Week 52: North by Northwest, Woman’s Intuition, and Overtures

Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

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This is the only week I’ve cheated.

For every other week, I’ve watched these movies as I went. I made an effort to see them without checking my phone and only making notes in my notebook. I saw a few in the theaters, and didn’t bank the movies either. I watched one per week, took notes, and then wrote based on my reflections and where I’m at in my life.

Except this week.

On Friday I’m introducing a screening of North by Northwest to conclude this Hitchcock 52 project. It’s my favorite Hitchcock film, the movie I saved for last, and the one I’ve seen the most. I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen it. So for today, and today only, I’m going to be writing without rewatching the movie. Knowing me, I may publish a post-screening addendum, but this movie I know in my sleep. This is my heart. This is why I love movies.

Do yourself a favor now. Listen to the overture from the opening credits while you read this. Click on the link here and fire it up.

That percussive score, that incredible bombast, the swagger of the music perfectly matching the larger-than-life escapism of North by Northwest. It’s perfection. I’d be insane to claim this is Bernard Hermann’s best score (Psycho, ahem), but goddamn if this isn’t the one that lodges itself in my mind. It’s melodic, dissonant, and modern like the movie itself. Picture this music while an elegant Saul Bass title sequence dissolves to a skyscraper in Manhattan, the rhythm of the music matching with the rhythm of the city, all leading to the best Hitchcock cameo, his cheekiest onscreen appearance, the grandest wink in his catalog. Hitchcock running onscreen alongside his “Directed by” credit, failing to catch a bus then watching listlessly as the bus leaves without him.

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Right away Hitchcock is telling us not to take this too seriously. And that’s important, considering where North by Northwest falls for Hitch. Previously he’d made a grab for respectability with the documentary-style The Wrong Man, then followed that with the achingly personal Vertigo. Both did poorly at the box office, but the failure of Vertigo really bothered him. It was time, his agent and manager insisted, to “run for cover.” Hitch had done this before, with Strangers on a Train and Rear Window in recent memory. But I think this was different.

Hitchcock was rich, successful, and well-known. And I think he was tired of running. He knew what people wanted from him, and he decided that he’d give it to them, one last time, in a package so gigantic and spectacular that they’d never see the joke behind it all. He enlisted star writer Ernest Lehman as his co-conspirator, someone who wanted to write “the ultimate Hitchcock movie.” Together they’d string together a series of stunts and ideas that had nothing to do with each other, bound only by the slight connective tissue of a man mistaken for a secret agent. And the greatest gag of all would be that the whole thing made no sense. It would flaunt how implausible it was, and Hitchcock would perform the high wire act of making sure no one in the audience would notice. North by Northwest signals its toomfoolery with its own title, a reference to Hamlet’s remark that “I am but mad north-northwest. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw,” meaning that his insanity is just an act. The whole thing is just play-acting. Why else would Hitchcock end this movie with the biggest sex joke of his career, a romantic reconciliation as a train steams into a tunnel?

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As was said on Mystery Science Theater 3000, “you don’t have to be Freud to figure that one out”

This is also Hitchcock’s last escapist fantasy (except for perhaps Family Plot), and his last grand entertainment. His films after this would grapple with murder, sex, spies, and death, and never lightly. Whether out of a grasping for respectability, or his own inner darkness, Hitchcock would never make a fun, light movie again.

When I was 18 and taking my Hitchcock seminar at NYU, my final paper was a comparison between North by Northwest and Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. I think I was correct in comparing how both films have such little regard for plausibility (How does Indy survive on a submarine? Who cares?!). Yet Raiders of the Lost Ark is a defiant tribute to classic Hollywood; Spielberg uses long shots and classic filmmaking techniques to spin an old-fashioned yarn.

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Hitchcock in North by Northwest however, is no homage. There are relatively few technical tricks in the film; aside from some nice process photography and special effects, it’s a fairly straight-forward film. The challenge for Hitchcock, as he always needed some kind of challenge, was not just to make it all fit together. No, I’m convinced that in some way he made this movie as a gigantic “fuck you” to everyone who thought he’d lost his touch. He summoned his powers of audience manipulation for one last go, determined to make the most entertaining chase movie ever made, and have none of it make any sense. He’d go out with a bang.

