8/19/09

Hitch on the Hump: North By Northwest (1959)

The title to today’s film was actually suggested by a studio executive. The film had originally had several working titles including In a Northwesterly Direction and The Man in Lincoln’s Nose, but when they never settled on a better title Hitchcock and writer Ernest Lehman stuck with North by Northwest. The title conjures up a line from Hamlet in which the title character protests his madness saying, “I am but mad north-north-west... When the wind is southerly, I can tell a hawk from a handsaw." What the Prince of Denmark is trying to say is that often he is crazy, but sometimes he does know what’s going on. That’s much like the main character of the film. He is a man who falls prey to one of Hitch’s favorite themes, the mistaken identity, and his whole life gets turned upside down because of it.

Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a twice divorced, playboy, advertising executive who gets mistaken for a government agent, George Kaplan. After escaping the clutches of the foreign agents who apprehend him, Thornhill sets out to track down the real Kaplan. In the course of doing that he becomes framed for murder and must escape across the country. With the aid of a woman on a train, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), he eludes capture by the police, but her assistance leads him right into the clutches of the foreign agents. Using his wits to survive, Thornhill slips the agents and crop dusters armed with machine guns and it all leads to a climatic fight atop the crest of Mount Rushmore.

Originally Ernest Lehman and Hitchcock were brought together by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann to work on an adaptation of a novel. When Lehman told Alfred that he had no idea what to do with the material, Hitchcock pitched him the bare bones of an idea, a mistaken identity, a climax on Mount Rushmore, and a man stranded in the middle of nowhere and pursued by a cyclone (which would become a crop duster). Somewhere along the way the cyclone became a crop duster and one of the most iconic images in movie history was born. Originally, the film had been planned as a vehicle for James Stewart, but after Hitchcock stated that Stewart looked too old in Vertigo, Lehman changed Hitchcock’s original idea of the character as a traveling salesman to a Madison Avenue Ad executive. The change in character would better suit Cary Grant, who was ironically four years older than Stewart, who was Hitchcock’s first choice for the role.

The studio had other ideas and they floated several leading men for the role including William Holden, but Hitchcock held out for his first choice, Grant. The review of the film in Variety described his character as “a Madison Avenue man-about-Manhattan, sleekly handsome, carelessly twice-divorced, debonair as a cigaret ad”, and that just about sums it up. More than only showing the slick playboy, Cary Grant’s expressive face perfectly exudes the confusion, the bewilderment, and the shock of being mistaken for another man. Like many Hitchcock heroes, Thornhill may the wrong man in the wrong place, but he is a resourceful and clever as well. Grant himself was a bit bewildered by the film telling Hitchcock, “It’s a terrible picture. We’ve already done a third of it and I can’t make heads or tails of it.” In a bit of art imitating life, the latter bit of his statement was directly a line that comes out of Thornhill’s mouth.

North by Northwest primarily focuses on Grant’s character, but I found the bad guys almost equally as interesting. James Mason’s Vandamm is never specifically labeled as an agent of a specific country, but whichever it is should be ashamed of its agent’s buffoonish mistakes. They fall for the American’s smoke screen, mistaking Thornhill for an agent that doesn’t even exist exist, and then they can’t even manage to kill him! I always enjoy seeing James Mason because of his incredible line delivery, but when New York Times’ 1959 review of the film mentioned him merely as “properly sinister” they hit the nail on the head. It was a good solid performance from an actor whose skills shine better in films such as Kubrick’s Lolita or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

While Mason’s performance is solid, I really enjoyed each moment we got to spend with Martin Landau’s thug Leonard. With only one other film credit to his name at the time, 1959’s Pork Chop Hill, Landau was new to film, but he exudes a wonderful menace in this film. However his character was a problem when the film got to the point where it had to be reviewed by the Production Code office. They objected to the effeminate nature of the character, but thankfully, Hitch convinced them that they were reading too much into the performance. There is an air about Leonard in some of the scenes which could lead the viewer to believe he was homosexual, but it was neither an important or intentional part of the film.

