VINTAGE REVIEW: North by Northwest



This week, audiences were lucky enough to catch Alfred Hitchcock's classic North by Northwest on the big screen as part of a special presentation of classic movies put on by Cinemark Theaters and also their CineArts, Century Theatres, and Tinsletown properties.  Some of their other titles earlier this summer were The Exorcist, Citizen Kane, Cool Hand Luke, A Clockwork Orange, and The Searchers.  For a special movie treat like this, here's my "vintage review" of North by Northwest.

For movie fans who want to dive into the great and heavy works of Alfred Hitchcock, North by Northwest is the first of two movies that I steer them to first.  The other is Rear Window with James Stewart.  For those who are intimidated by the suspense and borderline horror reputation that Alfred Hitchcock garners for works like Psycho and The Birds, North by Northwest is, to this writer, his most easy-going and accessible movie for mass audiences.  

If you've never seen or heard of North By Northwest, head out to a place to rent or buy videos today and check it out.  You will not be disappointed.  If I could put it in a nutshell, North by Northwest is a domestic James Bond type of film if James Bond didn't know he was James Bond.  Let's unwrap those twists.  Screen legend Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, a charming Madison Avenue ad executive in New York City.  Being mistaken as "George Kaplan" by a hotel bellhop, Roger ends up kidnapped by a pair of thugs pursuing Kaplan.  They drag him to a Long Island residence belonging to Lester Townsend, a United Nations diplomat, where he is interrogated by a foreign spy, Phillip Vandamm (a stellar James Mason), who doesn't give his name and poses as Townsend.  Though Roger pleads that he is not this Kaplan fellow they seek, Vandamm doesn't believe him and brings in his trusted right hand man Leonard (a quietly menacing Martin Landau) to get rid of him.

When Thornhill escapes an attempt to make his death look like a drunk driving accident, he can't seem to get anyone, including the authorities or his own mother, to believe his kidnapping story.  When he tracks down the real Lester Townsend at the United Nations General Assembly building, Vandamm's thugs followed him.  With a thrown knife to the back, the diplomat is assassinated and falls into Roger's arms.  With flash bulbs popping and witnesses screaming, it appears to look like Thornhill murdered Townsend.

Now a wanted man on the front of newspapers everywhere, Thornhill is determined to clear his name before submitting to authorities.  Dodging Vandamm, his men, and a nationwide manhunt, he follows the bread crumbs of clues he's picked up on the actual George Kaplan.  Those clues send him by train to Chicago.  On board, he develops a firework romance with the blonde and beautiful Eve Kendell (the exquisite Eva Marie Saint), who helps him dodge police.  Slowly, the clues bear fruit, more layers are pulled back, and the big mystery at hand starts to unfold.

The production notes about the North by Northwest have become the stuff of Hollywood legend.  Hitchcock used guerrilla filmmaking to shoot scenes at the restricted U.N. headquarters.  Also, when he wasn't granted permission to shoot at the actual Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota, he build a replica in a soundstage.  California frequently substitutes for northern Indiana in the cropduster scene and for Long Island in the drunk driving scene.  The opening titles created by graphic designer Saul Bass, who would go on to fame making James Bond title sequences for years to come, were the first "moving text" of its kind.  A panel of fashion gurus in 2006 at GQ  magazine named Cary Grant's gray suit the best suit in film history and most influential ever on men's style.  Though nominated for three Oscars, it lost to Ben-Hur's record haul of 11 Academy Awards that year.  Still, history has been kind to the film's reception.  The American Film Institute ranked North by Northwest  its #40 movie of all-time, #4 thriller, and #7 mystery film.  It maintains to this day a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

North by Northwest is arguably Hitchcock's slickest and most commercial film.  Made just a year after Vertigo and a year before Psycho (and, coincidentally, three years before Dr. No, the first James Bond film), it's a breezy and dashing thriller with very little of the typecast weird and grotesque symbolism that sometimes alienates Hitchcock films from centrist audiences.  

The pace is the closest you'll get to a Jason Bourne-like thriller by 1959 standards.  From the famous harrowing poster scene of the diving cropduster plane to its thrilling climax in and around a staged Mount Rushmore, the action sequences are cleverly and excitingly shot.  

Even though this film feels mainstream, all of Hitchcock's visual flair and cinematic slight-of-hand tricks are still present (watch for his signature personal cameo just after the opening credits).  Frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann composes a dynamite musical score to pace the suspense and writer Ernest Lehman delivers a snappy and sophisticated script for our actors to bite into, peppered with innuendo and discourse on the Cold War pendulum of power fitting the day and times.  Even if you're not a diehard Hitchcock fan, North by Northwest, to me, is one of those movies that every person needs to see before they die.  It's that good and that much an iconic achievement of style and substance.

LESSON #1: THE CLASSIC CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY-- North by Northwest is the one of, if not, the best movie involving a mistaken identity.  The normal mistake made by the victim of mistaken identity is that he or she doesn't try hard enough to tell anyone the truth, but Thornhill will tell anyone that listens how he's not George Kaplan.  Eventually, he knows he's the only person who could sort out his troubles.  In the modern age of our face, DNA, and personal information being everywhere we go in a constantly surveillanced world prone to identity theft, this North by Northwest  scenario could never happen quite the same today.  Still, the movie plays with the advantages and disadvantages of this conundrum, from mistaken identities, false identities, and uncovering true identities.

LESSON #2: BE CAREFUL WHO YOU GET INTO BED WITH-- This lesson has both literal and figurative interpretations in the film.  One, figuratively, be watchful of who you choose to work or associate with.  Dangerous organizations and associations are possible around every corner.  If your name gets out there, you're in trouble.  Trust no one, especially if you are on the run from the law.  Two, literally, be mindful of your romantic partner choices.  Secret agendas occupy people as well as organizations.  Don't fall for a pretty face or a hot bod without doing a little homework.

LESSON #3: WHEN ORDINARY MEN RISE TO THE OCCASION OR CHALLENGE BEFORE THEM-- When you watch a James Bond movie, you mentally make a quick corrective double-take that the man you're watching has been trained to accomplish the wild action you see on screen.  You accept the borderline preposterousness.  No ordinary man could pull off what 007 does, but North by Northwest puts a normal man in some of those positions and tests him.  Thornhill is a smooth-talking suit fit for a cherry-topped cocktail on TV's Mad Men, not a man prone to running from the law, dodging spies, and uncovering government plots.  When pushed into a corner, we see here that a common man will find the resourcefulness and vigor to rise to the occasion and accomplish impossibilities beyond their skill set for survival.