jackson's Review of North by Northwest
North by Northwest(1959)
Coming off the cinematic masterpiece - and quite arguably one of the most profound artistic achievement of the 20th century - "Vertigo," Alfred Hitchcock was situated at the height of Hollywood's prestige directors. A film that was so dextrous within its themes, that many cinema-goers where left in a perplexing state. It's no surprise after such audacious efforts, Hitchcock was willing to confine to a generic affair. Hitchcock's inspiration and comments for his next efforts concur: "something fun, light-hearted, and generally free of the symbolism permeating my other movies." After finishing "North By Northwest," it could most certainly be argued that this film is the epitome of Hitchcock quintessentials. An espionage thriller that contains an abundance of Hitchcockian elements: the elegant blond dynamite, mistaken identity, "Pure Cinema," pretentiousness of the maternal figure, sexual innuendos and the classic Hitchcock cameo; along with Hitchcock's typical blend of cinematic elements that range from the thriller, comedy, romance and action into one entity. It's no surprise that Ernest Lehman wanted to create "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures," to which - in relations to Hitchcock essentials - he most definitely succeeds. Within this train-of-thought, "North by Northwest" is not only classified - and succeeds - as a satisfying blockbuster, but works in equal measure as a celebration of Hitchcock's aesthetics, style and cinematic traits. And with the accompany of Gary Grant's intoxicating performance, the film is simply a tasteful treat.
What would be a celebration of quintessential Hitchcock without his favourite collaborators: Saul Bass and Bernard Herrmann. Saul Bass aesthetic style has obviously been a vital component to his credit sequences, and with trains being a central figure of North, Bass begins with an accumulation of parallel lines that reflect train-tracks. Along with the sweeping score contributed from Herrmann, the many lines manifest themselves into the facade of a building reflecting a busy New York. After a few seconds, the passage culminates with the classic Hitchcock cameo. Besides the obvious visual presumptuous, Bass' credit sequences were not passive affairs, but rather visual rituals that would reflect the fore-brooding thematics; in this case: mistaken identity - as the jungle of pedestrians reflects that the notions of mistaken identity are immensely possible and that anyone can be subjected to its anonymity power (think "Frenzy"). Ultimately, with the two technical genius' at the top of their game, the opening credits are brilliant in foreshadowing the perpetual motion and the tasteful events that are going to come.
Adopting a plot that revolves around mistaken identity - which he would use time and time again - Hitchcock channels these notions on Roger Thornhill (Grant). A Businessmen that consists of the typical 1960's characteristics found within all prestige men: cynical, impudent, pretentious, and charming (Thornhill would perfectly complement Mad Men's Donald Draper). Fortunately, Hitchcock plucks Thornhill out of his superficial environment and makes him a mistaken government agent by foreign spies which sends him on a wild-goose chase across America.
In relation to Hitchcock's appreciation of story-telling, pace and innuendos, each event consistently arrives organically rather than seemingly forced; and in this regard, the initial sequence when Thornhill first meets the antagonist Phillip Vandamm (Mason) is an entity of beauty. On initial appearance, both protagonist and antagonist share similar traits: charming but reasonable, accomplished but unsatisfied. To display personified labels, Hitchcock lets his beautiful pallet of lighting do the talking - Vandamm's face is unquantified by the brooding shadows, while Thornhill is face is eloquent from the glistering fore-ground projection. It's a beautiful palette juxtaposition that reflects Hitchcock's sensibilities. As the scene continues, Thornhill refuses Vandamm's cooperation which leads to his henchmen forcing Thornhill to consume unquantified amounts of Bourbon to effect his logic state - a scene that is played out with realistic qualities, to which a lesser film would subject Thornhill to a physical beating (or resort to more explicit methods). The continuous subtle approach - accompanied by innuendos - is resolutely more effective, to which no sequence suffers a sense of pretense or impudence. Furthermore, this approach allows the audience to absorb absurd situations (which there are many - most notable 'The Crop Duster sequence'). Consider when they attempt to kill Thornhill. The sequence evidently makes no sense, why would the villains want to attempt to frame a man when they could simply shoot him (obviously for it to look like suicide, but come on, these are soviet spies after all). However, Hitchcock's attention to detail and the characters reactions to the on-coming situations convey a wholly realistic atmosphere; to the point, that we as the audience accept whatever absurdity that Hitchcock continues to belt-out.
