Monday, April 10, 2006

North by Northwest

Alfred Hitchcock's nickname was "The Master" because his films were simply good enough to warrant such a hyperbolic name. Hitchcock's genius is even more regarded today as scholars point out the limits to which he was able to push certain boundaries, incorporating sexually and psychologically subversive elements into his films right underneath the noses of the clueless censors, albeit resorting to clever ways in most instances. But in the latter stages of Hitchcock's career, after he burst onto the Hollywood scene in the early 1940's, and his less distinguished period after the allure wore off a bit from the mid 1940's through the early 1950's, Hitchcock became more overt with his subversiveness. "Vertigo" might as well be a David Lynch movie, considering the extremes it goes to depicting a man obsessed with his dead lover. And "Psycho" is arguably the first film to to graphically depict the mind of a serial killer. Sandwiched neatly between these two endlessly debated films came arguably Hitchcock's most easily accessible Hollywood vehicle ever, "North by Northwest". Starring Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill, a dashing, debonair older gentlemen who looks great in a suit (he might as well have been playing himself), an ad man mistaken for a double agent after another agent turns up dead, Thornhill literally races across the country, dodging a shadowy villain named Vandamm, government agents, and a mysterious blonde (a staple of Hitchcock's, among others he uses here). "North by Northwest", while light years removed from the brooding, cerebral drama of "Vertigo" and the audacious and probing suspense of "Psycho", proves Hitchcock's greatness. His ability to jump back and forth between heavy and light, without mortgaging quality in the process, is a trait demonstrated by precious few filmmakers.

As the film opens, we meet Roger Thornhill, a seemingly absentminded advertising executive. He is twice married (and divorced) and reluctantly accepts constant supervision and advice from his mother. After he is kidnapped by a mysterious figure named Vandamm, played with typical cold steel by the great George Mason, who thinks he is a CIA agent named George Kaplan, Thornhill is released, and in the first of many memorable set pieces, finds himself framed for murder in the lobby of the U.N. From here on, the film operates at a break neck speed. Thornhill quickly finds himself being pursued by both Vandamm's men, who think he is Kaplan, and the government and other authorities, who think Thornhill killed the man in the U.N. Aboard a train to Chicago Thornhill meets Eve Kendall, a prototypical Hitchcock blond. Portrayed by Eva Marie Saint, oozing equal parts sex appeal and elegance (a Hitchcockian must), Kendall soon draws Thornhill into her web, convincing him she is an ally, amidst their (for the time) scandalous banter. Of course, nothing is what it seems, and soon Thornhill comes to suspect Kendall is involved in what is going on more than she initially intimated. After parting ways, Thornhill, in perhaps the film's most celebrated sequence, matches wits with a crop duster. After disembarking a bus on a deserted stretch of highway, Thornhill is chased down by the diabolical plane (perhaps influencing Spielberg's "Duel" some fifteen years later with the faceless vehicular terror!) and narrowly escapes.

He next finds himself forced to think fast when he is cornered at an auction house by both the government and Vandamm's men, led by ruthless henchman Martin Landau. (For years, rumors have persisted that Landau's character is gay, however I have seen this film several times and still fail to pick up on any such attributes) Realizing that the government is the lesser of two evils, Thornhill begins to make a scene at the auction house, bidding a couple dollars for priceless antiques and artifacts, to the point that he is finally escorted off the premises by the police, much to the chagrin of Vandamm's goons. Now in government custody, Thornhill is told that there is no George Kaplan. The name is made up, an elaborate government ruse to confuse and entrap Vandamm, with Thornhill as the patsy. Thornhill tries to act offended and walk out, until he is told that Eve Kendall is also a government agent, and her association with Thornhill has jeopardized her cover. Forced back into the deadly game, all the players converge at Mount Rushmore. (Hitchcock was denied his request to shoot there, thus the scenes in the visitor's center are set against an elaborate matte painting, and the actual scenes atop the rock are carefully constructed sets) As Thornhill and the goons tangle on the top of the monument, providing Hitchcock's tongue-in-cheek working title for the film "The Man in Lincoln's Nose", the film takes a pretty wild cut, going from Thornhill's outstretched hand, in a will-he-or-won't-he reach Eve moment, to his pulling her up into the sleeping rack aboard their train cabin. Presumably the chase is over, Hitchcock ends with one of his celebrated "slip by the censors" moments: as Thornhill and Eve embrace, pulling the sleeping bunk shut with them in it, we quick cut to the train's exterior, rushing into a tunnel! The perfect sublime moment to Hitchcock's most sublime entertainment.


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