Monday, 25 May 2009

North by Northwest (1959)

Sometimes there's that happy occasion when you don't discover a film, the film discovers you. On the evening of the tedious World Cup Final in 1990 between West Germany and Argentina, I switched over to the non-football channels and found to my pleasant surprise, a film in colour on BBC2 with Cary Grant and my favourite cinema villain, James Mason. Both gentlemen looked very suave and witty, as also was Martin Landau (whom I'd seen recently in Francis Coppola's Tucker) as Mason's sidekick. To my utter delight, I then checked the listings to know more about this unexpected film, and discovered that it was directed by one Alfred Hitchcock. So, whilst Diego Maradona and company were crying and bickering themselves to deserved defeat against West Germany, I was laughing my head off at the sheer pleasure that is North by Northwest.

By the time I'd seen watched the farcical and thrillingly comical drunken drive (where the villains intend to kill Thornhill and make it resemble an accident) I was totally hooked, and never gave the football a second glance.

Cary Grant was probably the greatest James Bond there never was: suave, charming, dynamic when he needed to be, and most women's idea of their perfect man. All these elements were characteristic of James Bond - added to which was a self-deprecatory sense of goofiness, which served him very well through four decades of romantic and screwball comedies - and never was his sense of droll bewilderment better demonstrated than in North by Northwest.

Ernest Lehman's brilliant spiralling screenplay with lots of beautiful one-liners ("apparently the only performance that'll suit you is when I play dead!") incorporated many favourite Hitchcock elements, some of them easily recognisable from Hitch's earlier classic comedy thriller, The 39 Steps (also one of my favourites). This considerably more polished "American reworking" contained certain key elements added to the mixture - not least the score by Bernard Herrmann which played in perfect symbiosis with Hitch's sense of the playful yet suspenseful. The film is a glorious summing-up of Hitchcock's description of how he wanted the audience to have experienced the same thrills and detachment of real danger as on a switchback railway.

Hitchcock's own appearance in the film is one of his most amusing, just after his name has disappeared from the stylish credits (by Saul Bass), and sets the tone for the two hours that follow.

The premise is so delightfully absurd, yet in its own way alarmingly plausible: staying at the Plaza Hotel in New York is top CIA agent George Kaplan, who's hot on the trail of the smooth but deadly Russian agent Philip Vandamm (Mason), but Kaplan himself is an even cannier fellow who is always one step ahead of his enemies, so that not even the Russian agents or even the hotel porter knows what he looks like. So naturally when Vandamm's sidekicks spot Roger Thornhill (Grant) inadvertently answering a bellboy's request for a "Mr. George Kaplan", they eagerly latch on to their prized adversary, and never seem to doubt the fact that he's not the real mccoy.

So much of the suspicion of the Cold War was based on tip-offs and half-truths: it's more than likely therefore that an ordinary bloke in the street could easily be mistaken for a government agent. Although in this particular case, the "ordinary" bloke in question is actually quite a smooth operator, "an advertising man, not a red herring." Well, he's Cary Grant, after all.

As with any good spy story, there's usually a glamorous female interest somewhere in the midst of it, and after Thornhill's got himself into further trouble at the UN, as well as with his disbelieving mother (amusingly played by Jessie Royce Landis - only 7 years Grant's senior), he takes refuge on the 20th Century Express from New York Central, where he manages to evade the police with the help of sympathetic passenger Eve Kendall. But - guess what - Eve is secretly one of Vandamm's conspirators, and much more besides. But Thornhill is quickly smitten.

Eva Marie Saint looks dazzlingly sophisticated and skillful in the role, and in spite of the fact that this was her one and only romantic femme fatale role, she looks from first moment to last as if she was to the manor born.

Some of the set pieces just seem to exist for their own sake: the famous crop dusting sequence and the finale on Mount Rushmore to name but two. The spoilsports at Mount Rushmore itself disliked the idea of having their famous monument desecrated by having actors clambering around the dangerous structures (one idea of Hitch's was to have Thornhill hide in one of Abraham Lincoln's nostrils!), but this probably suited Hitchcock fine as he was always at his happiest controlling things from the confines of a studio anyway. So who cared if parts of the film seemed to just plod along in a kind of elegant 1950's way - Hitch was having fun with his set pieces, as he had in past years with the likes of Blackmail, Saboteur, The Man Who Knew Too Much (both versions) and of course The 39 Steps.

And it has one of the most brilliant and rapid summing-ups of a climax imaginable: from the sight of Martin Landau's foot about to step on Grant's flailing outstretched hand, to the brazenly cheeky symbolism of a train entering a tunnel, on which Mr and Mrs Thornhill are travelling back, the whole epilogue clocks in at a helter-skelter, all-encompassing forty-six seconds.

Result by the end of that evening: World Cup 0 Hitchcock 6.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films