Finally, I come to the character that so often is full of treachery in Hitchcock’s films, and that is the blonde. As usual, Hitchcock was very particular about whom he cast in the role. MGM wanted Hitch to cast Cyd Charisse in the role, but the director flatly refused and cast Eva Marie Saint in the role. Saint was best known for her role in On the Waterfront for which she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and unlike many of his other leading ladies they worked with each other without tension or conflict. When Hitchcock rejected the costuming that was made for her, he made her accompany him to Bergdorf Goodman’s to hand pick new outfits. Unlike Kim Novak and her issues with Hitchcock and his demands on her wardrobe, Saint readily agreed to do whatever the director asked. She also gave Hitchcock a great performance as perhaps the deadliest of all the cool blondes that the director filmed. She is alluring, clever, and worst of all, an accomplished liar whose real nature is one of the big reveals of the film.

When we get into the production of the film, the list of contributors reads like a list of the usual suspects, Cinematographer Robert Burks, Editor George Tomasini, and Composer Bernard Herrmann. From the sequences on the train, to the crop duster that chases Mr. Grant and the final sequence atop Mount Rushmore, the cinematography gives the film a feeling of excitement that is buoyed by the lust color palette used in the film. It is striking how opulently detailed the settings are, and perhaps this was to set off the appearance of Grant’s character in them. For the most part, Grant’s Thornhill wears the stereotypical grey suit of an executive, and in contrast to the settings, he is easily spotted by the audience. The suit itself has become quite iconic, and in 2006 GQ magazine dubbed it the “Best Suit in Film History”. Back to cinematics for a moment, it’s interesting to note that Thornhill is almost always seen on the left side of the screen. Having read about it before re-watching the film, I paid special attention to his placement in the frame. It does seem to be the case, but as far as what purpose or meaning it may signify, I could not say.

Again this week, I have to take just a moment to talk about the editing of this film. George Tomasini did a hell of a job cutting all the scenes to create some great visual tension in the film. No where is this more evident than in the crop duster scene. When the biplane starts to swoop in to chase down Grants’s character, it almost feels like the plane if going to fly right out of the screen. The clever crosscutting and editing makes the scene feel both real and active, and that’s something that I don’t think we often get from the relentless barrage of green screen effects in movies these days. So I have to commend Tomasini for his visual flair, after all, he used almost every bit of footage that was shot as only 15 minutes were left on the cutting room floor.

I must take a moment for Bernard Herrmann, the composer who made this whole film possible by introducing Hitch and Lehman. As usual, Hermann’s score is memorable and stuck in my head. It encapsulates the adventure, the mystery, and even the romance of North by Northwest perfectly. In the liner notes for the CD release of the score it states that Hermann wrote the music in 51 days directly following his work on the pilot episode of the Twilight Zone. Hitchcock was very happy with the score which featured several pieces inspired by what Hermann called Grant’s “Astaire-like agility”, but several of the musical cues, principally in the Mount Rushmore climax, were heavily trimmed and re-scored at the director’s request.

North by Northwest had been said by some to be the inspiration for the globe trotting adventures of James Bond to make it to the screen, and Hitchcock was even offered the script for Thunderball after the release of this film. Unlike the suave and assured adventures of Bond, North By Northwest gains its strength from the everyman appeal of Cary Grant’s character. It gives the viewer a chance to think of themselves in the situation without having to dream up spy organizations or technological trickery. For this reason, along with the great visuals and Grant’s inspired performance, North By Northwest is not only one of my favorite Hitchcock films, but also it ranks among my shortlist of favorites in general. I highly recommend this flick and consider it among the essential films that any lover of the cinema should see.

Bugg Rating


2 comments:

  1. Great review. One thing I love about Hitch's best films is that, on the surface, they seem so straightforward, yet so many layers are hidden, so many character notes actually pay off. Great example: Grant plays Thornhill as a borderline alcoholic (like most Ad Men, if you trust "Mad Men") which is good for laughs early on but it quickly becomes a plot point when his skills as a habitual "drunk driver" actually save his life! This is suspenseful in the film, hilarious on retrospect!

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  2. Thanks for giving the love to my man Bernard Herrmann! It amazes me at the same time he was doing the great scores for Hitch, he was also doing the tremendously colorful fantasy scores for Ray Harryhausen. It's a musical one-two punch like they don't do anymore!

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