Friday, July 20, 2012

Cary Grant: The Original Running Man or Alfred Hitchcock: William Shakespeare would have enjoyed his movies!

Movie Review: North by Northwest

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Reviewed: 19 July 2012

jamesintexas rating--**** (highest possible rating)

Bernard Hermann's memorable driving score announces the arrival of the classic film North by Northwest, and even the title sequence seems in line with the film's themes and interest.  Words rush together from different directions of the screen, only to separate furiously seconds later.  Slow fade in on crowds of bustling, hurrying, busy people, clawing to get into cabs in front of each other, squeezing down a subway staircase, hustling down the street. Alfred Hitchcock foregrounds our national obsession with planes, trains, and automobiles and just simply motion in these opening shots.  Move, move, move.  Besides a chance to indulge in his now familiar cameo (he misses the bus, appropriately), Hitchcock is driving at something deeper: our hurry-hurry culture, the swirling of time, and the media's role in the formation of instant news.  When the dapper wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, Cary Grant, finds his companion at the UN keeled over with a knife sticking out of his back, a serendipitous camera man is there to snap a Gotcha! picture of Grant's Roger Thornhill with his hands on the knife.  It is as if Hitchcock was predicting the rise of the iPhone and instantaneous news; in the 2012 update of the film, the murder footage would have been uploaded to Youtube and viewed a million times.

Where to begin?  I love this film, and I believe that I've only seen it twice now, the first time being in Mr. Wetta's Comp-Lit-and-Film course at York High School.  In that class, I remember being amazed at his analysis of the heads of Mt. Rushmore lording over certain scenes, connecting their silent judgment to the cabal of government ministers who tinker with the lives of spies, real and imagined, in their Washington D.C. office.  This time, that cabal struck me as an Olympian group of gods, moving people's lives around like chess pieces, adding dangerous elements to the mix from time to time to provoke a reaction.  There is something to the pro-government assistance coming to rescue Thornhill and Eve Kendall (the luminous Eva Marie Saint) at the very end of the film, as well as the severe disinterest of the man responsible for creating agent George Kaplan.  Cryptically named "The Professor," the old man who looks like a gnome (Leo G. Carroll) seems content to push the chess pieces around on the world stage, read his newspapers silently, make decrees from on high that affect and end lives without hesitation or remorse.  The Professor is a Zeus-like figure who interferes with his creations as if it were all one giant game.  A serious game with serious consequences.  At one point, The Professor references the United States losing the Cold War to the Russians, a possibility in 1959 that seems improbable to my generation.  I grew up watching the Berlin Wall come down while in middle school, and Russia petered out when Sean Connery hijacked the Red October and headed for American shores.  For me, American dominance seems an afterthought, a given.  But for the audiences of 1959, I'm sure that Hitchcock's rooting of Cold War devilry amongst the backdrop of our national parks and symbols (the bustle of Madison Avenue, climbing around at Mt. Rushmore, the UN, our railways) was particularly adroit given the political climate of the end of the Eisenhower era.  For me, it is difficult to see North By Northwest so closely after recent viewings of Vertigo, the film preceding it in Hitchcock's canon, as there is no way that it can match Vertigo's emotional and evocative power or legacy.  Yet, consider this: in a three year span, Hitchcock crafted Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho, each film a distinctly American classic, each film a template for all subsequent films of the genre to follow and imitate, each film still eminently watchable and compelling.  What director has ever had such a prolific burst of filmmaking?

Consider Roger O. Thornhill (the O stands for nothing!) as a Mad Man of Madison Avenue advertising, a contemporary to Don Draper who dictates his letters to his secretary as he steals cabs, frets about his theater tickets, fusses over his mother and his two ex-wives.  By raising his hand at an inopportune moment at drinks in a restaurant, Thornhill is mistaken for spy George Kaplan by some tough guys.  A gun is drawn, Thornhill is spirited away to a remote mansion where the elegantly ominous Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) grills him on what he knows.  And true to his middle name, Thornhill knows nothing!  So, Thornhill becomes wrapped up in the life of his double, George Kaplan, finding himself in deadly situation after deadly situation, as he becomes embroiled in a tale of international intrigue.

