North by Northwest

April 5, 2012
By HAL9000 PLATINUM, Springfield, Massachusetts
HAL9000 PLATINUM, Springfield, Massachusetts
23 articles 0 photos 0 comments

In North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock presents a handsomely-crafted chase film with tension and smarts to boot. The main character of the story is a New York advertising exec named Roger Thornhill (Played with quick wit by a middle-aged Cary Grant). Within the first ten minutes of the film, he is abducted in a restaurant by two shady men after an unfortunately-timed hand gesture. He is taken to a large estate where he learns from the boss of the abductors, named Phillip Vandamm (Played with cool malevolence by James Mason) that he was taken on the belief that he was a man named George Kaplan who- unknown to his captors- doesn’t exist. From there on, we are held in the grasp of the Master of Suspense as he spins his complex web with equal parts verve and amusement.

Indeed, the web of intrigue is what makes this film what it is. Throughout, we are taken from one location to another, encountering twists and picking up plot points along the way. The script was written by Ernest Lehman who cleverly draws up countless scenarios which successfully move the story forward while developing the characters in the meantime. As the story builds, the stakes are raised as Thornhill goes on the run after being framed for murder at the beginning of the second act. He gets on a train headed for Chicago and encounters a woman named Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who becomes integral to the plot as a whole. It is around this time, however that the story slows down and a romance begins to bloom between the two. But the romance is not without a reason for it is later revealed that she is working with Vandamm who is staying in another compartment with his right-hand man named Leonard (Martin Landau). In North by Northwest, every scene serves a purpose and its director makes sure that those scenes are executed in the best possible ways.

Alfred Hitchcock was a director with a very distinct style, and North by Northwest is not lacking in all the aesthetics of his unique vision. Probably what I admire most about his direction in this picture is the way in which he gradually reveals things to the audience. Nothing is obvious. Nothing is immediate. Throughout the film, there are instances of him introducing an object early on and giving us no reason to assume that it is of any importance, and then using it in a major way later on. This is the case with Thornhill’s initialed matchbook, which is first seen on the train, but takes on a new significance when it is used to alert Eve at Vandamm’s mountainside home. This is the case with Mount Rushmore, which is first shown at the beginning of the third act and is used as the setting for the (Big) finale. But, of all these instances, I think it’s in the iconic cropduster sequence where this technique is done the best. In this scene, Hitchcock proves why he is the master of suspense- giving us a scene without any music in which we wait on the side of the road, right there with Cary Grant’s character. We see the cropduster off in the distance. A car passes. Another car passes. We see the cropduster again. A third car passes. A car pulls up on the other side of the road and a man gets out without addressing Thornhill. Roger chats with him for a moment before the man leaves on a bus. By this time, Thornhill is seemingly alone again, but it is also at this time that Hitchcock reintroduces the cropduster, which takes on a menacing personality when it begins to target our protagonist. All of this is paced and edited in typically outstanding fashion and it’s moments like these that define North by Northwest as a classic.

Despite the film’s prolific status and its many admirable traits, I do not think that it’s without faults. I would say that my main issue with the film is the romance that I mentioned earlier between Thornhill and Kendall. While it is initially justified (As something important to the plot), as the film progresses, I find their relationship increasingly exaggerated and unrealistic. There’s no reason why she should fall in love with him, but she does anyway, and although the relationship helps the Eve character to become less distant from the audience, it still feels unnecessary in the long run. In the film, Eve is presented as a strong and sophisticated female character rather than a helpless, flimsy damsel-in-distress type, which was so often portrayed in classic Hollywood cinema. However, her falling for Roger goes against character and while it doesn’t ruin her character completely, I feel that it is a slight detriment to the film’s credibility- a film that isn’t quite able to escape every cliché. Grant’s character mentions his past marital failures, but his objective is not to find love. His objective is get free of the trouble he’s gotten into, and a side romance doesn’t need to play a part in that, in my opinion. The ending- with the two newlyweds presumably speeding off to a honeymoon on a train- causes me to spitefully roll my eyes at the long-time habit of Hollywood making nearly every pair of leads of the opposite sex end up in each other’s arms, surrendering to love’s pull. Such a thing makes sense in the context of a romance film, but North by Northwest is a suspense-thriller first, and this kind of relationship feels distracting when forced into these circumstances.

Aside from my reservations concerning the romantic relationship between Roger and Eve, North by Northwest is an endlessly entertaining and timeless film. On second viewing, Hitchcock’s film revealed many new interesting factors which went unnoticed the first time. From the dialogue to the production design, it is clear that North by Northwest was meticulously made and Hitchcock’s dedication to the craft makes the film worthy of its acclaim- even if this reviewer finds it less than perfect.
4.5 out of 5 stars

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