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Because the story is preposterous. Cary Grant plays Roger O. Thornhill, a man whose middle initial is fake and means nothing (his initials also spell “ROT”). He’s a cypher, played by the most charming actor alive, who gets mistaken for a secret agent who doesn’t exist, leading to a madcap chase across the country. There’s no purity to the story; if you try to think about it, it makes no sense. Take the famous crop-duster scene as an example. Grant is on the run in Chicago but is told to take a bus to the middle of nowhere for a meeting with a mystery man. He arrives and no one is there. Meanwhile James Mason’s shadowy villain has conspired to kill him by employing a cropdusting plane equipped with machine guns. The pilot of the plane not only pretends to dust crops so as not to draw attention to himself (“That’s funny. That plane’s dusting crop where there ain’t no crops”) but can somehow see when Grant is done talking to a man waiting for the bus, despite being a speck on the horizon. It’s preposterous, absolutely the worst imaginable way to kill someone, and yet no one cares. It’s Hitchcock at his best, turning the mundane into murderous in the most fabulous way possible.

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The film was constructed from meetings and martini lunches between Hitchcock and Lehman, each trying to top each other with crazier sequences and chases. Then it was up to Lehman to find a way to string it all together. Hitchcock had wanted to include a sequence he’d always dreamed of, where Grant tours a modern automobile factory, watching as a car is built from the ground-up along the factory line. Then at the end, when it drives off the line, Grant opens the door and a body falls out. It’s a terrific gag that’s literally impossible, and even Hitch couldn’t find a reason for a detour to Detroit. During the final chase over the top of Mount Rushmore, he’d wanted to have Grant get a sneezing fit while hiding in Lincoln’s nose, even going to far as to name early drafts “The Man in Lincoln’s Nose.”

Instead Hitchcock relied on sequences that both hint at his past successes and also subvert audience expectations. A scene where Grant is forced to get drunk and placed in a car careening out of control recalls Suspicion, while the crop dusting scene is a conscious attempt to outwit the audience. Typically a clandestine meeting in a spy thriller would take place in a dark alley, back room, or some other hidden place. Hitchcock stages the encounter in the middle of nowhere, where all threats are visible for miles, and there’s no chance of surprise. Which makes it all the more surprising when the crop duster turns on our hero.

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All of this fabulous nonsense reveals that North by Northwest is perhaps Hitchcock’s most confident movie. This is the work of a director in such command of his technique, that he’s willing to flaunt it in our faces. Look at the hilarious scene where Leo G. Carroll explains to Cary Grant everything that’s happened but his voice is drowned out by by an airplane engine. The message is clear: you, the audience, know what happened, so why repeat it? And it doesn’t matter anyway. Even the driving reason for the film, the sale of “government secrets” on microfilm, is tossed off. It couldn’t matter less.

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To be fair, this is a movie that would be possible without a true movie star behind it. It’s nothing without Cary Grant, someone with whom we immediately identify and who can spout witty dialogue and comebacks with a wink and a smile. He’s someone that the audience will follow anywhere. Grant even performs something like a magic trick (or really, a tribute to Hollywood costume designers): stuck in a hospital bed without his suit, he gets a pair of pants & shirt from Leo G. Carroll. Grant gets out of bed in a t-shirt and boxer shirts; he looks normal, human even. He slips on a pair of pants and tucks in the simple white dress shirt and BOOM he is instantly the Most Handsome Man Alive. It’s magic; the camera loves him and loves the way he moves (his old circus acrobat training coming into play). And rather than trying to subvert his image, as he did in Suspicion and Notorious, Hitchcock here is content to exploit Grant’s blinding star power.