List most films in his oeuvre, whether dealing with suspense, thrills, action, horror or romance, Hitchcock always has time for a laugh with injections of tongue-and-cheek; and boy, does Gary Grant's performance perfectly encapsulates the tasteful tone. For instance, consider the passage where Thornhill is arrested for his drunken behavior. Grant's physicality and mentality towards his actions are pitch perfect, especially - considering that Thornhill admires himself greatly - when he resorts to his mother for help. Many of the laughs stem from this relationship, which doesn't unfold itself within the communal routine of a maternal and son bond, but rather that of a sisters and brothers; Grant bribes his mother with fifty-dollar bills, while the mother continuously mocks her sons questionable state (if you are a fan of Hitchcock and his traits, you'll notice the auteur sinisterly mocking the maternal figure).
After being framed for murder, Thornhill's world continuous to spiral out of control (accompanied by some truly beautiful shots of The United Nations). Eventually Thornhill finds diplomacy (we'll believes) with the mysterious, but utterly beautiful Eve Kendall (Saint). A combination of Gary Grant's natural characteristics (let's face it, he is gorgeous) and the auteurs fruitful Blond bombshell.....well, lets just say it's an equation that eventuates in erotic, sexy and simply perfect chemistry. Time and time again Hitchcock would situate two beautiful people together, and out this would stem one of his most dextrous and devilment abilities: sexual innuendos. Under the restrictions of the Hollywood juggernaut and its classification system, Hitchcock continuously pursued its boundaries - in the same vain as Wilder ("Some Like It Hot") and Hawks ("The Big Sleep"). The diner sequence shared between these two characters reflects this greatly. Their conservation is cryptically manifested with sexual evasiveness against the backdrop of a beautiful colour palette consisting of lush greens, blues and browns that remain visually stunning, and is obviously more rewarding than a modern, blatant sex scene.
Eventually, Thornhill gains the knowledge of Eve's discreet (another character that contains three separate identities; it's obvious that even though Hitchcock clearly stated that he didn't want to display thematics, North is clearly riddled with the notions of mistaken identity) through a sequence that is as iconic as it is irreplaceable. The scene I am referring is obviously the 'Crop Duster assault' (well what kind of "North by Northwest" review would it be without the iconic mention?). Hitchcock oeuvre is riddled with them: the "Psycho" shower sequence, the 'Vertigo' shot, "Rear Windows" iconic set, "The Birds" editing and the list goes on. These segments reflect the Hitchcock notion of "Pure Cinema:" moments and sequences that can only exist within the visual medium of cinema. Previous to his Blockbuster, Hitchcock was experimenting with the notion - to great effect - in "Vertigo," and has obviously perfected it with Grant's bewildering attack. The scene is set-up beautifully, beginning with an establishing shot that display the transitional movements from and urbanized landscape to the likes of a vast plain; threat and jeopardy are definite. As the scene continues, and Hitchcock being Hitchcock, anonymous cars continually pass - Hitchcock once again playing with audience expectations - which brilliantly adds to the sense of suspense and dread. As Thornhill becomes exasperated and confused, a mysterious plane begins to circle in fore-ground, and at that point, we, as the audience, know exactly what is going to happen. It's the brilliance of such moments that represent the epitome of this magnificent auteur capabilities. Additionally, consider the climax upon Mount Rushmore (what more logical climax to an espionage and political thriller). Besides the sequence reflecting the notions of "Pure Cinema." it's a climax that is ultimately conveyed organically; an entity that is evidently missing within modern blockbusters. For instance, within the final climax there is no pecking order of the characters status'. For example, within most modern blockbusters, the protagonist and antagonist would contain some sense of physical prowess compared to the inferior, or rather less important characters, e.g, the bewildering Policemen. To great effect, Hitchcock keeps it grounded; Thornhill faces the same struggles as Vandamm's henchmen, and with the accompany of typical Hitchcock editing, the perpetual motion is never halted.
Personally, "North by Northwest" takes second stride against Hitchcock's monumental masterpieces. However, this is no degrading comment, second-class Hitchcock still contained the brilliance of influential power (looking at you James Bond) and a masterpiece within the action genre. A celebration of his aesthetic style, and while it may seem Hitchcock was confining to generics, it seems the trickster was once again executing a prank, as no one would be prepared for the diabolical "Psycho" released a year later.