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North By Northwest

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: North By Northwest

Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rated: NR
RunTime: 136 Minutes
Release Date: July 1959
Genres: Classic, Drama, Suspense, Mystery

*Also starring: James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, Martin Landau, Leo G. Carroll, Philip Ober, Adam Williams, Josephine Hutchinson

Reviewer Roundup
1.  Dragan Antulov review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
2.  Brian Koller read the review movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review

Review by Dragan Antulov
4 stars out of 4

Rating Hitchcock's film can be rather difficult task, especially since British director made plenty of truly exceptional films during his golden period from 1950s to early 1960s. Many of those films are very distinctive from each other, but the difference in quality is microscopic. So, the scholars and critics must apply different sets of criteria when they rate Hitchcock's films. The author of this review is therefore unable to name Hitchcock's film that is, in his view, the best. But, on the other hand, I can name Hitchcock's film that provides the best viewing experience. That film is NORTH BY NORTHWEST, 1959 comedic thriller that is often mentioned as the cornerstone of that particular genre.

The plot, based on the original script by Ernest Lehman, begins in New York, where Roger O. Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) successful middle-aged advertising executive, prepares for business lunch in Plaza hotel. There he is mistaken for "Roger Chaplain" and immediately kidnapped by two sinister-looking men who take him to country house in Long Island. There he is confronted by their leader (played by James Mason), who doesn't believe Thornhill's claims of mistaken identity and decides to kill Thornhill by getting him drunk and arranging the traffic accident. Thornhill, while drunk, manages to escape his captors but he is soon arrested and charged for driving under influence. Authorities view his abduction story as alcoholic fantasy, especially since they find no evidence of foul play in the house allegedly used by captors. Thornhill, on the other hand, decided to settle this matter so he goes to UN building where he is supposed to meet the owner of the house, UN diplomat Lester Townsend (played by Philip Ober). The meeting ends with disaster for Thornhill - assassins not only kill the diplomat, but Thornhill himself is seen as the perpetrator in front of dozens of witnesses. Thornhill is now forced to flee both from assassins and police, and the only way for him to clear his name is to find the real Roger Caplan. The trail leads him to Chicago so he boards the train where he would receive assistance from Eve Kendall (played by Eva Marie Saint), attractive industrial designer who seems to fall for handsome fugitive and whose presence on the train might not be accidental.

Versatility as one of the ingredients for cinema genius could be clearly observed during Hitchcock's golden phase. NORTH BY NORTHWEST represents another brilliant example of such versatility, especially when we compare this film to Hitchcock's previous masterpiece. NORTH BY NORTHWEST in many ways provides sharp contrast to VERTIGO made one year earlier. Instead of extremely dark and unrelentingly depressive psychological drama we are now presented with light- hearted, almost farcical comedy of errors. Instead of the film that sacrifices tempo and action for the sake of establishing deep characters, we are here introduced to rollercoaster plot full of breath-taking scenes. Instead of dysfunctional characters on the verge of psychosis NORTH BY NORTHWEST gives us one of the clearest examples of Hitchcockian "ordinary man in extraordinary situation" formula.

On this particular occasion, "ordinary man" is played by Cary Grant, extraordinary actor who had great previous experience with Hitchcock, usually playing suave characters. This time character of Roger O. Thornhill represented quite a challenge, because protagonist of this film was supposed to be "normal", ordinary person. Unable to brush off his already iconic looks and mannerism, Grant had to rely on some interesting character quirks that would make this character closer to the perception of Joe Average. So, his character of Thornhill is given some rather unflattering baggage - two failed marriages, boozing and lying habits plus and image of mamma's boy that doesn't quite corresponds with his greying hair. Ironic dimension of the last element was recognised by Hitchcock and he accordingly gave the role of Thornhill's mother to Jessie Royce Landis, actress younger than Grant. Many critics often like to see Thornhill in NORTH BY NORTHWEST as the precursor to the movie character of James Bond, but they usually ignore the fact that suaveness is the only thing Thornhill and Bond have in common. Actually, Thornhill is anything but ordinary hero - in the beginning of the film he is only passive participant in the plot beyond his comprehension. While Bond has some abilities and training to deal with extraordinary situations, Thornhill must more than often rely on luck or other people to get him out of trouble. In many instances those people are women, and in one occasion it results with rather humiliating experiences when Thornhill leaves the elevator being ridiculed as "mamma's boy". Thornhill also in many occasions makes mistakes, some of them bordering on common stupidity, and only through the rather far-fetched set of circumstances fulfils the role of the hero, still suffering setback until the very end of film.

Icy blonde - another important element of Hitchcock's formula - is this time played by Eva Marie Saint, actress who is relatively unknown compared to other Hitchcock's blondes. This is partly because reputation of Eva Marie Saint has rather tough competition in the forms of Grace Kelly, Kim Novice, Janet Leigh and Tippi Hedren, but the real reason is the fact that character of Eve Kendall doesn't exactly fit Hitchcock's stereotypes. This character is more complex and multilayered, but Saint, despite looking supernaturally glamorous in her role of femme fatale still retains some down-to-earth qualities of girl-next-door, making her character even more charming. Because of that, Saint's performance in this film is one of the most convincing female role in Hitchcock's opus and definitely the most underrated of them all.

Hitchcock in NORTH BY NORTHWEST keeps heroes and heroines within the boundaries of his formulas, but strays away from his principles when it comes to the depiction of villains. In this case, they are less interesting than protagonists. James Mason as the chief villain is suave but menacing, yet somehow his manners are too mechanical. Young Martin Landau as his creepy, but intelligent sidekick Leonard, is more impressive. Some villainous traits are even reserved for the characters usually associated with the forces of good, and Leo G. Carroll, long-time associate of Hitchcock, provides impressive performance as chillingly cynical Professor.

Hitchcock's trademarks are not only visible in the realm of characterisation, but also in the way he constructed the film. His method of building the movie on the single yet effective scene is here enriched with the excellent script that provided not one great scene but many. And all those scenes make perfect sense by gradually changing the environment and general atmosphere of the film, starting with the noisy, overpopulated streets of New York and ending in a empty, natural state of Mount Rushmore (and culminating in almost too obvious Freudian comment in the very last shot of the film). In order to achieve that effect, Hitchcock heavily relied on photography by Robert Burke and music by always reliable Bernard Herrmann. The choice of the latter is superb, especially in the scenes where Hitchcock deliberately decides not to have music in the soundtrack and thus allow that atmosphere develops through much more effective silence. Choice of locations - New York, UN Building, Mount Rushmore - is also very good, same as rather impressive architecture and interior design of Vandamm's house.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST, although probably the most beloved of all Hitchcock's films, had its share of critics, always ready to rip it to shreds by nit-picks. There are some elements in this film that might be seen as flaws, namely when it comes to the plausibility of certain scenes. For example, in the scene that takes place in UN building, Thornhill acts like no sane man would act in similar circumstances. The finale is marred by somewhat too convenient dues ex machine. And, finally, even the most cherished of all Hitchcockian moments - crop-dusting scene - might be perfect from the technical point of view, but it nevertheless features the most idiotic method of assassination in the cinema history. However, by the time this happens, the audience was already exposed to the farcical nature of this film in which nothing on screen can be taken too seriously. Viewers who bother with such details make the same mistake as those who are ready to ponder long about the true nature of "MacGuffin" in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. They should simply sit, relax and enjoy watching this as the one of the best films ever made.

Copyright 2000 Dragan Antulov

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