It’s Hitch’s only MGM film, his quintessential cold-war thriller, and the guy who might be the greatest film star of all time in his most critically applauded suit, being gunned down by a biplane in the one of the most famous action sequences of all time. Set your compass for*:
North by Northwest (1959). With Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Screenplay by Ernest Lehman. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
*this compass heading doesn’t actually exist. The points from West to North run: West, West by North, West-Northwest, Northwest by West, Northwest, Northwest by North, North-Northwest, North by West, North. There is a “North-Northwest,” but not a “North by Northwest.
Reasons for Hipsters to Like This Movie:
Really, it should have it’s own Facebook page. Mansel Fletcher of the London Telegraph called it “one of the most celebrated male costumes in cinematic history.” It is one of the reasons NxNW is often called “the first James Bond film.” Even more interesting than the suave Grant’s well groomed couture is how much Hitch toys with it. Grant, in the suit, is subjected to a lot, including the whole crop-dusting thing. It’s as if Hitch is toying with Grant’s very persona, getting the suit dirty and putting the ever aplomb leading man in precarious, often comically embarrassing (see the drunk scene, for one, and the art auction for another) situations.
- Its Mad Men-esqueness
The style goes beyond Grant’s suit. From the drinks at 21, the ride on the 20th Century Limited, and the mansion on Long Island to the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house above Mount Rushmore, the mid-century mod lifestyle is so on display that critic Nick Clooney called the film, “Certainly Hitch’s most stylish thriller, if not his best.”
- Actor’s Studio performers
Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau were both alumni from the famous New York acting Mecca. In fact, there’s an in joke in the movie about it (VanDamm asks Thornhill if he works at the Studio). Both Landau and Saint give wonderful performances. Landau’s was criticized by the MPAA for being to effeminate, and it may be that, but it’s also startling and cold. Saint is one of few Hitchcock leading blondes who can hold her own with the bad guys, nicely turning femme fatale into spy/counterspy/counterloveinterest.
All added significantly to the style. Just watch the incredible opening titles designed by Bass and scored by Herrmann. And see if you don’t walk away from the movie humming the themes. Lehman was suggested by Herrmann, and his work combined themes from other Hitch films (the man-on-the-run from The 39 Steps and the political intrigue of Saboteur) with Cold War politics and wrote in Hitch’s pet idea for the film: a man alone in a desolate place, flat, surrounded by nothing. Suddenly, a plane appears on the horizon. Lehman won an Oscar for his efforts.
Things for Hipsters to Look For:
- Playing with Persona
Watch how often Cary Grant ends up in a compromised position. Watch how often he’s on the left side of the screen (making him less “in control” since American audiences read left to right and the right side of the screen is therefore a more “comfortable”–read confident and in control–position). Watch how he goes from debonaire, the “glamorous, worldly figure that Cary Grant had come to mean,” (as Pauline Kael put it) to the Cary Grant of his early screwball comedies. Hitch toyed with audience expectations, and also with audience memory.
Grant had, at this point, already been in three films with Hitch: Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1947), and To Catch a Thief (1955), and Hitch had played with type before (he really had with Jimmy Stewart, too). But near the end of Grant’s career the viable pictures were the ones in which “He was cast as Cary Grant” (Kael again). Hitch did just that (cast him as his persona), then made him drive drunk, get shut in a train berth, don a redcap uniform, roll in the Indiana dirt, cause such a scene in an art auction that he gets escorted out, and appear in the hospital without pants. It’s Grant’s comedy career and his romantic career with added intrigue and action to boot.
- Confounded by Geography
The plot moves the characters roughly North and West: From 5th Ave. to the UN to Long Island is North. To Chicago is West. From Chicago to South Dakota is West and North. People generally move right to left on the screen (that would be west on a map).
Grant’s character is constantly battling geography. He nearly goes off a cliff when the baddies force him to drive after pouring a bottle of bourbon down him. As he runs out of the UN, an overhead shot makes him tiny in the frame. During the cropduster sequence he’s lost in the corn and appears several times below the horizon, then he nearly falls off of Mount Rushmore.
Also note, when Thornhill (that’s Grant) and Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) are in the woods, realizing who each other are, there are trees between them (more geography to cross) and they stand at opposite ends of the long VistaVision frame. As they talk, they get closer and closer until geography is defeated and they are together.
There’s probably some inherent American symbolism with needing to defeat geography in order to reclaim identity, but since both Hitch and Lehman eschewed “symbolic” readings of the film, we won’t dwell on that.
- Cold War Politics
Lack of symbolism (HA!) aside, the film’s plot is decidedly couched in Cold War suspicion. Is Thorhill really Kaplan? Who is Kaplan? What government agency does he work for? How does Thornhill get caught up in a case of domestic espionage? In a film that deals with Communist spies, red is definitely going to mean something.
- Outward Conflict, Not Inner Turmoil
While most of Hitch’s films have more to do with psychosis than espionage, NxNW is not a psychological thriller. It deals with much more concrete problems. Although, there is Thornhill’s relationship to his mother, and the whole mistaken-identity-turns-into-taking-on-the-identity thing, which could confuse even Norman Bates.
- The Micro-MacGuffin
In this story, it’s a piece of microfilm that VanDamm (played deliciously by James Mason) wants to get out of the country, and only Kaplan nee Thornhill can get back, with Eve Kendall’s help. But for the audience, the microfilm does not keep us in suspense. Who cares what happens to the government secrets! What the audience is dying to know is whether Thornhill will get Kendall away from VanDamm and whether or not they’ll fall off George Washington’s face! The microfilm only serves the purpose of advancing the plot. The very definition of MacGuffin.
Notes That Will Give Hipsters Extra Hitch Street Cred:
It’s one of the most talked about movie sequences, and everyone has their own commentary. What is most notable, perhaps, is how short the “action” part of it really is. And that there are just a few short lines of dialog. For more endless discussion on “He’s dustin’ where there ain’t no crops,” Hitch fans should bookmark the Alfred Hitchcock Wiki, and check out both the quotes and the gallery. Film nerds will also have fun looking at the storyboards.
- Uses of Sound and Silence
Like the above mentioned scene, several sequences in the film make fascinating use of sound and silence. The viewer forgets there is no talking going on, or forgets when the music started or ended. This would never work on Television, where the moment people stop talking we either look up to see what went wrong or just change the channel.
- The Man in Lincoln’s Nose
It was one of the working titles for the film, and one draft of the script included a scene where Grant’s Thornhill has a sneezing fit while trapped inside the 14th President’s gargantuan granite schnoz. No doubt Hitch found that hilarious. Conscientious Hipsters will try to find some Cold War era commentary here, too, but it’s not as easy as looking for thematic use of red (look at the poster art, watch people’s clothes, cars, and accessories) or the Freudian imagery (no symbolism? Hitch, please, you end the film with a train going into a tunnel as the male and female lead…well nevermind, but we all know that was on purpose… and the modest Christian Hipster suddenly gets rather uncomfortable…).