Where to start? Well the beginning seems the most obvious, if the least Hitch (‘without the cock…’ as he was renowned for drawling when meeting new people) like approach. North By Northwest hit cinemas in 1960, 57 years ago. A thriller unlike any other, it was certainly unlike its iconic director’s most recent releases. Set upon the masses in the midst of what is informally known as Hitchcock’s trilogy of voyeurism – Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960) – North By Northwest marked a clear and distinctive shift in tone and topic. Although he’d made capers before – The 39 Steps (1935) and Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) to name but two – this one felt different. Lead by Cary Grant, one of cinema’s most charming of charming leading men and clocking in at 156 minutes, this felt like Hitch’s tribute to Americana – a monumental movie that laid the groundwork for countless movies to come, and still they keep coming.
It’s now nigh-on impossible to separate the thriller tropes we know and love without first thinking of North By Northwest – a film told with such skillful pacing that it flies through its running time in a manner most contemporary films would dream of. The Wrong Man, the chase, Cold War, the auction house, the big British baddie, a perilous climb over heights, the femme fatale, hiding & weaving amongst a crowd, disguises and even a conversation about ‘If we survive this…’ – even if Hitchcock didn’t invent each specific trope, he certainly made the most iconic incarnations of them. And that’s even before discussing that crop-duster scene…
Even if you’ve not seen the film, you probably know roughly where it came from and what happens it. It’s truly iconic and easily one the most familiar sequences in cinema full stop – you’d probably be able to re-enact it without actually having ever seen it. It’s that good. As Roger Thornhill (Grant) – an advertising executive who has been mistaken for a spy – waits by the field in the middle of nowhere for the real George Kaplan, it’s clear that something is wrong. There’s no music, Hermann’s score is absence from the scene, giving no indicators of what’s going to happen next.
The only sound is the crop-duster itself as it ducks, dives and shoots at Thornhill. As he skillfully weaves amongst the field it’s clear just how much danger he is in and that clearly, someone is onto him. It’s a sequence that is a union of perfection, a meeting of masterful skills. After a slow build up, a sudden burst of [ure action told by the most skillful of safe hands. The long shots, with the crop duster approaching Thornhill and in turn the screen, are almost reminiscent of the Lumeire Brothers Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895). Legend dictates that it caused the audience to run in distress in fear that the train was actually coming towards them, a feeling which is shared when watching North By Northwest – that same woozy sense of unease. There’s the cinematography and use of colour, the imposing heat reverberates from the screen. The precise framing which places Grant constantly at the centre, as he is of the entire film.
Then there’s Grant’s performance. He’s charm without edge, without smarm, without crudity. Hes pitched, as many of Hitch’s leading men were, as something of an Everyman – except in this case our Everyman is a rich, high-flying executive who rather fortunately has hidden skills that would make for a great spy should the need arise… As always he’s a captivating screen presence yet perhaps even more so here, courtesy of some true zingers in the dialogue. When asked what’s wrong with his eyes ‘Yes, they’re sensitive to questions.’ When plotting ” Now, what can a man do with his clothes off for twenty minutes? Couldn’t he have taken an hour?” He’s the literal incarnation of men want to be him and woman want to be with him.
Speaking of ‘being with him’, the chemistry he shares with female counterpart Eve Kendall (Marie Saint) is off the ricter scale. She, a classic Hitchcock blonde, has Roger – and us – wrapped around her finger from her opening dialogue; “I’m Eve Kendall. I’m twenty-six and unmarried. Now you know everything.” Every look is knowing, every piece of dialogue considered and every piece of it delivered as if she’s anticipated seven steps ahead. For the most part she’s an equal to Roger, at times even more informed than him and in a better position than him. The sparks fly off the screen as they swap dialogue, with frision more charged than dynamite. From their first meeting the outcome of their rapport may seem inevitable, yet there’s plenty of twists and turns along the way.
Which, in itself, is the perfect way to describe North By Northwest – plenty of twists and turns on the way. Upon first watching it’s a thrill to be taken on a journey of the unexpected, to partake in the unknown and to enjoy the ride. But it’s upon the second, third, fifteenth watch that the real joy kicks in – at being able to identify just how magnificently this tale has been told and constructed. North By Northwest is the epitome of a caper – suspenseful, thrilling and entertaining. Classic Hitchcock.
Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
Scr: Ernest Lehman
Featuring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, Leo G. Carroll, Josephine Hutchinson, Philip Ober, Martin Landau.
Prd: Herbert Coleman
DOP: Robert Burks
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Run time: 156 minutes