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North By Northwest (DVD)
Member Name: george_lazenby
North By Northwest (DVD)
Date: 17/04/01, updated on 22/04/01 (68 review reads)
Advantages: An exceptional entertainment
Disadvantages: Doesn't quite get under your skin like other Hitchcock movies
There are good reasons to nominate any number of Hitchcock movies as the best – the mad shock value of ‘Psycho’, the outstanding psychological black comedy of ‘Rear Window’, the torture of ‘Vertigo’, even the uneven but deeply unsettling ‘Strangers on a train’ – all of these wonderful, complex films are essential viewing, but it’s hard to escape ‘North by Northwest’. A lot of Hitchcock movies share characteristics – a man falsely accused, chases, red herrings, sexual intrigue and sharp comedy, but this is the true, refined version.
You see the pattern from ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ in 1936 through endless versions (‘Foreign Correspondent’, ‘Saboteur’, ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’, ‘Torn Curtain’,) all the way to his final film ‘Family Plot’, a film he could more or less have made in 1946, rather than 1976. But ‘North by Northwest’ is the highest possible point, the moment when Cary Grant gave his best performance, when Hitchcock was at his most stylish; it has Bernard Herrmann’s best score, and Saul Bass’ best title sequence. Everything about ‘North by Northwest’ has a sense of absolute rightness.
Grant is Roger Thornhill, a smarty-pants New York advertising man with several ex-wives and girlfriends, an overbearing mother and an arrogant, unflappable charm. Having drinks with business acquaintances, Thornhill decides to send a telegram, at the exact same time that a hotel clerk is paging George Kaplan on behalf of two villains who are trying to identify the elusive Kaplan. Once they think Thornhill is Kaplan, he spends the rest of film attempting to escape with his life as a foreign agent (James Mason) tries to kill him, and the American secret service allow the fiction to be maintained so that Kaplan’s work can continue.
The script was thrown toge
ther by Hitchcock and Ernest Lehmann, incorporating all kinds of ideas that Hitch had been carrying around, but you’d never know it. The set-up is astonishing – you see Thornhill for five minutes before the initial kidnap and through the script, the handling and Grant’s effortless performance, you learn everything you need to know about him.
After a brief interlude to meet the villain (played with wry exasperation by James Mason, also probably giving his best performance), Thornhill is framed for a murder in the United Nations, attacked by crop spraying planes, seduced by a mysterious blonde (Eva Marie Saint) and ultimately forced into a confrontation on Mount Rushmore.
The film is shot through with a rather mad Freudian undertow as Thornhill is menaced by homosexuals, predatory women, and his own rather dotty mother, but generally, the emphasis is more on sophisticated thrills, with the pace barely letting up for a second. It’s genuinely hilarious, from the dry humour of Mason and Leo G. Carroll as the American spymaster to the sense that no matter how terrible his situation might become, he is never lost for a quip.
It’s all incredibly stylish, with the traditional sinuous camerawork, wild angles, visual gags (the train going into the tunnel at the end – nudge, nudge, wink, wink) and the usual sense of a world conspiring against one individual. There are other films which approach ‘North by Northwest’ in quality, both in Hitchcock’s own career and in other films – Grant starred in a very similar feeling movie ‘Charade’ four years later. But this film has a spring in its step, a real zest in the direction, and beautiful touches everywhere. It’s probably one of my favourite movies, and I could watch in again and again.
An absolutely superb edition of it is available on DVD, and I implore you, buy it today.