Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Repeat Viewing: North by Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchcock)

TSPDT placing: #49
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Ernest Lehman
WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

Following the commercial failure of Vertigo (1958), Alfred Hitchcock needed a crowd-pleaser. He certainly gave us one. North by Northwest (1959) might just be the most outright entertaining of the director's pictures, a film that exists solely to give its audience a rollicking good time. Throughout his career, Hitchcock often utilised his established stars – for example, Cary Grant in Suspicion (1941) or James Stewart in Vertigo – as an opportunity to deconstruct their ingrained public image. Here, instead, he simply goes with the flow. In his fourth and final film for the Master of Suspense, Cary Grant plays with a familiar persona – debonair and charming, cocky and mischievous. His Roger O. Thornhill (the arbitrary middle initial an overt jab at producer David O. Selznick) is an advertising executive, superficial and self-serving, but with the charisma to support these dastardly qualities. Such a man is surely in need of a comeuppance, and Hitchcock delights in every plot twist that sees Thornhill plunged ever further into a sadistic practical joke cooked up by the Cold War.

Ernest Lehman's screenplay outwardly appears to be little but a selection of spectacular set-pieces strung together by Hitchcock's trademark "wrong man" motif, but it nonetheless amply supports its running-time (among the director's longest). Cary Grant's charming banter with double-agent Eva Marie Saint is tinged with sly sexual innuendo, and only Hitchcock could have ended a film with the hero's train entering the leading ladies'…. well, you get the picture. James Mason brings a dignified vulnerability to the role of Commie spy Phillip Vandamm, but Hitchcock seems only marginally interested in the character, and, indeed, his ultimate fate is completely skipped over (instead, Martin Landau's vicious henchman is given an arch-villain's death). Hitchcock's climax atop a studio reconstruction of Mount Rushmore is only effective thanks to Bernard Hermann's momentous score, but other sequences reek of the director's astonishing aptitude for suspense. The breathless crop-duster ambush is worthy of every accolade that has been bestowed upon it, and Grant's comedic talents shine during both a drunken roadside escape and an impromptu auction-house heckle.

That the audience learns of George Kaplan's fictitiousness long before Thornhill ever does may admittedly weaken the suspense, but Hitchcock's motives are instead to recruit the audience into his own position, as director, of omnipotent power. Beneath its surface, North by Northwest appears to be a subtle swing at Cold War politics, and particularly the power wielded by the FBI and government committees like the HUAC. As Thornhill fights to unravel himself from a tangled web of deception and espionage, Hitchcock unexpectedly crosses to a panel of FBI agents, headed by Leo G. Carroll, who bicker indifferently over the mess into which they've got this oblivious pawn. These government employees are happy to sit listlessly by as citizens place their lives on the line, their quarrels bizarrely resembling the conversations of the gods in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Indeed, like deities, the FBI men wield the power to invent (Kaplan), destroy, or even resurrect (Thornhill) human beings, and intercede sporadically in a suitably Deus Ex Machina-like fashion.

Currently my #3 film of 1959:
1) Die Brücke {The Bridge} (Bernhard Wicki)
2) Room at the Top (Jack Clayton)
3) North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder)
5) Our Man in Havana (Carol Reed)
6) On the Beach (Stanley Kramer)
7) Le Quatre cents coups {The 400 Blows} (François Truffaut)
8) Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)
9) Ben-Hur (William Wyler)
10) The Tingler (William Castle)

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