Thursday, February 7, 2019

North by Northwest (1959)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                                Writer: Ernest Lehman
Film Score: Bernard Herrmann                       Cinematography: Robert Burks
Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau

North by Northwest is arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s best film. Personally, I feel it’s really a tossup between this and Rear Window, and for me the Jimmy Stewart film gets the edge. But there’s really little to choose from between them. They’re both classics. Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman had originally planned on making a film called The Wreck of the Mary Deare, which never made it past the planning stages. Michael Anderson was then handed the project, which starred Gary Cooper, and it was released the same year. Lehman’s eventual screenplay is a rare one in Hitchcock’s cannon, a story made up completely from scratch. Hitch had always imagined some kind of chase across Mt. Rushmore, and after bouncing ideas off each other the story gradually coalesced. But there’s also an argument to be made that the story originated with Otis C. Guernsey who had sold Hitchcock something similar nine years earlier. Regardless, it’s really the ultimate Hitchcock thriller. A case of mistaken identity robs a man of his own and sends him racing across the country, simultaneously chasing the villains and being chased himself by the police. The blonde in this film is one of the most dangerous in all of Hitchcock’s films, and underpinning the entire story is the sort of muted patriotism that Hitch liked as well.

The opening titles are quite unique, a green screen gradually filled in with a series of lines that turns into the windows of a New York skyscraper. Hitch gets his cameo out of the way early by missing a bus, and then Cary Grant comes out of the building with his secretary, Doreen Lang. They take a cab to the Oak Room where Grant, an advertising executive, is meeting with clients. When he realizes he forgot to tell his secretary something, he decides to send her a telegram. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman creates a wonderful bit of business here when two suspicious men, Robert Ellenstein and Adam Williams, looking for a man named George Kaplan, send a boy into the bar saying he has a telegram for him. Grant, oblivious to this, turns around and calls the boy over. The men think Grant is Kaplan and promptly kidnap him, taking him out to Glen Cove where he meets James Mason and his right hand man Martin Landau. When Grant figures out what has happened he tries to tell them that he’s not Kaplan, but Mason simply assumes he’s lying. When he refuses to tell them what he doesn’t know, Landau gets him drunk and the two henchmen put him in a car and send it toward the ocean cliff. But Grant marshals all his senses and avoids the cliff, taking the men on a chase until Grant runs into a police car. Of course, when the police go with him to the house the next day, nothing is as it was, and the only thing Grant is left with is the name of the owner of the estate.

Grant pays his fine, which should have been the end of things, but he can’t let it go. First he goes to Kaplan’s hotel room in the city, and before long figures out no one has ever seen this Kaplan. Then he goes to look for Mason, who is supposedly addressing the United Nations. But the owner of the estate turns out to be someone completely different, and to make matters worse he is killed by Williams who throws a knife in his back making it look like Grant has killed him. Now Grant is on the run from the police as well as the killers . . . and still has absolutely no idea why. After managing to elude the police getting out of the U.N., Grant heads for the train station and hops a train for Chicago, the next stop on Kaplan’s itinerary. There he meets Eva Marie Saint, who helps him out by stowing him in her room, but she only makes things more confusing by the way she seems to be throwing herself at him. Hitchcock has lots of great character actors populating the film. Edward Platt plays Grant’s lawyer, Edward Bins one of the county detectives, and Les Tremayne the art auctioneer. Leo G. Carroll, who appeared in more Hitchcock films than any other actor, is the CIA head of operations and finally tells the audience what’s going on: there is no George Kaplan. Also on Carroll’s CIA team are Lawrence Dobkin and the wonderful Madge Kennedy. Unfortunately for Grant, he nearly gets killed a couple more times before he finally learns the truth.

The film is almost too brimming with excellence to be able to describe in a just a few paragraphs. The story itself is incredibly complex, and yet the way it plays out it is very easy to follow. Cary Grant, in his fourth film for Hitch, seems as bold and confident as the director himself, while James Mason and Martin Landau are unforgettable. The picture is filled with iconic scenes, from the United Nations building, to the train ride to Chicago, to the meeting in the woods. But the two most memorable scenes are, first, Cary Grant’s cat and mouse game in a cornfield with a crop duster that’s trying to kill him. The second is the race across the faces of Mr. Rushmore. The dialogue is full of the kind of wit that Hitchcock enjoyed. There’s even a nice allusion to the Whittaker Chambers / Alger Hiss trials when Grant asks Saint, “Have you got the pumpkin?” In broad terms the story is a Cold War spy thriller, but the reality is it’s much more intimate than that sounds. The quintessential fifties color saturation of the print is beautiful, and it was one of the few features the director filmed in widescreen. Finally, one of the most important pieces of the film is the truly inspired score by Bernard Herrmann. Along with the frenetic main theme that returns repeatedly, is also a memorable love theme. North by Northwest is Alfred Hitchcock at the peak of his powers, at a time in his career when he could seemingly do no wrong. Is it his greatest film? Perhaps not, but it’s close.

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