Monday Editor’s Pick: North by Northwest (1959)

by on October 17, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun Oct 23 at 1:00, 3:30, 6:00, 8:30 and Mon Oct 24 at 1:00, 3:30, 9:30 at Film Forum

[Program & Tix]


There’s both everything and nothing left to say about Hitchock’s great comic thriller – thought by many to be his best, and certainly one of his most entertaining – which screens as part of Film Forum’s two-week tribute to the composer and key Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Hermmann.


Let’s kick things off with a guided tour by Hitch himself:


J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

North By Northwest is Alfred Hitchcock’s ultimate wrong-man comedy. An empty Brooks Brothers suit (played with splendid insouciance by Cary Grant) is pushed further into the void when he inadvertently assumes the identity of a nonexistent secret agent. Thus cast in a role he cannot understand, the Grant character is a superb textual effect whose fantastic misadventures include the most bravura piece of editing in the Hitchcock oeuvre-the nearly silent rendezvous with himself in the horrifying vacuum of a midwestern cornfield.



Wired composes a list of “8 Reasons Why North by Northwest Sill Rules.” Reel3 covers WB’s April 1st announcement (wink wink) of a rediscovered alternative ending. Tom Sutpen posts the relevant audio excerpt from the Hitchock-Truffaut tapes. And if you’re looking for more North by Northwest tidbits, this blog devoted to the film boasts an impressive collection of odd ends and curios.


Our favorite name-dropper Peter Bogdanovich urges everyone to see it on the big screen:

When I first met Hitchcock early in 1961, only two years after North had been a huge financial success, he was still irritated by some of the critical reactions. He scoffed as he mentioned that the New Yorker critic had said his film was “unconsciously funny.” Hitchcock shook his head. “Can you imagine?” he asked, incredulous. “Why it’s an absolute fantasy. Even the title doesn’t exist: there is no such reading on a compass as north by northwest.”


North by Northwest is not as effective on the tube, since the bravura virtuosity of Hitchcock’s work needs every inch of its beautifully color-photographed VistaVision space. Arguably, with Ford’s The Searchers, this was the best VistaVision movie in the best wide-screen process ever invented – and now used only for certain trick shots. The film looks so fresh you forget how many imitations and wanna-bes it spawned and you feel yourself in the presence of an original. Classic sequence follows classic sequence. One of the most enjoyable rides in picture history.



Dave Calhoun for Time Out (London):

Fifty years on, you could say that Hitchcock’s sleek, wry, paranoid thriller caught the zeitgeist perfectly: Cold War shadiness, secret agents of power, urbane modernism, the ant-like bustle of city life, and a hint of dread behind the sharp suits of affluence. Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill, the film’s sharply dressed ad exec who is sucked into a vortex of mistaken identity, certainly wouldn’t be out of place in ‘Mad Men’. But there’s nothing dated about this perfect storm of talent, from Hitchcock and Grant to writer Ernest Lehman (‘Sweet Smell of Success’), co-stars James Mason and Eva Marie Saint, composer Bernard Herrmann and even designer Saul Bass, whose opening-credits sequence still manages to send a shiver down the spine.


Hitchcock breezes through a tongue-in-cheek, nightmarish plot with a lightness of touch that’s equalled by a charming performance from Grant (below), who copes effortlessly with the script’s dash between claustrophobia and intrigue on one hand and romance and comedy on the other. The story is a pass-the-parcel of escalating threats, all of them interior fears turned inside-out: doubting mothers, untrustworthy lovers, vague government handlers, corrupt cops. Within minutes of the film’s opening, shady strangers in a hotel lobby mistake Thornhill for a ‘George Caplin’ and from there we sprint from country house to the United Nations, from the ticket hall of Grand Central Station to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Thornhill’s ignorance of his fate and complete lack of control offer Hitchcock a brilliant blank canvas on which to experiment with a story that would sound ludicrous on paper, yet it feels like anything’s possible in Lehman’s playful script. ‘I’m an advertising man, not a red herring,’ says Thornhill. He couldn’t be more mistaken.



David Thomson in Have You Seen…?:

What I realised was that North by Northwest is only pretending to be a suspense thriller, an action-adventure picture or a road movie. It’s actually a screwball comedy – and one of our greatest. And I have reached that time in life where I’d rather have a great screwball comedy than a profound tragedy. After all, tragedy is all around us and screwball is something only the movies can do.


Here’s one demonstration. Don’t you love the stupidity – the fond, yearning craziness – of a nation that will take an innocent lovely mountainside and carve in it, larger than houses, the solemn faces of presidents? The mixture of authority over nature and childlike impulse! And then along comes a strange genius of another American form – movie – and he sees that this daft monstrosity can be employed for a desperate chase sequence where someone hides in Jefferson’s nostril or a high heel trips on Washington’s proud lip. Had I been a Soviet leader in ’59 – cold going on frigid – I’d have looked at North by Northwest and told my commissars, “Sorry, guys, the jig is up. They’ve take the acme of patriotic realism and turned it inside out!” And isn’t that a pretty good definition of screwball?


Ernest Lehman wrote it, and for a talented writer who got himself into some awkward pictures, this must have been grace and reassurance: Just write Cary Grant against a rising disorder, and you have a film. Bernard Herrmann is laughing to himself and saying, I knew I always wanted to do music for a comedy!



David J. Bondelevitch has a sophisticated analysis of Herrmann’s comparatively overlooked score:

Suspense is a great aphrodisiac as filmmakers throughout the century have proved time and again. There’s nothing like getting the blood pumping and the adrenaline flowing as a preparation for more pleasurable pursuits. And no filmaker was better at mixing suspense and romance into a potent combination of erotic chills than Alfred Hitchcock. North by Northwest (1959) was the most popular of Hitchcock’s “wrong man” thrillers. Herrmann’s overture, a denseley orchestrated fandango built on an alternately franatic and halting South American rhythms, reflected the movies off-center combination of suspense and comedy.


