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Movie Review: North by Northwest

North by Northwest
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Ernest Lehman
MGM, 1959

Alfred Hitchcock certainly is one of my all-time favorites, and for the past two years I’ve been able to actually handle his films, holding the 35mm print in my hands (last year was Strangers on a Train).  I don’t know how many other projectionists feel this way when they’re building a print of a legend (especially when it is a legendary film in its own right), but it adds to the experience.

North by Northwest is a classic mistaken identity story that leads an ordinary man into extraordinary danger, but I think the reason why the bad guys mistake him for someone else is still the most original I’ve seen in these type of movies, which I won’t spoil here if you’ve never seen it.  Madison Avenue ad exec Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is abducted and taken to a house by men working for Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), who think he’s spy George Kaplan.  This house has the name of “Townsend” on the driveway, which Thornhill has to remember later.  Vandamm makes his bad-guy living by smuggling microfilm of U.S. secrets to interested buyers.

Thornhill repeatedly denies being Kaplan, which of course no one is going to believe because spies are so good at lying.  He escapes after getting a full glass of Bourbon poured down his throat and he’s put into a car, with the expectation that he’ll be too passed out to notice he’s going to go over a cliff.  After he tries to explain to the police what happened and an investigation turns up nothing, Thornhill tries to see who the real Kaplan is and confront him.  But, as his own detective work leads him into Kaplan’s world, the more and more Vandamm is convinced that he is indeed Kaplan.

Thornhill eventually goes to meet U.N. diplomat Lester Townsend (Philip Ober), the name that was on the house, to see if he knows anything.  Unfortunately, events at the U.N. make Thornhill a wanted man all across the country.  He stows away on a train to Chicago, where he meets the outstandingly lovely Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who mysteriously wants to help the man with the face that’s plastered over all the newspapers.  Kendall, of course, is more than she seems, much more than the woman who seems to enjoy the danger of keeping (and seducing) a stranger in her compartment.

The man who can really help Thornhill is The Professor (Leo G. Carroll), a spy handler who knows who Kaplan is.  However, helping Thornhill would endanger the Vandamm mission, so his hands are tied, until Thornhill makes a move that forces his appearance.

Hitchcock wasn’t called the Master of Suspense for nothing.  The reason why a scene like the crop duster ambush is so good is the setup and the delivery.  Thornhill is expecting to meet Kaplan out in a minimally-traveled road going through cornfields.  It’s all very quiet for the most part.  He approaches a man waiting for a bus is on the other side of the road, and you can hear the nonchalant sounds of the crop duster in the background.  Before the man gets on his bus, he remarks, “That’s strange.  That crop duster’s dusting where there ain’t no crops.”  Amazing how one little line like that elevates the level of danger, and the quiet, middle-of-nowhere setting just adds to the unease.

There are lots of great scenes in this, culminating in a finale on Mount Rushmore.  It’s expertly plotted, well-performed (Grant is perfect here, and Eva Marie Saint is gorgeous and seductive), and tremendously executed.  There’s a reason why it’s a classic, and even nearly 50 years later has the ability to thrill.

A young Martin Landau plays Vandamm’s right hand man Leonard, and watch the little boy in the background during a scene where a gun is about to go off: he covers his ears.  And of course, who could forget the cheeky last shot of a train entering a tunnel in the most classic sexual metaphor ever (the editing is what sells it best).

If you’ve never seen this…well you know the rest. 

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