December 31, 2020Series
Roger Thornhill is an effortlessly debonair advertising exec (obviously - he's Cary Freaking Grant!). He's meeting colleagues at the Plaza when two goons of indeterminate origin mistake him for one George Kaplan. They abduct him at gunpoint and drive him to the estate of Lester Townsend (James Mason) who threatens Thornhill (in plummy, civilized tones), even as he protests they've got the wrong guy. Townsend and his super-sinister henchman, Leonard (played to perfection by Martin Landau) are convinced he is Kaplan and a hazard to what appears to be a criminal enterprise. Thornhill manages to escape temporarily, but the trouble follows him and he decides his only way out is to find the real Kaplan and clear his own name. What follows is a cross-country cat and mouse chase which includes at least two of the most iconic action scenes in cinema history.
The first Cary Grant movie I ever saw was The Philadelphia Story. In fact, it's the first black and white film I ever remember watching on purpose, and it cracked open a whole library of classics that I had otherwise never considered. That movie was made in 1940, and Grant played CK Dexter Haven, Katharine Hepburn's impossibly suave ex-husband. To be fair, Grant played the same type of role in almost every film, but he did it so damn well you won't hear me complaining. Almost 20 years later in North by Northwest he's still unbelievably handsome and quick-witted, with pristine comic timing. All that and he wears the hell out of a suit. Thornhill's predicament in NxNW is a familiar one in thrillers - wrongly accused, no one believes him, constantly backed into corners he has to wriggle out of. And Grant had such a natural, commanding presence that we can believe that an advertising exec with (presumably) no previous espionage experience can pull it all off, quipping as he goes. In one of my favorite lines, when it becomes clear his life is in danger once again, he mentions the secretary, mother and two bartenders that depend on him. So you see it would be far too inconvenient for him to be killed. Heh. Grant is a leading man for the ages, and if you've never seen one of his movies this is an excellent introduction.
Even after the first time I watched NxNW, both actors made an indelible impression. Upon a recent rewatch I was surprised by how little actual screen time they had. They were larger than life. Landau conveyed menace just by leaning a certain way, and one of the most chilling moments from Mason was a small one - his hand on the back of a neck. It takes a whole lot of charisma to create such a big seof danger out of so little, and despite employing the two incompetent henchmen who kick the story off, Mason is a highly credible crime boss.
If you haven't watched a lot of "old" movies, it can be startling how much longer scenes tend to last. You realize that we're used to things moving much more quickly in the modern film era. But once you get used to things being stretched out a bit, it stops being distracting. Hitchcock does a great job of mixing it up - action sequences followed by witty repartee followed by slowly building dread leading to another action sequence. The score does a lot to help with that - and clearly the music from Jaws owes this film a debt. Music is used really effectively to convey the sense of trouble lurking around the margins. There's a crescendo that's repeated every time the action kicks off - we first hear it in the overture and it's a great cue to know that our hero is in particular trouble at that moment.
Hitchcock really knew how to frame a shot. There are many famous moments in the film, but even the less notorious ones are cool and creative. There's one shot in particular filmed from above as Thornhill leaves the United Nations building in New York and jumps into a yellow taxi cab that could hang in a museum. And in the scenes preceding the big action set pieces, there are hints of what's to come if you look in the deep background of the screen. Finally, it's a little thing, but the cars of the late 50s were gorgeous - they add a real sense of glamour to the story.
A character played by Cary Grant would never let a little thing like running for his life get in the way of flirting with a gorgeous blonde. Thornhill meets Saint's Eve Kendall on the train to Chicago, and they exchange improbably fantastic dialogue filled with innuendo and wit. She quickly becomes his ally and they are a great match - both as characters but also as actors. I can't imagine it was easy for anyone to live up to the je ne sais quoi Grant brought to every scene. But Saint is amongst the best I've seen in his company, and her story ends up being quite a bit more interesting than you might imagine.
I'll refrain from sharing any twists and turns of the plot. Reveals come at a regular pace and the story is clear and reasonably easy to follow if you pay attention. In several instances you learn a few things before Thornhill does, so while he spends a good deal of the movie confused and in the dark, you don't have to. And humor is threaded throughout the film, which lightens the tension in almost every scene. As we're all looking forward to the end of the year, it wouldn't hurt to take a look back to a movie that has really stood the test of time. A few of the characters share a champagne toast near the end of the film - you should join them!
North by Northwest is streaming on HBO Max, and available for rent on other services.
Happy New Year to All!