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North by Northwest (1959)

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Alfred Hitchcock wanted to acquire the rights to Graham Greene’s scintillating Cold War (predictive) satire, Our Man in Havana. But Greene was disgusted by what Joe Mankiewicz had recently done with his Vietnam novel, The Quiet American, utterly reversing its political critique, and demurred. Hitchcock was in a rut and his only go project was an adaptation of The Wreck of the Mary Deare but got nowhere in his meetings with screenwriter Ernest Lehman. He really wanted to make a movie with all his usual tropes, starting with an innocent man caught in a case of mistaken identity, culminating in a cliffhanger at Lincoln’s nose on Mount Rushmore. Lehman took his work seriously and travelled across the United States, starting at the United Nations in NYC and finishing at the Presidential monument. And what a ride this is, the first ever movie to mention the CIA, then enjoying a decade of interventionist invasions, coups and takeovers with nary a word in the collaborationist media. Thus we have heavy drinking Mad Man Cary Grant mistaken for a (decoy) spy as he has a drink with colleagues (A Most Unusual Day is the muzak playing in the hotel lobby) and chased all over the place, from suave James Mason’s Long Island mansion in Glen Cove (homaged in Eyes Wide Shut), fingered for murder in the Delegates’ Lounge at the UN, meeting cute with Eva Marie Saint on a train ride, chased by a crop-dusting plane in cornfields, to (literally) hanging out of Mount Rushmore. It’s all about a piece of microfilm  and fake spies, but nobody cares. This is extraordinary, audacious filmmaking, with everyone concerned at the top of their game, from the cinematographer Robert Burks, to editor George Tomasini, composer Bernard Herrmann who gifts it with a marvellous score and the classic title sequence designed by Saul Bass, to Cary Grant, who couldn’t have been more sophisticated if he tried. Did anyone ever look better in a grey suit? Hitchcock made a series of serious spy films in the 1960s, attempting to deflate the ironic effect of this film – it bred James Bond (Hitchcock was the first choice to direct Dr No) and a host of camp imitators. The audience didn’t like the realism that was John le Carre’s signature being hoicked onto Hitchcock’s style and despite the success of the star-led Torn Curtain, the director’s influence began to diminish. Yet we are in constant danger of underestimating his importance. With this, the action film was born:  an attractive hero, an innuendo-laden romance with a dubious woman, staggering standalone setpieces, and all the while tongue firmly in cheek while satirising contemporary politics at large in a film with a crazy plot that nobody cares about but which physically acknowledges the audience, De Mille-style. The only letdown nowadays is the impossibility of seeing it in VistaVision – what an amazing experience that must have been in 1959. Dazzling.

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About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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