Growing up, Alfred Hitchcock was a filmmaker whose presence was all around me yet I think I mostly associated him with the horror genre. Mind you, it was many years before I actually saw Psycho (and, in fact, I may have actually seen Psycho II in the theaters before I ever saw Psycho) and I didn’t see the Birds until well into my twenties. As a kid, the only Hitchcock movies I could say for certain that I saw were Frenzy (still one of my favorites) and Rear Window (ditto). But I owned a vinyl record of ghost stories that had Hitchcock’s visage on the album cover and I was fond of collecting those short story omnibuses that were culled from the Hitchcock digest they used to sell on the racks next to the Ellery Queen Magazines at the neighborhood Safeway.
I don’t know how North By Northwest came and went without ever being seen by me. I knew the crop-duster scene from stills in the movie books my parents bought me when I was a child and, at some point, I must have caught at least the beginning of it because the diagonal Saul Bass title sequence was as familiar as an old sweater when I finally sat down to watch it from top to tail.
And, full confession, I found North By Northwest so incredibly entertaining and wonderful, I watched it twice.
North By Northwest concerns itself with Roger Thornhill, high powered ad executive who is mistaken by for George Kaplan. Kidnapped by the mysterious Lester Townsend, the film begins as a simple “wrong man” plot formula Hitchcock was fond of utilizing. However, as everything unfolds, identities, allegiances, and motives always seem to be shifting until the movie’s famous climax atop Mount Rushmore.
The plot is simple while concurrently convoluted, romantic while crude, and snappy while relaxed. I don’t know of another Hitchcock movie that gives the audience as much information as it also withholds. And this has the grand mother of MacGuffins (the thing that drives all of the character motivations yet the audience could care less about); that everything boils down to a roll of microfilm hidden in a statue’s gullet is not only an afterthought, it barely registers. In short, North By Northwest has got to be one of the most spellbindingly deft and masterfully tricky thrillers ever made.
As I’ve grown older and absorbed more and more Hitchcock, I’ve grown to love the incredible fakery that coats his movies. Like a more adult-oriented Walt Disney, there’s something magical in Hitchcock’s ability to pull off phony chases full of back projection and under-cranked cameras yet render them gripping and believable. Hitchcock movies like Marnie and Family Plot get rapped for their creakiness and unbelievability. But there’s such a “movie-ness” to them and when Roger Thornhill has to escape his captors while drunk in a car chase it reminds me of something out of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. We know Cary Grant isn’t going to perish but it’s thrilling all the same and we want to see how close Hitchcock puts him to that fate.
Likewise charming is Hitchcock’s massive and neat-as-a-pin sets and his ability to wind up the scene and let it play out. For certain, there’s an awful lot of suspension of disbelief that has to occur for his movies to work. This is true of his most ardent student, Brian DePalma, as well (Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Body Double are great examples of this). But, again, what made Hitchcock a master was his ability to sell it to the audience so well. Of course the hitmen show up at Kaplan’s room at JUST the right time. Of course there is a photographer present to get a shot of Thornhill with his hand on the knife in the back of a man. Of course Eve Kendall is walking through the hotel lobby the minute Thornhill shows up as he’s chasing down a lead. But everything is so amazingly sharp that it seems to matter very little that none of it is plausible in the slightest. I suppose one could say that the mark of a great filmmaker is not someone who can get you to react to things that are dangerously true to life but one who can get you to react to the most artificial things that can be dreamt up. As a matter of fact, watching this made me want to revisit Vertigo which, oddly, has never been one of my favorite Hitchcock movies for at least some of the reasons described above (of course, the other reason I’m not fond of it is that it’s basically populated by a bag of dicks; not one character is likable). Now that I’ve begun to accept and love some of the production quirks, perhaps there’s hope yet that I’ll see in it what everyone else seems to see.
Finally, there is is something striking about the daringness of North By Northwest. Released a scant four months after Rio Bravo, the movies are night and day when it comes to their attitudes about sex and sexuality. In fact, the frankness in North By Northwest is downright shocking at times. The running, open commentary about the sexual byproduct of Eva Marie Saint’s “work” is not something I expected from a movie released in 1959 nor was some of the rather naughty pillow talk that occurs on the train(“you’re a big girl in all the right places” and “I like your flavor” are, for lack of a better term, standouts). And while the opening credits could represent something of a sexual build with the great force of cascading movement only to, ahem, succumb to a case of coitus interruptus (represented by Hitchcock missing the bus), the final shot of a train barreling into a tunnel couldn’t be any more clear in the context in which it occurs.
I get it, Hitch, and I totally approve. Bravo.