Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Film Review: North By Northwest

"North By Northwest"
*** (out of ****)

Mistaken identity, government secrets and murder. All signs point us "North By Northwest" (1959) in Alfred Hitchcock's classic genre piece of Hollywood escapism.

Alfred Hitchcock is generally believed, by the public, to have been a filmmaker who was able to work inside the Hollywood studio system and still make meaningful work. Yes, his movies were commercial but they said something about society. They explored serious themes.

Lets not argue whether or not that is true but accept it at its face value, in which case "North By Northwest" is about nothing. The movie has no social commentary. It is not a clever political satire. It is pure "window dressing" - something that looks good but has no other value than aesthetics.

"North By Northwest" does not go over any new territory - thematically, for Mr. Hitchcock. The main thrust of the movie revolves around mistaken identity and an innocent man wrongfully accused. Mr. Hitchcock had several movies based on this idea. It was a favorite theme of his work. Some of Mr. Hitchcock's early British films dealt with this concept. The most memorable examples may be "The 39 Steps" (1935), "Young and Innocent" (1937) and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1934). By comparison however "North By Northwest" is a much more slick production. This Hollywood movie has much better production values than quite frankly any of Mr. Hitchcock's British movies including the ones previously mentioned. In some cases the acting is better in "North By Northwest", though, how do you not like Robert Donat in "The 39 Steps"? And the screenplay by Ernest Lehman is far superior than any screenplay Mr. Hitchcock worked with on his British movies.

The "problem" with "North By Northwest" is for a movie with nothing to say it goes on pretty long and resembles so many other Alfred Hitchcock movies. For a movie with directions in its title the movie itself is taking the viewing in all different directions and taking its cue from previous movies directed by Mr. Hitchcock. With the mistaken identity theme, as pointed out, we may drawn comparisons to several others movies by Mr. Hitchcock which dealt with the same concept. The most famous sequence in "North By Northwest" set against Mount Rushmore reminds us of another movie set against the backdrop of a famous American landscape, in "Saboteur" (1942) and the Statue of Liberty. Though I am not sure the symbolism is as effective in "North By Northwest" as it was in "Saboteur".

Still, none of this is to suggest "North By Northwest" is not a good movie. A movie which should be avoided by the American public. Absolutely not. "North By Northwest" is fun Hollywood entertainment. But, I may not regard the movie as highly as others in the public do. I do not considered this movie Mr. Hitchcock's best. I would not even place it among his top five or ten best. One of his most popular? Sure. A good starting place to gather insight into the work of Mr. Hitchcock? Maybe. It does explore the essential themes associated with Mr. Hitchcock, though I don't believe it explores those themes as well as it does in other movies.

Some will disagree and say "North By Northwest" does have something to say. It is reflective of the time period. They may attempt to suggest the movie addresses the Cold War. It is about spies and government secrets. It may deal with paranoia. Yes, these things may be mentioned but what is said about them? What about the Cold War? How exactly is "North By Northwest" making a statement on it? What about government secrets? It is the MacGuffin in Mr. Hitchcock's story. Nothing is said about those secrets.

While there are perhaps some instances when "North By Northwest" does create suspense, there is the famous sequence in the crop field with the crop duster plane, the moments which work best in "North By Northwest" deal with a romance between the two lead characters.

It is when dealing with the movie's romance the screenplay by Mr. Lehman really sparkles. The movie has the "filthiest" dialogue I can recall in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The script is flooded with sexual innuendos. Even by today's standards (which are monumentally lower!) the dialogue still sounds flirty and naughty. Imagine what audiences in 1959 thought! This is what you would call "hip", "suave" dialogue.

Unfortunately, even while the romance aspect of the movie works, it needs to be mentioned this too feels borrowed from another of Mr. Hitchcock's movies, "Notorious" (1946), which also starred Cary Grant and dealt with government secrets and spies. "Notorious" I would argue is one of Mr. Hitchcock's finest films.

One last area of criticism I have regarding "North By Northwest" has to do with the musical score by Bernard Herrmann. Mr. Herrmann was a great composer. He wrote some brilliant themes for Mr. Hitchcock's movies. In my opinion his scores for "Vertigo" (1958) and "Psycho" (1960) are wonderful. The theme for "North By Northwest", by itself, playing over the movie's credits, is good. But when you incorporate it behind scenes in the movie it doesn't work. The music doesn't compliment the scenes. It is too forceful. It suggest too much. It is just a piece of music behind a scene.

In "North By Northwest" Cary Grant stars as Roger Thornhill - a New York advertising executive who is mistaken for George Kaplan, a man who is wanted by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and his right hand man, Leonard (Martin Landau). Roger has no idea who George Kaplan is, who Phillip is, or what Phillip wants with George. What Roger soon discovers though is Phillip wants to kill him since he will not cooperate with him and Phillip's organization.

The audience however learns George Kaplan is a fictitious agent created by the F.B.I. to make Phillip believe they are hot on his trail and prepared to take down his crew. Roger Thornhill however is an unfortunate calamity caught in the middle, for whom they are willing to let be killed in order to protect George Kaplan.

While trying to free his name and find the real George Kaplan, Roger Thornhill meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) on a train heading to Chicago. These two "strangers on a train" begin a romance when Eva makes a very direct pass at Roger and offers to help him clear his name. She believes his story because, as she says, Roger has a nice face.

The question for Roger becomes, who can he trust? Who is working against him and who is on his side?

When we think of Alfred Hitchcock we may think master of suspense however, anyone who has watched all of his movies or a good number of them knows Mr. Hitchcock peppers his movies with dark humor. "North By Northwest" is no different. I have always felt "Rear Window" (1954) was Mr. Hitchcock's best movie. A lot of that has to do with the movie's humor. In "Rear Window" Mr. Hitchcock is able to find the perfect balance and tone to inject his sense of humor. I'm not completely sure the humor in "North By Northwest" gels as smoothly.

The most humorous relationship in the movie is between Roger and his mother (Jessie Royce Landis). She doesn't believe Roger's story that people are after him. She makes insinuations Roger is a drunk and has womanizing tendencies. These two characters have a very good rapport between them and you almost wish there were more scenes for the mother character. Sometimes though the humor feels a little forced. It is trying too hard to go for a laugh.

The performances however given by Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are quite effective. Mr. Grant seems to be playing off the public persona established for him of a suave ladies man who had a natural ability for comedy. Mr. Grant plays Roger Thornhill with a wry smile but is often able to find the correct balance, knowing when to play the character with a wink and when to milk the situation for all the suspense it is worth.

Ms. Saint on the other hand may be the most sexual of all the "Hitchcock Blondes" I can recall. I am not sure how that benefits the movie over-all though the relationship between the two characters helps build on tension created.

If there is something negative to say about the performances and the characters it is that the love affair seems to happen too fast and it is not believable. It is difficult to accept these two characters are in love. The betrayal felt by one of the characters is plausible but nothing else.

"North By Northwest" feels like little more than a genre picture to me. It is almost a lark for Mr. Hitchcock, especially after he was coming off the financial failure of "Vertigo". At its time of release "North By Northwest" was considered a return to form for Mr. Hitchcock. Still it has something in common with "Vertigo". Both movies have characters searching for people that don't exist. Clearly, "North By Northwest" is the lighter of the two but that doesn't mean it is the less entertaining of the two. "North By Northwest" has its strong points - Cary Grant, sharp screenplay, some suspenseful sequences but it doesn't equal greatness. Mr. Hitchcock has made better movies but even a so-called "lesser" movie (I hate that term) by Mr. Hitchcock is worth watching.