North by Northwest
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Roger: The moment I meet an attractive woman, I have to start pretending I have no desire to make love to her.
In 2012 Sight and Sound voted Vertigo as the best film. Of. All. Time. I think it would be cool maybe to do a Film Club thing all about it – but it seems a bit too advanced maybe? So you know – baby steps and all that. – how about we do Hitchcock but talk about North by Northwest instead? I mean: yeah you know – it’s a classic and all: but it’s also a classic that’s actually fun to watch.
(In fact LOL I just this second checked Hitchcock’s filmography and Vertigo came out in 1958 while North by Northwest came out in 1959: so you know – that must mean it’s even better right?)
Hitchcock kinda occupies a strange position in the cinematic world: like during his heyday he was pretty much dismissed as low common denominator entertainment and now he’s respected and admired for his careful and meticulous craftsmanship, his attention to detail and (of course) his sly sense of humour. Thinking face emoji – it’s almost as if that’s the fate of all great artists? To be overlooked as common people dross in their own time and then being lauded and fawned over many years hence when a safe little critical consensus has been formed (needless to say: I am suspicious of this).
But yeah – I must admit that I do like Alfred Hitchcock.
Seeing how I had so much fun doing it for The Shining I thought that before we started on NBNW that I’d do some background reading and maybe make sure that I had at least somesort of intellectual fig leaf to cover my musings (like I don’t know – maybe the whole film is Cary Grant running from his latent homosexuality something?). But instead I found something a lot cooler – a book called Hitchcock on Hitchcock (which I borrowed from my Library but which LOL it turns out I actually already own – who would have thunk it?)
I had a look on the contents page and didn’t say anything about NBNW but did see an article called “Core of the Movie – The Chase (1950)” which well you know – seemed pertinent to the present conversation and yeah – wow – it seems as if the dastardly Hitchcock had somehow managed to travel through time, steal my thoughts and then went back and planted the article for me to read… (damn him).
Q First, Mr. Hitchcock, I wonder if you would tell us why you consider the chase so important in films?
A. Well, for one thing, the chase seems to me the final expression of the motion picture medium. Where but on the screen can automobiles be shown careening around corners after each other? Then, too, the movie is the natural vessel for the chase story because the basic film shape is continuous. Once a movie starts it goes right on. You don’t stop it for scene changes, or to go out and have a cigarette.
Q. You think, then, that the chase may be the best way to exploit the possibilities of the camera?
A. I do, yes. I would say the chase is almost indigenous to movie technique as a whole.
Q. Before we go on, maybe it would be a good idea for you to define the term “chase.”
A. Well, essentially, the chase is someone running toward a goal, often with the antiphonal motion of someone fleeing a pursuer. Probably the fox hunt would be the simplest form of the chase. Now if you substitute a girl for the fox, and put a boy in place of the hunters, you have the boy-chases-girl variation. Or substituting again, the police chasing a criminal. So long as a plot has either flight or pursuit, it may be considered a form of the chase. In many ways the chase makes up about 60 percent of the construction of all movie plots.
Needless to say: this is total insightful genius. Like I’m not sure if The Hitch was the first one to put this idea into the water and it just floated it’s way downstream into my mind from another direction but I honestly believe that this gets to something really insightful about how good movies work..
Actually now I think about it I think it was an article I read way back when in the Guardian Review (LOL) that kinda put the same principal in a slightly different way… Basically – that the secret ingredient for a film to work successfully is that in the first half an hour or so the main character has to want something.
Now of course you may disagree with this and your experience of movies maybe (most probably) is very different to mine and unfortunately the only view I had of the world is the one from my own eyes but I’ve found this to be a very helpful star to guide myself by when trying to work out what it is I enjoy about a particular movie (or not). It’s not something that I keep consciously in mind when I’m watching something (Cut to: me checking watch saying “I sure hope the main character starts to want something soon…“) but after the movie is done and using it to conduct an autopsy on my experience and enjoyment of it – it’s the most useful tool in my kit: thinking about what it is the main character wants and how clearly (or not) that was communicated to me and basically – using that key everything else kinda becomes clear.
And so yeah – going further from that (and going back to The Hitch): obviously the format of the chase is the most aerodynamically designed system for delivering the optimal audience experience and why so many of the very best / my favourite movies utilise that structure (just off the top of my head): The Terminator; Apocalypto, Se7en; Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan and – oh – Total Recall, The Shining; Laputa and Cloverfield too… 🙂
But yeah: North by Northwest! Crop dusters and stuff! The things that movie magic is made from!
Or if you prefer: we can talk Vertigo….?
Over to you.