James Mason costars as perhaps Hitchcock’s greatest villain. Smooth, refined, elegant, he’s a man above all suspicion except for when he’s always trying to kill Cary Grant. More problematic is Mason’s relationship with his assistant, played by Martin Landau. In Psycho, I discussed how Hitchcock went to great lengths to explain that Anthony Perkins’ character wasn’t gay or a transvestite. But here, Hitchcock drops a number of hints at the relationship between Mason & Landau, with the two men sharing a railway compartment together, some very familiar body language, Mason’s comment that landau is “jealous” of Eva Marie Saint, and the most pointed line when Landau here’s to his “woman’s intuition.” That line undoubtedly got a big laugh in 1959, yet in 2016 it can be seen as a retrograde joke at the expense of his sexuality.

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Martin Landau & James Mason

It’s worth pointing out that Landau is great in the role, and the hints of his sexuality add an interesting element to the film. Yet it also falls under the category of “perverse sexuality as menace” that we encounter in other Hitchcock films like Murder!, Rope, and Strangers on a Train. Mason and Landau are so good that they make it work, but it remains a prickly moment in the film that can be uncomfortable for modern viewers.

Fortunately we also get Eva Marie Saint in the film. I don’t know why she didn’t work more with Hitchcock, but it’s a shame because she’s wonderful. In 1959 casting her as a blonde sexpot was a bit against type as she was known as a serious actress from On the Waterfront. But she’s absolutely brilliant in the film, every bit as good as Grace Kelly. Saint has to remain sympathetic throughout the film, even when we think she’s sold out Cary Grant, and she handles it flawlessly. I’d have loved to see her in The Birds for instance, as she can handle the comedic and dramatic elements of that role in a way that eluded Tippi Hedren.

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At  this point I know I’m just gushing about this movie. I get it. There’s a million details that I love; the auction scene, Jessie Royce Landis playing Grant’s mother (despite being only eight years older than him), or the moment in the Mount Rushmore cafeteria, missed by Hitchcock and his editors, where a little boy in a crowd puts his fingers in his ears right before Eva Marie Saint shoots Grant (clearly they’d done multiple takes with a loud prop gun, and the kid was sick of it).

But that’s what this movie does for me, it makes me want to go on and on. It lights a fire in me, it fills my heart, it makes me excited about art and adventure and escapism and the brilliance of Hitchcock.

Recently I was talking to my therapist and the subject of movies came up. Specifically, the 2016 film Moonlight, which I saw and loved. I admit that I’m predisposed to like a film like this, made by people of color and about a young African-American gay man coming to terms with his sexuality. But I found it challenging, beautiful, and moving.

I mentioned that I loved the movie and my therapist laughed and said that “you light up whenever you’re talking about movies.” And it’s true: I love movies. I love talking about movies. I love writing about movies. I love the thrill that I get from watching the end of John Ford’s 3 Godfathers, or Cary Grant climbing around that Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house in North by Northwest, or the scene on the beach in Moonlight. 

***

As I write this, I’m sitting in my favorite bar. I’m surrounded by people I know: the bartending staff, my friend Jeffrey in another booth who came by to say hello, my friend Stephan at the bar. I’m at the end of this Hitchcock 52 project and it’ll be over when I finish typing and editing this piece.

In 2017 I’ve decided that things need to change. I can’t sit back and follow the same routine anymore. I’m anxious, I’m tired, and I need to do something different. When I started Hitchcock 52, I thought it would be a good way to move into writing critically about movies. Instead the opposite happened.

I’m coming out of this year-long experiment with a fire lit underneath me. I’m looking at Hitchcock with his strengths & flaws and drawing inspiration from his ceaseless desire to innovate and try something new.

I don’t know what that means for me yet. Maybe trying to make my movie. Or finish a novel I’ve been working on about the golden days of Hollywood character actors. Or taking a leap with my Alternate Histories business and publishing some new long form work. But a year of close study of Hitchcock has made me realize that I can’t be content. I want to keep moving forward, trying new things, and making my own way.

Thank you for taking this journey with me and reading these essays. I hope I’ve inspired you, helped you, or just made you think about film and art.

Now let’s see what happens next. Cue the overture from North by Northwest, ‘cause this is the start of a great adventure.

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North by Northwest is not streaming on any services, but can be rented on Amazon or iTunes, or rented from your library.

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