North By Northwest
North by Northwest plays like an American travelogue, a Hitchcockian-flavored vacation with some Cary Grant for spice. It begins in New York, takes us over to Chicago, and then to Mount Rushmore. It even takes us crawling over the faces of our founding fathers and then sets us back on the train again for more. The film looks great and the Technicolor never ceases to amaze. You’ve seen an explosion in the movies sure, but perhaps not ripe with the fierce orange that Technicolor paints it with. Cary Grant has star power, and he’s a witty laugh riot the whole way through. Eva Marie Saint does classic femme fatale turned genuine love interest, and Jesse Royce Landis gets a comedic turn playing Cary’s mother.
Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhille is the desperate vassal to our tours. He’s an average man, caught in the middle of some political intrigue. What he gets in return for his entrapment (besides a drastically shortened life expectancy) is one hell of a cheap vacation and a beautiful woman.
He’s snatched one day from the routine of his schedule by two sleazy looking goons in suits. Neither we nor Roger know why, and it’s an interesting detail that we are only as clueless as Roger, which is to say very much so. I will refrain from the details of the plot because in films like this the details are the meat of the matter. Roger gets swung a million different ways, from one token American vista to the next. He becomes a pawn in a larger game, but his sly wit is just enough to keep him from being taken out amongst the bigger players.
The film consists of several ingenious scenarios connected by the railroad tracks and streets in which we travel. An art auction sees Roger in one of his most sticky situations and it’s a joy to see him wiggle his way out. The iconic airplane set piece is equally intelligent, but strikes a different tone; Hitchcock has fun with a mixed bag of suspenseful wizardry.
However, North by Northwest is not perfect the same way Hitchcock is not (though his imperfection is part of his charm). Though the plot begins intriguing, it is marred by sporadic moments of pivotal disbelief. It’s unfortunate that these set pieces cannot be complemented by a plot that encompasses their migrating nature. I understand that the big set pieces and locations were of utmost importance, but they would have been more effective with a plot that gave them a meatier purpose. Too often it will rely on characters to play dumb, and so we too as an audience must downplay their motives. It also has a bad habit of excessive exposition.
This issue similarly shames one of Hitchcock’s best films, Psycho. That film is ingenious filmmaking up until the very end when Hitchcock decides to hit us over the head with a thick chunk of blatant exposition. North by Northwest doesn’t chug to a stop the way Psycho did in the end, but it experiences minor slowdown in brief moments throughout. This issue is ironic when you consider Hitchcock’s classic “Bomb under the table” scenario. He emphasizes that the suspense exists in the ticking and not the detonation. Also true, is that the thrills of mystery are in its uncertainty and not its answers. So it baffles me as to why Hitchcock often seems hell-bent on deflating the mystery he’s so expertly created with overly explicit answers.
But I digress. North by Northwest is a thoroughly exhilarating cinematic achievement, and its craftsmanship is too often genius to dwell long on any bewildering problems.