Monday, 9 February 2015

Review: North By Northwest

Figure 1: Theatrical Poster (Rennie, 2008)
  • Native Title: Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest
  • Primary Language: English
  • Format: Technicolour
  • Year of Release: 1959
  • Budget: est. $3,101,000
  • Film Length: 136 minutes
  • Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
    A lighthearted change from works such as Psycho and Rope, North By Northwest is a humorous spy-thriller story of mistaken identity. Hapless advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for another man and after escaping a murder attempt sets out to track down his killers and bring them to justice. On the way however things get more and more complicated and dangerous after he encounters the alluring Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). Thornhill ends up on the run from the law, wanted for dead and caught up in the spy games between the US and USSR.

Figure 2: Napping in the middle of an interrogation. Smooth
one! (Okeefe, 2014)

   While the film reflects a James Bond film with saucy underlings, a suave ladies' man as the leading role, elaborate framings and assassinations and a hideout in the vicinity of a well-known landmark. "In any event, Mr. Hitchcock, et al, take time out now and again and stop strewing red herrings and inject a funny scene here and there" (Weiler, 1959). One of the longest and most memorable being after Thornhill escapes and finds himself in a police station. The climax of which is during a talk with an interrogator where he proceeds to climb up onto the table and settle down to take a nap in front of the interrogator and three police officers while the interrogator is talking to him.

Figure 3: The "plane dusting crops where there 'aint no crops".
It takes a moment for Thornhill to realise he's in trouble
 (Powell, 2010)
   The entertainment value is not just in the silly behavior of Thornhill or the jarringly rapid pace of romantic progression (chatting up Eve and then having sex in her train carriage in the space of two hours. At least he didn't tell her he was in love in that time), the're also the rather entertaining yet life-threatening situations that Thornhill ends up in. The most iconic of which is Thornhill's brief time in the middle of nowhere, Indiana, where he nearly gets gunned down by a crop duster pilot. The genius of the scene is the suspense of the entire situation as Hitchcock "lets us in on the proverbial "bomb under the table" long before Cary Grant recognizes the danger" (Nesbit, 2014) the danger itself being a biplane "dusting crops where there ain't no crops". Even when we are given that cue, Hitchcock has us wait even more before the plane finally does something, and by that point Thornhill doesn't realise the plane's after him until it flies really low on an approach towards him.

Figure 4: It's like Roger Moore went back in time.
(Brandie, 2011)
    It is after rather hilariously escaping from an art auction surrounded by nasty-looking thugs that Thornhil quickly goes from a man with the wrong identity to an improv secret agent in order to protect the life of the woman he is smitten with. The third act includes use of blanks, fake deaths and a mountaintop lair in order to bring the man causing all the trouble to justice. "North By Northwest has influenced many suspense films, chief among them the thrill-a-minute, sensationally improbable James Bond and Indiana Jones films" (Boeder, unknown). What these two franchises and North By Northwest have in common is they play on the The thrill factor of the cloak-and-dagger element of the cold war - a conflict that despite the term was kept heated not by the artillery and massive armies of the world wars, but the deceptive acts by undercover agents of the US and USSR. Thornhill's position as an ad-man in fact makes him an ideal profile for the common notions of an American spy that was popularised by James Bond: A smooth-talking socialite with a fondness for refined drinks, sharp suits and an impeccable ability to lie and deceive. It's no wonder Phillip Vandamm's (James Mason) cronies singled him out as George Kaplan, the superspy who was hot on Vandamm's heels before the film began.


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