A TCM featurette with screenwriter Ernest Lehman on the film’s conception:



Lehman again, on the crop-dusting sequence:



Beth Gilligan on those amazing Saul Bass credits, for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

Trains figure prominently into North by Northwest, so it is no coincidence that Saul Bass would design a title sequence that opens with lines crisscrossing the screen like railroad tracks. After a few seconds, however, it becomes apparent that the lines have come to form a different shape – that of a skyscraper. In large block letters, the film’s title and the names of the featured actors swiftly move up and down the screen like elevator cars. Soon after, the lines seamlessly merge into an actual shot of a building, with a sea of yellow taxis reflected in its mirrored façade. Bernard Herrmann’s score swells in the background, and Bass’ titles continue to run as the action shifts to crowded Manhattan street scenes. The final credit (for the director) appears as a portly man (Hitch in his trademark cameo) races in attempt to catch a bus, only to see the doors shut in his face.


The nameless city skyscraper and masses of people rushing run in strict contrast to the film’s most striking images: a crop-dusting plane hovering above a desolate stretch of land and a woman dangling off the top of Mount Rushmore. However, the anonymity suggested by the opening scenes foreshadows the shifting identities of the film’s main characters, played by Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. In an urban jungle like the one pictured, a case of mistaken identity hardly seems improbable. North by Northwest is a fast-paced thriller that keeps audiences on their toes; Bass’ opening segment gives audience a taste of the ride they’re in for.



Donald Chase for Film Comment (Sept 1994):

I spent the first 30 minutes of North by Northwest getting used to what it was and what it was not. What it was not was Vertigo, Hitchcock’s deeply felt meditation on depression and phobia of ’58. What it was, was a shameless entertainment, a larky-jokey, high-spirited mistaken-identity spy thriller cum cross-country chase cum sexy romance. The entry of Eva Marie Saint–transformed by Hitchcock from the pavement-crack daisy of On the Waterfront into the sleek, fire-and-ice Venus fly-trap who provides Cary Grant with the aforementioned sexy romance–sealed my own entry into the movie’s orbit.


Soon Grant and Saint were sharing a compartment on the 20th Century Limited, dueting on Ernest Lehman’s innuendo-laced dialogue, and doing these nifty things with their hands. Hands, I noted in due course, were a motif here, and finally, in the climactic Mount Rushmore sequence, a matter of life and death. (Contemporary pummelers with your 20-minute set-pieces, please note: The Rushmore sequence lasts 6 minutes, and the cropdusting sequence, from arrival of plane to explosion of oil truck, a mere 4.)


“Hitchcockian” as North by Northwest surely is, it’s also practically an emanation of Cary Grant, of his suavity and sexual diffidence. His sexual diffidence connected the fairly timid adolescent I was with this man who was not only 40 years my senior (and ten years my father’s senior), but who was also like no one I’d ever met; his sexual luck made me want to become him. If I haven’t brought that off; I’d like to think it’s because I’ve never, in decades of searching, found a gray suit like Grant’s: fully half his suavity seems to reside in its cut, its give, is versatility.



Bill Weber for Slant:

Ending the great director’s most fertile decade with juicy pop entertainment after the semi-realist grimness of The Wrong Man and the dreamlike romantic tragedy of Vertigo, the breezy, “light” North by Northwest is in danger of being pigeonholed as trivial Hitchcock because of screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s double-entendre-laden badinage, Grant’s cool star turn, and the popcorn-friendliness of its celebrated action highlights: Grant’s scramble over a desolate prairie landscape to avoid the murderous attacks of a crop-dusting plane and his climactic flight from the villains with Saint across the presidential faces of the Mount Rushmore monument. Yet along with the screwball staging of a corpse falling into Grant’s arms at the UN and his escape from an auction-room trap through prank bidding, many themes and motifs of Serious Hitch can be found: the fluidity of identity (Thornhill’s embrace of play-acting the role of phantom agent “George Kaplan”), the burden of mother love (in the hilarious poise of Jessie Royce Landis as Grant’s mocking mom), and even coded-as-queer sadism (Martin Landau as Mason’s enforcer, equipped with “woman’s intuition”). Grant’s bitter revulsion at discovering Saint to be Mason’s mistress recalls the darker variation of the spy-who-screwed-me scenario he played with Ingrid Bergman in Notorious. And Leo G. Carroll’s dry head spook reads as an unusually bloodless American puppetmaster for Eisenhower-era Hollywood, one who defends the human sacrifice of his people or innocent Thornhills as the cost of winning wars, “even Cold ones.” In spite of Kaplan’s nonexistence, the intel chief is the story’s true empty suit.


Still, it’s the sleek and triumphantly assured surface of North by Northwest that’s kept it perennial after half a century, despite the passing of its polished élan and semi-sophisticated banter from suspense-thriller style. (Saint, and Lehman, do much better with “I never discuss love on an empty stomach” than her post-clinch complaint to Grant that “You’re undermining my resolve when I need it most.”) Hitchcock sets his playful fantasy of spy chasing—with his most perfunctory MacGuffin gimmick ever (“Government secrets, perhaps”)—at landmarks like the UN, Grand Central Terminal, and Mount Rushmore without pushing the subtext of chaos in the midst of placid national icons or the routine humming of transportation hubs and tourist meccas. The picture is hugely pleased with itself, but it’s too funny and expertly calibrated to mind in the least. Both Hitchcock and Grant raise relaxed confidence to masterpiece level here.


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