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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.
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 example, is 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.
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:
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:
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….