Thursday, November 15, 2012

Movie – North by Northwest (1959)

North by Northwest is one of the best, if not the best, movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Even people who know little about his films can usually name this as being one of his.  They also usually can mention the crop duster scene and/or the Mount Rushmore scene, even if they haven’t seen the film.  For those who have watched it, North by Northwest triggers something in almost all of us because we can shudder about how we would feel if we were trapped in a situation where no one would believe us.  It also lets us live out a fantasy of imagining that were we caught in something like this, we would be resourceful enough to respond to it.

Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) leads a boring life as an advertising executive.  One day he flags a man down to send a message.  Unfortunately for Roger, this man was trying to deliver a message to a “Mr. George Kaplan”.  Two other men notice Thornhill call the messenger over so they figure he is Kaplan and they kidnap him.  They take him to a country estate owned by a Mr. Townsend where an urbane, but dangerous man (James Mason) questions Thornhill about things that Roger knows nothing about.  It appears that Kaplan is some kind of secret agent and this man questioning George is Kaplan’s target.

After “refusing to talk” Thornhill is ordered killed.  Townsend’s assistant Leonard (Martin Landau) forces a lot of alcohol down Thornhill’s throat to incapacitate him.  Thornhill wakes up in a car riding along a country road.  He manages to force the henchman out of the car, but this leaves him behind the wheel, in a severely intoxicated state, on a winding road.  He eventually crashes without killing himself and the police take him into custody.  He tries to tell people his story, but because he is drunk no one believes him.  The next morning someone finally decides to investigate.  When Thornhill and others go back out to the estate they see no sign of any of the things he says he encountered.

Thornhill is bound and determined to clear his name, even though drunk driving wasn’t considered very much of an offense back in those days.  He goes to the U.N. to confront the missing Townsend (he had found out earlier that’s where Townsend works.)  When he does meet with him, it’s not the man from the house.  It’s someone who Thornhill has never met, and isn’t going to meet again because he collapses in Thornhill’s arms, dead from a knife in the back.  Thornhill is seen with the body and is presumed to be the killer.  He has to go on the run to avoid being arrested.  He heads to the next place that this Kaplan is supposed to be going to see if he can clear his name.

Unbeknownst to Thornhill, there is no Kaplan.  It’s all a ruse by the government to make the fake Townsend (real name: Phillip Vandamm) reveal certain secrets by his pursuit of Kaplan.  The head of this misdirection operation (Leo G. Carroll) finds out about the real man being mistaken for the nonexistent one, but decides to do nothing about it other than observe, because this makes the situation even better for him (the head, not Thornhill.)

By the way, back in the 6th or 7th grade I did a report on the book The Man Who Never Was, which was about a real WWII operation to trick the Italians and Nazis into believing an attack on Italy’s islands was going to be completely different from what it really was.  They did this by making a corpse look like he was a secret agent carrying all of these (fake) plans.  The book was made into a movie in 1956, three years before this film came out.  If North by Northwest was not inspired by it, I would be surprised.

On a train to the next place Kaplan is supposed to be, Thornhill meets a beautiful woman who immediately helps him elude the conductors.  (He’s on the run, remember.)  She invites him to join her in the dining car.  Her name is Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint).  She and Thornhill flirt over dinner and go back to her cabin.  They romance some more and it’s not long before she has to tell Thornhill that he should not expect to sleep anywhere else than on the floor.  How lucky can a guy be?  He’s been having this horrible time, life in danger, on the run for a murder he didn’t commit, and all of a sudden this smart, beautiful, sophisticated woman just falls into his life.  Hmmm, maybe it’s a little too good to be true.  And why is she carrying a gun in her purse?  There’s much more that Thornhill is going to experience before this movie is over, including that meeting with a crop duster.

While there are no famous misquotes from this movie, I chose it to represent Grant’s film career since people would often do a Cary Grant impression by saying “Judy, Judy, Judy” in his accent.  That’s a phrase he never uttered in any role.  No one knows for sure why that became associated with Grant.  The closest he may have come was saying “Susan, Susan, Susan” in Bringing Up Baby.

I can’t take credit for this next concept.  Jay Cluitt of Life vs. Film wrote in his review of North by Northwest that the film could be seen as a proto-“James Bond” movie.  That had never occurred to me, but once it was pointed out, I completely agreed.  Think about it.  We have a male lead who’s smart, charming, good looking, urbane, and seems to live a life of constant danger.  He is opposed by an international bad guy, who employs exotic ways to try to kill him.  There is a beautiful woman who may or may not be on the side of the male lead.  And events in the movie take place at some famous locations (the U.N. and Mount Rushmore).

I would add to this a few more connections.  It was said that Ian Fleming partially based James Bond’s persona on Cary Grant.  It’s also said that Grant was in consideration for playing Bond, but turned it down because he felt he was too old for the part.  One other connection that interested me is that two cast members of North by Northwest would go on to TV shows about secret agents.  Leo G. Carroll would be on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Edward Platt (who played Thornhill’s lawyer who was representing him on the drunken driving charge) would play “Chief” on the spy-spoof TV show Get Smart.

If you have never seen North by Northwest, you really should.  In addition to some thrilling scenes, it features more than its share of witty one-liners and double entendres, some of which I’m surprised got past the censors at the time.  And of course there is the classic “train going into a tunnel” shot at the appropriate time (wink, wink).  Unless you hate Hitchcock movies for being, well, Hitchcockian, I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. This is, I'm not embarrassed to say, my favorite film ever. I love North by Northwest start to finish. The James Bond angle is a good one and one that I never considered. It's worth thinking through, though.

    If you want to pursue the idea of a man who never existed in a historical context, I highly recommend "Operation Mincemeat," a more-or-less historical account of the military operation you mention above. Fascinating book, even if you know the ending going in.

  2. "This is, I'm not embarrassed to say, my favorite film ever."

    Nor should you be embarrassed. I can't see anyone but the most stuck up "cinephile" giving you grief for that.

    Thanks for the tip on that book. I looked it up to see if it was the same book I had already read (guessing that it might have been renamed to The Man Who Never Was to match the movie after it came out.) As it turns out, the book I read was written by one of the two men who planned the operation (or at least was ghostwritten for him.) It was more a "just the facts" book, with things such as going to the detail of having a theater ticket on the corpse as additional proof of where he had been. After reading about Operation Mincemeat it sounds as though it offers the same facts, but in addition delves into the personalities of the people involved. I'll check it out when I get a chance, especially since I read The Man Who Never Was roughly 35 years ago and I'm sure I've forgotten much of what went into the planning.

  3. Hitchcock knew how to make really good films, and this is no exception. I have often wondered what would have happened to the Bond series if they had chose Grant at the first.

    1. Grant seemed perceptive about his age. His last few films where they paired him with much younger women (this one included) he asked for some changes to the script to at least refer to it. He ended up retiring less than 10 years later and no one ever got him to come back.

  4. It is Hitchcock's most entertaining film! Not my favorite but easily in my Top 5 of his films. It's hard to not like it.

    The new Blu-Ray edition is awesome by the way!

    1. Thanks for the info on the blu-ray. I have not seen it.