DVD Review Of North By Northwest

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/8/07


  The addition of pretense can be a killer in a film. It is precisely the lack of such a quality that makes Alfred Hitchcock’s two and a quarter hour long 1959 color thriller North By Northwest a better and more enjoyable film than his preceding film, Vertigo, even if the film comes nowhere near the excellence of his following film, Psycho. Whereas the two films that end in –o attempt to impose a deeper psychology into their screenplays, North By Northwest is a popcorn eaters gala pre-James Bondian Cold War thriller. It’s no wonder the film was a popular smash while Vertigo was a financial flop.

  On a strictly logical level, little of the film makes much sense, but it’s Hitchcock, after all. As example, what is contained on the microfilm that is the film’s MacGuffin- inside the statuette, is meaningless and beside the point- which is action and thrills. That there is no logical reason for Cary Grant’s character, Roger Thornhill- another Hitchcockian wrongly accused man, a Madison Avenue advertising executive, to be mistaken for the non-existent spy George Kaplan, is another problem. Yet, even though it is done in a rather unconvincing fashion- Thornhill summons a hotel attendant who is paging Kaplan, and the chase is on- few people will debate cause and effect in a film like this. The dopey bad guys see this brief moment and assume everything- a perfect example of the dumbest possible action propelling the plot, which is usually an artistic killer. However, on the plus side, this is one of Cary Grant’s best and Cary Grantiest roles. He is charming, delightful, suave, and the fact that he never seems to get a hair out of place in assorted acts of derring-do, even when chased and dusted by that crop duster, in one of the film’s most famed scenes, is not a problem, unless one just cannot let the formula silliness wash over them.

  On the negative side is the performance of Eva Marie Saint, as Eve Kendall- the lover/counterspy of James Mason’s Soviet mole character, Phillip Vandamm. Saint is stiff and wooden, and even less convincing as a romantic lead than many of the other icy blonds that inhabit the Hitchcock universe. Yes, she’s beautiful; second perhaps only to Grace Kelly in the Hitchcockian blond goddess pantheon, but she has absolutely no chemistry with Grant, and when she says her then-risqué lines of flirtation it is almost as if a teenaged girl were trying to give her grandpa a boner. It works, apparently, for Thornhill reveals that he cannot help but make love to beautiful women, and does so with a straight face to the near total stranger. From any other actor than Cary Grant this would be an example of a sinfully bad piece of dialogue. From cary Grant, such cockiness seems natural. One must accept that films from this repressed era in Hollywood could not help themselves from shoehorning a romance into a story, but that does not make it a positive. One also wonders if Hitchcock ever saw the range that Saint displayed in her star-making turn in the Elia Kazan directed, and Marlon Brando starring vehicle, On The Waterfront. If he had it must not have occurred to him that a bit of range to her character would have made the film even better.

  Mason, on the other hand, shows how to act even with a grimace alone. Watch his mien when his top henchman tells him that Eve has double-crossed him by using an old Gestapo trick. At first, there is incredulity, then betrayal, then hurt, then deep anger. This occurs in mere moments, but it is a master class in the craft. The numerous plot holes include no one at the UN seeing Vandamm’s henchman clearly toss the knife into the patsy, Lester Townsend (Philip Ober), and Thornhill’s silly touching of the knife when Townsend falls into his arms, the utter incompetence of the varied police departments who are after Thornhill, and the fact that the Soviet spies have a safe house and private airport a mere few hundred feet from a national monument, Mount Rushmore, and no locals seem to have noticed this. There are good supporting performances from Martin Landau, as Van Damme’s über-creepy quasi-homosexual top henchman Leonard- another Hitchcockian obsession, and longtime Hitchcock supporting player Leo G. Carroll, as The Professor, head of what is presumed to be the CIA.

  But the film succeeds despite its plot holes because a) Cary Grant mixes stylish sexiness with wit, and b) the action rarely lets up long enough for the plot holes to matter until a few hours have passed. No, the film is not deep, but few Hitchcock films have depth. Those that do can be counted on a single hand. But, this is one of the few films that can claim that its immanent and massive and abundant style easily trumps substance, and this is due mostly to Ernest Lehman’s light but flashy screenplay. Why, for example, is there the first scene with the Professor and his CIA cronies basically sitting around and telling the plot? Yes, of course- because it saves time. But, this is the very sort of writing that is rightly criticized for telling and not showing, for it occurs in such a fluffy film that to add that sort of spoonfed sugar to it does no one any good. Here is where a bit more depth was sorely needed. The ending, often trumpeted for its coital imagery of the train heading into a tunnel is not bad, but the abrupt transition to that ending image is atrocious. We cut right from Thornhill trying to pull Eve up from the cliff- which she scaled in high heels, no less, to pulling her up into the sleeper section of the train after they’ve been married, some time in the unmarked future. How any of the Mount Rushmore intrigue was resolved was apparently of no import to Hitchcock, which is his tacit acknowledgement that the film is not really about the Cold War nor politics. The film is just a juicy and flashy comic book onscreen.

  Technically, the film holds up much better than many of Hitchcock’s other efforts, for the process screens are not always readily detectable, as they are in other of his films- save for the scene where Thornhill does not drive his car off a cliff that the bad guys want him to, and the sets constructed for some of the big chase scenes- especially the Mount Rushmore set, are fabulous, even by modern standards. While the cinematography by Robert Burks is solid, there are no eyepopping moments, and the score by Bernard Herrmann is one of his least memorable, especially considering what was just around the corner in Psycho.

  The Warner Brothers DVD of the film, part of The Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection, is shown in a 1.77:1 aspect ratio, and the print looks great. The colors are not to overdone, as often happens in Technicolor films. The DVD extras are pretty good, especially a nearly forty minute long making of documentary, hosted by Eva Marie Saint, called Destination Hitchcock: The Making Of North By Northwest, and made by Peter Fitzgerald. It highlights a continuity flub that Hitchcock and his crew overlooked: in a scene where Eve pretends to shoot Thornhill, a boy in the background covers his ears a few seconds before the noise of the gun goes off. The film commentary track by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, is less impressive than the documentary. Lehman says little of interest or import and long pauses infect the track. Even when speaking, the man seems half asleep. Since they tracked down saint for the documentary it would have been nice to have heard her thoughts on the film, especially if paired up with Lehman. Two theatrical trailers are included- one that is a standard 1950s trailer and the other one of Hitchcock’s little non sequitur skit trailers. There’s also a black and white television commercial for the film. Bizarrely, there is a stand alone music only track of Herrmann’s wan score. There is also a stills gallery and cast bios page. For aficionados, Hitchcock’s cameo comes a few minutes into the movie, when a bus door slams shut in his face, as he tries to board it.

  North By Northwest, whose title is both manifest- given the film’s final setting, and obscure and of unknown provenance- although oddly linked to a supposed quote from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is not a great film, but it is a terrific movie, and because it is such utter and unrepentant fluff it holds up much better than many other 1950s vintage films, including many of Hitchcock’s own overrated ‘masterpieces’, such as Rear Window and Vertigo. Yes, if you are the type who must go over everything with even a coarse toothcomb, the film simply will not work, but if you trust that the fun will leave your mind as unmussed as Cary Grant’s coiffure, then watch it. After all, the perfect hair of Cary Grant is never something to be diminished.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]

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