Thursday, May 10, 2012

Another Winner From The Classic Film Collection: North By Northwest

The Good: Good acting, interesting characters, Much of the plot
The Bad: Many "surprises" are dated, Several sets
The Basics: With its smart tale of mistaken identity and cross-country travel for truth and exoneration, North By Northwest is surprisingly worthwhile, even today!

Those who read my reviews tend to know that I'm not a fan of many old movies. If it's in black and white, odds are I didn't enjoy it (notable exception being Casablanca, reviewed here!). Usually, it's the writing, if it's a comedy, I'm not much of a fan of slapstick. I had seen The Birds when I was rather young, but I had not seen any Hitchcock movies since. Until now, when I was given the opportunity to see his political conspiracy thriller North By Northwest on the big screen.

I was pleasantly surprised.

North By Northwest follows an odd turn of events for protagonist Roger Thornhill. An advertising executive, Thornhill is mistaken by spies as a spy and set upon by the villainous Phillip Vandamm. Abducted and threatened, Roger attempts to simply let the truth set him free by stating that he is not the person that Vandamm's people think he is. When he is intoxicated and set to be killed through driving while drunk, Thornhill becomes interested in the person Vandamm's men thought he was. His search puts him in the company of the mysterious Eve Kendall and sets him on a cross-country cat-and-mouse adventure that has him fleeing for his life and searching for the truth.

To cut right to the chase, as it were, this IS the movie that has both the plane shooting at a man (Thornhill) while running through a cornfield and the one that climaxes on Mt. Rushmore. Those are the two frequent allusions to North By Northwest, though there is a great deal that the Bond movies would seem to owe to this Hitchcock thriller.

The thing that surprised me about North By Northwest was how smart it was. Instead of relying on random chance, it's an extraordinarily well put together film in terms of story. All of the pieces fall into place and make sense. But equally smart is the dialogue. Roger Thornhill sounds like a confident, successful executive. Vandamm sounds like a villain and Eve sounds like exactly who she is.

The exchanges between Roger and Eve are smart and frank. I was surprised, as a student of history, by how direct North By Northwest was in terms of sexuality. For a film made in 1959 I was surprised by how direct Roger and Eve are when they begin to engage one another sexually - no pretense of love there! And that, possibly more than anything else, raised the movie up for me and made the characters real and eliminated any element in the film that might seem dated.

And there is a lot that does seem dated here. Thornhill's drunk driving scene is supposed to be suspenseful and comic and while Hitchcock directs is well, it's terrible on a technical level. Indeed, the bluescreen technology is so obvious and bad that it rips the viewer out of the story. It's laughable and while unavoidable given the time it was made in, it dates the film in terms of the movie's "look."

Similarly, one of the biggest reversals in terms of character in North By Northwest hinges on outdated gender roles. While I'm sure audiences in 1959 were surprised by the true nature of one of the characters, the truth was blindingly obvious to me almost from the beginning.

Which is not to say there were not elements other than the frank sexuality that surprised me. No, this is a well-concieved conspiracy tale which means there are some decent reversals and there are moments of real cliffhangers. In short, this is ultimately a cool movie.

Part of what makes it work is the timeless quality that comes from the caliber of acting presented in the film. There are some pretty wonderful performances. A young Martin Landau appears as the villainous henchman Leonard and he sells himself quite well. One wonders if he was noted back when the movie first was presented. James Mason does a competent job as the often understated Phillip Vandamm, presenting a character who has an intelligence indicated through the gleaming in his eyes.

Eva Marie Saint plays Eve Kendall and she is articulate and expressive, easily convincing the viewers of her capability. Eva is called upon to be both strong and vulnerable, but always intelligent and she mixes the emotions well to create a well-conceived and well-presented character. There is never a moment in North By Northwest where the viewer feels like they are watching an actress perform. Eva is entirely "on" as her character. And it helps that she has great on-screen chemistry with the lead, Cary Grant.

North By Northwest is the first movie I've seen Cary Grant in, to my knowledge. It's easy to see why he is such a well-respected actor from this era of cinema. He is smart and dashing and his talents are quite obvious in this film. Grant is given the challenge of playing a character who is very smart and used to being in control who is thrust into circumstances quite outside what he is used to. He does a respectable job of playing strong and ignorant, turning on a dime. His talents make the 136 minutes fly by. Indeed, this movie is so well-paced it does not feel like it is over two hours long (and I'm someone who likes three hour movies!).

Who will enjoy North By Northwest? Certainly fans of vintage cinema. This is one of the better offerings from the late 50s. Anyone who enjoys a decent conspiracy thriller will find a lot to enjoy in North By Northwest. Anyone who can suspend their need for technical precision (i.e. special effects, spectacle) will easily be captivated by the story, characters, and acting in North By Northwest. Anyone looking for the fantasy 1950s where women stay at home and are bland and chaste will not like this one.

For other classic films, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Citizen Kane
All Quiet On The Western Front


For other film reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movies I have reviewed.

© 2012, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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