Archive for November 5th, 2009

“Now you listen to me, I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed”.

This month is the 50th anniversary of the UK release of one of the greatest films ever made. All these years on it is still fresh relevant and as brilliant as it ever was. On the surface North by Northwest is a light-hearted thriller with some comic moments. In the hands of most directors it would have been a piece of disposable fun that at best could be considered along side the average entries in the James Bond catalogue. In the hands of Auteur and master filmmaker at the top of his game, Sir Alfred Hitchcock it is nothing short of a masterpiece with a carefully constructed story and well crafted characters.

*** Warning this blog contains plot spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film stop reading and come back once you have seen it ***

Whilst having Martini’s with friends at Oak Room bar of the Plaza Hotel, Madison Avenue advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) raises his hand to summon a passing bellboy in order to send a telegram. Unknown to Thornhill the passing boy is being observed by two henchmen intent on discovering the identity of George Kaplan, the name the bellboy is calling out.  The men mistake Thornhill for Kaplan and abduct him. He is taken to a large house where he meets Vandamm (James Mason) who attempts to extract information from him before attempting to kill him. Obviously Thornhill has no idea what is going on but his protestations are dismissed as Kaplan overplaying his cover story. Thornhill escapes leading to a series of events mainly revolving around a cat and mouse chase across America. It is soon revealed that George Kaplan does not if fact exist and is simply a decoy designed to distract attention from the real agent of an unnamed government agency. As well as not existing Kaplan is also a “MacGuffin“, “he” is only used as a way of bringing Thornhill into the plot. Hitchcock is credited with popularizing the term “MacGuffin”, he was also an expert in the use of them therefore it is no great surprise that there is a second one, the microfilm that Vandamm intends to smuggle out of the country. These things aren’t hugely important to the film, the characters and the situations they are placed in are the import part of the film.

North by Northwest

The theme of an innocent man on the run was explored many times by Hitchcock, in the so called “wrong man” films. Prior to North by Northwest the most notable example was probably The 39 Steps. All the elements are in place with Thonhill being perused by the authorities and the villains including Phillip Vandamm and his sidekick/henchman Leonard (Martin Landau).  The head of the unnamed agency known simply as The Professor (Leo G. Carroll) is aware of what is going on but chooses not to help, deciding to take advantage of the situation. Most importantly the love interest/ femme fatal, Eve Kendall played to perfection by Eva Marie Saint is the one character that has a little mystery about her.  When we first meet her on the train and she helps Thornhill she is clearly too good to be true, but you aren’t sure what her angle is.   Amongst the other notable characters; Clara Thornhill, Roger’s mother played to great comic effect by Jessie Royce Landis who was actually only seven years older than Cary Grant (amazingly Grant was 55 at the time the film was made). The exchanges between her and Grant are brilliantly timed and lift the tone of the film to near comedy.

Hitchcock is famed for his use of suspense, if truth be told there isn’t actually that much suspense in this film, that’s not what it’s about. Having failed to connect with audiences with the equally as good but much deeper and darker Vertigo Hitchcock and writer Ernest Lehman weaved a totally sublime and compelling story were the viewer goes on the journey with Thornhill. As the viewer we find out what is going on as he does. The idea of a decoy agent who does not exist was inspired by the true stories of such characters during the Second World War as told in the film The Man Who Never Was (1956). Journalist Otis C. Guernsey had previously worked on scripts exploring these ideas but little of what he wrote made it into the movie.  The thing that people often forget is just how much fun the film is. The snappy dialogue is filled with  innuendo and humour, Grant playing off his co stars to great dramatic and comic effect. His timing and delivery is perfect and always makes me chuckle as it reminds me of Jack Lemmon’s famous line from Some like it Hot: “Nobody talks like that” after Tony Curtis imitates him for his scenes as “Junior”. Apparently Grant claimed “I don’t talk like that.”   If you don’t know what I am talking about, that’s another film you should check out!


The photography is totally sublime, where Vertigo was designed to unsettle the viewer, North by Northwest pulls the viewer in. Hitchcock used long time collaborator Robert Burks as director of photography but as always had a hands on approach to shooting. There are still some trademark unusual angles such as the establishing shot when the bus drops Thornhill off just before the crop duster scene. To get such a high angle in the middle of nowhere must have required the building of a large tower, this seems like a waste of time for a simple establishing shot, but the shot tells us so much. We see the vastness of the location and the insignificance of Thornhill in that location. This is the work of a director who knew what he wanted, why he wanted it and more importantly how he was going to achieve it. The scenes at the United Nations are interesting as well. Having been denied permission to film there, they used hidden cameras to film Thornhill’s arrival. The internal shots where even more audacious, they filmed the inside of the United Nations building using hidden cameras, then used the footage to help recreate the rooms on a studio soundstage.   Even the “matte” backgrounds and rear projection that normally drive me mad in 50’s and 60’s films are done well and are bearable here.  The film also reunited Hitchcock with Saul Bass who designed the brilliant and much imitated opening credits and Bernard Herrmann whose score is excellent as always. The use of symbolism and metaphor often lacks subtlety; following all the innuendoes between actors throughout the film I will let you make your own mind up about the meaning of the films final shot of a train entering a tunnel. Watch it in conjunction with the fireworks following a kiss in the film To Catch a Thief if you have any doubt!

North by Northwest bus

To its credit the film is nonspecific about its context within world events, Vandamm is selling secrets to “the other side” and there is mention of the cold war, “War is hell, Mr. Thornhill, even when it’s a cold one” but it doesn’t go any further than that. This means you can watch the film without prior knowledge of world events of the time and can enjoy it without having to know it is set around the time of the Cuban Revolution or the so called Kitchen Debate. It could be slotted into any period of history and this is one of the reasons the film doesn’t look or feel dated fifty years on.   Even the cloths are timeless, whilst at work I often dress the way Cary Grant does in this film, it this film.  Am I subconsciously imitating one of my favorite films or is it just that timeless?  And the fact that it isn’t dated is the reason it stands up so well, you don’t have to make excuses for its age. This is a film that can stand alongside any present day film and head and shoulders above most.  This is a true classic.


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