The character of Roger Thornhill is the precursor to many classic movie heroes: John McLane in Die Hard, outwitting the terrorists verbally and physically; The Fugitive's Dr. Richard Kimble, the accused man out to clear his name, shunning eye contact with people on the CTA who are reading papers that have his picture on them; The Big Lebowski shamelessly cribs two key moments from this film as The Dude deals with the Chief of Police in Malibu (Very reactionary!) and finds a phone message on a notepad from Jackie Treehorn; both Ethan Hunt from Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol and the man from Man on a Ledge, two quick-thinking heroes who stand outside buildings high up in the air contemplating escape routes as well as death.  Sequence after sequence in North By Northwest is groundbreaking and still with us today in the echoes of modern action and chase films.  Thornhill evading the police on the train.  Disguising himself.  Sneaking up to the house and eavesdropping.  Finding an address.  Dropping his matchbook.  What I like most about Grant's performance as Thornhill is his conveyance of genuine annoyance of the confusion caused at times by the double George Kaplan, his exasperation at his circumstances, his sense of righteousness in clearing his name, and his elegantly graceful movements and style.  "But I have theater tickets!  Tonight!  With mother!" he tells his captors at one point, and Thornhill's annoyance converts brilliantly to bitterest gall at his betrayal.  I haven't seen many other Cary Grant performances, but this one is brilliant.

Hitchcock's confidence in his storytelling allows there to be stretches of silence where Thornhill creeps around, listening and climbing around a Rapids City base for Vandamm and his Communist camp.  Hermann's score drives these scenes, but not in an overpowering way.  Rather, the score is the pulse of the film, driving and insistent and full of scary wonder.

The centerpiece of the film is the bravura sequence involving a low-flying crop duster plane about ninety minutes outside of Chicago as a confused Thornhill awaits his supposed meeting with George Kaplan.  The crane shot of Thornhill standing at the desolate, almost desert-like crossroads of rural Indiana farmland is classic, existential, and evocative (referenced in films as wide as Cast Away to O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and as Thornhill wanders and wonders about, the engine of the crop duster cuts in and out of the soundtrack in the background.  When the plane finally does what it does, the result is terrifying and must have been even more so in 1959.  What a perfect image for the hunted man in the wrong place at the wrong time!  What surprised me was how long this sequence was.  Hitchcock took over ten minutes to set up the scene before the madness started.  His patience is one of the things that make him the master of suspense. Even though I knew what was coming this time, it was upsetting and moving to see it play out.  And the end to the scene is a classic action film trope still with us today.

I'm also trying to explore the subtext of homosexuality in this film as the henchman Leonard (a young Martin Landau, cadaverous) seems jealous and in love (maybe?) at times with smooth-talking Phillip Vandamm.  Leonard is lethal and relentless, yet seems hurt by Vandamm's preference for Eve Kendall.  Mason's voice is silky, and I could listen to him verbally spar with Thornhill for hours.  His turn as villain is more terrifying for its lack of histrionics; Mason perfectly exemplifies the cold, worthy, formidable adversary who drives this film and makes the stakes so high for Thornhill.  And he has a wonderfully comedic last line.

And Eve Kendall and Roger Thornhill's flirtatious banter on the train to Chicago has to be a cinematic high point.  Both actors are so comfortable and appear to be having so much fun with the provocative lines and coy propositions.  The lines caused great laughter in my audience at the Sundance Theater in Houston in 2012, so I have to imagine the forwardness and frankness they must have evoked in 1959.  The conversation's context, the traveling of the pair west from New York, is important; Hitchcock slows the film down to give us at least twenty minutes on the train, moving with the characters, savoring the journey and the chase.

And the film's final shot?  One of the greatest innuendos of cinema as well.  The blast of the train horn and the imagery?  Brilliant.

The title of the film comes from a speech from Hamlet, where the eponymous prince states, “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw" (2.2.361).  My explication of the line (it's been a while) is that Hamlet is announcing to his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the level of deception that he has been practicing among the kingdom, to fool his Polonius, Queen Gertrude, and King Claudius.  He is not as he seems to others.  To cloud his murderous intentions, Hamlet must play a part.  Hamlet chooses to play this part, to engage in deception, to learn the truth of his father's death; similarly, at the climax of North By Northwest, Roger Thornhill chooses to play the part of spy George Kaplan, to engage in death-defying heroics, to rescue the woman he loves.

Roger Thornhill's story ends better than Prince Hamlet's, and Eve Kendall is certainly no Ophelia.  And  Alfred Hitchcock?  He's as prolific a filmmaker as any I've ever seen, one that William Shakespeare, were he alive in the 20th Century, would be compelled by the mixture of obsession and suspense displayed in his finest work. Both are for the ages.  Both men were masters constructing masterpieces that will last the test of time.

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