I haven’t watched Vertigo. On Monday night tho I did watch the new Mission Impossible film tho which was genuinely amazing (in fact the only thing about it was the oh-so-generic name – why didn’t they call it Mission Impossible: Tom Cruise versus Superman instead? I don’t know…)
Am totally stealing this little insight from Jonathan (sorry dude!) but after we watched North by Northwest he made a remark about what a funny coincidence it was that North by Northwest came out in 1959 and then in 1962 there was Dr No. Almost as if Albert R. Broccoli was in the audience for the Hitchcock film and then slowly took his cigar out of his mouth and was all like “hey – you know what? This gives me an idea…”
It’s funny how North by Northwest came first tho. As in some respects – it’s seems like an answer to Bond. Eve Kendall is – in some respects – a female Bond, doing her best to complete the mission and not get distracted by Cary Grant who – it must be said – is a bit of a buffoon at times (Brief side note: oh my god I honestly think that this is one of the funniest films I’ve seen for quite some time: the first half especially had me almost screaming with laughter at several points: where the whole film just kinda seems to be smirking at itself… Altho I guess it’s an open question how much of this is deliberate and how much of it is just modern eyes looking back in time – I would bet money tho that most of the jokes and wry moments are intentional). But yeah – how much more exciting is Bond when he doesn’t even realise that he’s supposed to be Bond? Actually – how much more exciting is Bond when he has his mother following him around on his missions? And yeah man – I don’t know – there’s so many of these nice little moments that just seem to make the film snap. When the bad guys hold Cary down and start pouring him a drink and then just don’t stop. Or the scene where the whole elevator (plus mum) laugh at the fact that these people are here to kill our hero (it’s like out of Freud or something).
Texting a friend about Mission Impossible he said it was funny how Tom Cruise is basically American James Bond – but they’ve taken all the sex out and instead it’s just single Tom thinking about his ex-wife. But then I guess what North by Northwest and Mission Impossible both have in common (and why I enjoy both) is that they kinda take that Bond archetype and then stretch it in different and interesting ways… Especially in the way that they dole out information – it’s cool that on the train platform you see Cary Grant already wearing the baggage handler uniform and only after do you see the guy he stole it from coming out of the train… It’s the little stuff like that which keeps you hooked you know?
(Kinda wanna do a Film Club on the Mission Impossible films now – but maybe we should wait a while…)
Favourite moments: the guy getting the knife thrown at his back in the UN building which has all of the slow motion reactions of a nightmare and thus = one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen (is there a gif of it? Because there should totally be a gif of it).
(Damnit can’t find one of the whole thing oh well).
And oh yeah Martin Landau!
Some top trivia for you:
Among the problems that the Production Code found with this film was the effeminacy of the henchman Leonard (Martin Landau).
In numerous interviews, Martin Landau said that he made a decision on his own to play the character of Leonard as gay and in love with Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). In an October 2012 interview with Devin Faraci, Landau said that he was cast in North by Northwest when Hitchcock “saw me in a play called ‘Middle of the Night,’ Paddy Chayefsky’s first Broadway play, with Edward G. Robinson, which I toured with after the Broadway run. He was there opening night. I played a very macho guy, 180 degrees from Leonard, who I chose to play as a homosexual–very subtly. Because he wanted to get rid of Eva Marie Saint with such a vengeance. James Mason, to the day he died–he became a friend of mine–the most often asked question of James was whether Vandamm, his character, was bisexual. He said, ‘No he wasn’t, but Landau made a choice and there’s nothing I can do about it.’ I actually caused him some grief! Everyone told me not to do that because it was my first big movie and people would think I was gay. I’m an actor! I said it wasn’t going to be my last movie, and it certainly wasn’t. I’ve never played a character like that since. I also felt it was something people would know or not know. It was very subtle. I thought in Boise, Idaho they might not notice.” Landau also said that after he made the decision to play Leonard as gay, Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman were very supportive of the idea. “Ernie Lehman added a line which was not in the script. ‘Call it my woman’s intuition’ was not in the original script. It was a very daring line for the ’50s. Men didn’t say things like that. Hitchcock loved what I did and left me alone.”
So yeah – cool film. 🙂
Barbican Comic Forum
So I concur that NXNW is hilarious and it’s weird because when I first watched the film I recall the train scenes being considerably more tense and the question mark over Eve Kendall and whether she was good or bad being part of the driving force of the movie. In my mind she was more mercurial, the baddies were more cold blooded and Cary Grant was a desperate man whose life had been turned upside down in a world he never made. In other words very Hitchcock.
Indeed I wonder if this mid-remembering might not be a standard Hitchcock trick/trope because I also remember watching the *very* similar 39 Steps years ago, with people saying how it was a masterpiece of suspense and in exactly the same way it was more like if you put Harry Enfield’s Mr Cholmondley-Warner character in a James Bond movie – it was sort of ridiculous. Similarly the film Psycho starts of as a heist movie and The Birds as a weird romantic comedy, but everyone sort of Mandela Effects that stuff out of the way. I can see why my brain put together the edited highlights of NXNW and came out with a paranoid thriller that never really exists. Of course the other explanation might just be changing standards – like the way Batman 89 has gone from dark and edgy to at least as camp as 60’s Batman over time.
