Tuesday, 26 June 2012

North By Northwest (1959)

Late 50s/early 60s nostalgia has never been hotter. Everyone wants a slice of the Mad Men pie, from McDonald's to Farmer's Dairy (BEEP, motherfuckers! I am drinking a glass of that shit RIGHT NOW). I once read a philosophical treatise (or maybe it was just a blog post) which theorized that every generation idealizes its grandparents' heyday -- for the Millennials, that's roughly the mid-50s to mid-60s. Is it true? Who cares. Let's just go ahead and hook Black Cat Reviews to the vintage-chic bandwagon so we can pay a visit to one of retro-est movies of them all: North by Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchcock). This film's got Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and good old Hitch on board, and if they forgot to bring a coherent plot, that's in keeping with the times.

In Soviet Russia, plane catches you!
In North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for a spy called George Kaplan by foreign agent Phillip Vandamm (James Mason, pre-Lolita). There's a reason why this occurs, but it's not a very good one: enjoyment of this movie largely depends on accepting that its characters are good-looking plot devices and will behave accordingly. Vandamm purrs and vogues and acts vaguely European and finally tries to have Thornhill killed, so Thornhill goes on the run and encounters Eve (Eva Marie Saint). Eve wants to help him -- then she wants to kill him -- then she wants to help him -- or does she want to kill him?! (SPOILER ALERT: she wants to help him). Mysterious and frightening events (some of which are explained and some of which are not) continue to happen to Roger for the next two hours, culminating in he and Eve hanging by their fingertips off of Mount Rushmore. Just when it seems there`s no possible escape for the intrepid duo, we cut to their honeymoon! They`re okay after all! (What?).

I know that a lot of people love North by Northwest, and it's got its high points, but the nostalgia factor can't make up for the fact that this movie just does not make sense. Its secret agents make such asinine mistakes, their double-dealing and narrow escapes are so outlandish, that it's almost more an art movie than a coherent story. The climax is the worst offender for such potholed plotting: Eve and Thornhill face certain doom, but the movie's too lazy to explain now they escape it, so we're left feeling cheated and uncertain that they're really all right. I'm half-convinced that the final images of Eve and Thornhill clinking their champagne glasses together and flirting are Thornhill's dying fantasy as he plummets to his doom from Mount Rushmore.

There's good stuff here too -- Saint's smoldering Eve is an early proponent of free love, refreshing considered beside Hitchcock's usual fave, Princess Grace (Kelly). And any movie that pits its hero against a cropduster and sticks its final showdown on George Washington's nose has chutzpah that's hard to disdain. All in all, I give a 3/5 to North by Northwest. Watch it, but know that the best part is Cary Grant taking his shirt off.

If you knew how long it took me to find this screenshot.
SCENE STEALER: Cary Grant with no shirt.

Is that BLING around Cary Grant's neck?
I'm just kidding. Today's scene stealer is actually this chick:

The Mom look.
This is Jessie Royce Landis as Thornhill`s mom, Clara. Landis is only six years older than Grant, but that's no sillier than anything else in this movie. She steals most of the film's funniest lines as she investigates her son's mistaken identity, at one point petulantly demanding "you gentlemen aren't REALLY trying to kill my son, are you?" of the spies she's cornered in an elevator. She sort of functions as a built-in RiffTrax: too bad the movie dispenses with her so quickly.


  1. I love Hitchcock, but this movie didn't really do anything for me (except for the mom. You're right in that she's one of the highlights).

    1. I wish all Hitchcock's movies had a bitchy mom character. Well, I guess Psycho does. Sort of.