work where we become aware that something ‘normal’ isn’t quite right. A couple of crows perch on the bars of a school playground – OK, but a few seconds later there are a dozen and that is the visual trigger for panic. The entire plot of Rear Window is based on Scottie (James Stewart) seeing incongruous aspects of Thorwald’s (Raymond Burr) behaviour.

There is something here that illuminates in Hitchcock’s work that we know to be an aspect of his personality. Hitchcock was not just a perfectionist, but an obsessive planner. Every moment, every gesture and shot of his films was planned in extraordinary detail. So what Hitchcock regarded as ‘threatening’ was chaos and the unknown, and by plunging his central characters into chaos, he made us the audience share his own insecurity.

This is also expressed by the ‘obverse’ of chaos, namely order. In North by Northwest that is represented by the spy-master ‘The Professor’ character played by Leo G Carroll. Hitch introduces the security agency with a magnificent visual slight of hand:

How to introduce a the flip side of a complex plot!


... and focus the attention of the audience.
… and focus the attention of the audience.

These two consecutive images from the film, each only a couple of seconds in duration, show Hitchcock’s command of the cinematic language at its purest. Kuleshov must have been jumping for joy in his grave! In five seconds of screen time and no dialogue, we know that the US intelligence service (lovely reflection of the Capitol in Washington to fix the location) is involved and they are keeping an eye on the situation!

The final aspect of the film that I would like to highlight is the very strong eroticism expressed in the relationship between Thornhill and Eve Kendall (Eva-Marie Saint) – the mistress of the leader of the foreign spies. These days, of course, it is tame, but in that era, the representation of a woman going all out to seduce a man was quite something.  And the repartee between the two, full of double entendre is another of the film’s joys.

Additionally there is the extended kiss in the railway compartment which is one of the most captivating love scenes in cinema…



In a way, I started this review to try to clarify in my mind why I love North By Northwest. As I continued to write, I very quickly realised why – there is just so much in it.  I have said barely two percent of what I wanted to say, and already this post is getting too long. Like General McArthur, I will return!

In the meantime there is a lot of wonderful stuff on the film in the Hitchcock Zone’s dedicated page (which also contains the images used in this article).

Keep watching the masterpieces….