Immediately after re-watching NXNW I was complaining about how the scene in the CIA boardroom undermined the whole suspense because it explains how the entire film is going to play out, only keeping back the fact that Eva Kendall’s character is the real spy (and that may well be because we haven’t met her yet). I was unhappy because the Cary Grant character can get away with being a little erratic when his whole life has been destroyed by shadowy forces, but once we know the identity and motives of those forces it deflates that tension… Except that the tension wasn’t ever there because, as Joel points out, his mum was with him for half the film!
It’s such a perfect a way to undermine your manly heroic character. Imagine if Tyler Durden just rolled up to his mum’s house and she made him a cup of tea and told him to take it easy. Indeed this happens when Neo meets the Oracle and she points out that he’s not special and if anything is a bit thick. It completely changes the jeopardy in the movie. I guess the opposite would be putting the scary guy in Too Many Cooks.
So why does Hitchcock take a high concept, crowd pleaser like a man on the run, or killer birds, knife wielding murders and then hold that film at arms length for as long as possible? Is that all part of the trick? He explains his Bomb Under the Table methodology https://youtu.be/8J3O3KVAeFQ and perhaps explains why even though he holds back the psycho and the birds but puts those elements in the title just to create a tension for the audience but not for the characters. In NXNW though presumably the marketing was all about how much danger Cary Grant was in but he handholds the audience through the first half presumably because he was worried they would run out of the theatre screaming. Maybe that’s what it takes to make a crowd pleaser for the wussy 60s generation who couldn’t manage more than 10 minutes of nail-biting.
Also just to add, by creating a “normal” world with gambling addict mums, advertising salesmen, and erm creepy sexist banter it helps set up a nice Hitchcockian alternate reality idea: “see those birds over there, murder birds.” “That hotel owner, yep he’s a murderer” “those guys talking on a train, oh you better believe they’re murderers.”
I met a spy once (at least knowingly once). His job, essentially war-gaming threats against [redacted location], sounded quite fun although his main occupation of being hyper paranoid about listening devices and such like, seems like less fun.
The spies in NXNW are shown as having a fairy boring time, spending most of the film sitting about, hanging around airports, or handling Cary Grant (they should probably have shot him right?). Eve Kendall’s job meanwhile is pretty horrific and she barely conceals the trauma she is going through as a convenient CIA honey trap.
This certainly contrasts to Bond and Ethan Hunt who divide their time fairly evenly between extreme sports, and wry banter with the evil and the glamorous. Serial seducer Bond has been going for 60 odd years and yet has not had to gay bait a single henchman, yet every single mission he actively encourages gunfights and car chases in an array of tourist attractions and public spaces “for the greater good.”
But of course Cary Grant is not a spy, and therefore his appalling incompetence is at least forgivable. Not that being a spy should be confused with competence. Adam Curtis points out at length here that if Her Majesty’s Secret Service has a record of anything, it’s staggering incompetence http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/entries/3662a707-0af9-3149-963f-47bea720b460 The real role of spies of course is to be like the character of Marcus Brody described by Indie https://youtu.be/hOmpLholhvI but what we got is the actual Marcus Brody. Nor are the “competent” spies much better – Ethan Hunt are not interested in understanding cultural differences or anything about the motivations of bad guys, they just react to things – intelligence is supposed to imply insight but the NXNW/Bond template is that movie spies can only operate by constantly reacting to things. No time to get involved, just need to keep muddling through with heavy weapons until the problem is lying dead in a piranha tank. The only good guy in Mission Impossible 5 is Alec Baldwin’s character who has them bang to rights: https://youtu.be/edHVID5mifQ
When my acquaintance described his recruitment, it was the standard story of being tapped on the shoulder at Oxford. As a 23 year old at the time my main envy was his getting a proper job without having to send 90 CVs painting my limited experience of admin as if I had invented Mail-merge. Indeed as someone who has spent most of their career with very high security clearance I can confirm that being a lazy incompetent idiot is no barrier to gaining access to lots of exciting information. Of course I’m joking, almost all sensitive information is incredibly dull. I thought I knew a really cool bit of defence intelligence once, and was disappointed to read that same information on the War Nerd blog a few months later.
But anyway back to the illusion of serious spies – the other thing which differentiates Cary Grant is the range of emotions permitted to him. Even while parcouring across historical European rooftops Bond, Ethan Hunt, even Jason Bourne at best go through mild grimace, breathless struggle, then maybe a slightly terse quip – about same range of emotions as a commuter having to put up with a broken escalator. Their stoic determination is their main weapon, well except for the guns, and the gadgets, and the vans full of guns and gadgets, and their hand-to-hand combat training, but apart from those things it’s their ability to convey the message that even while hanging off a helicopter full of nuclear weapons over a swimming pool of sharks-with-fricken-lasers attached to their heads, these middle aged white heterosexual men still have their shit together. Cary Grant is one of us though and does some excellent range work, admittedly mainly from puzzled to terrified but still…
Yeah so agree, someone watched NXNW and thought, what if this but with someone who looks like Cary Grant, flirts like Cary Grant but has the same emotional range and approach to problems as a killer robot?