Friday, April 26, 2013

Masterpieces Classics: North by Northwest (1959)

Q: What's green, white, and bursting with style?
A: The title sequence to North by Northwest!

Right from the title sequence, Alfred Hitchcock tells the audience an open secret: This will be fun. The titles depict a patterned building and flying text with names of all the important players in the film. This is self-awareness to the greatest extent, with Bernard Herrman's booming score, one can only imagine the frenzy and fun, despite the picture's plot not even beginning.

So when the plot does begin, we feel within the first 10 minutes that this isn't Vertigo Hitchcock, but this is instead 39 Steps Hitchcock. We see Roger O. Thornhill, an anti-Don Draper, a Manhattan Ad-man with so much on his plate that a day off would do wonders. Ironically, he gets his free time when he is kidnapped rather smoothly from a dinner meeting by men of Phillip Vandamm (James Mason, in a sinister role), a Communist spy in the USA. Let me remind you that this is still within the film's first 10 minutes.

Thornhill escapes Vandamm's clutches in a drunken car chase that is somehow surprisingly exciting. As Thornhill is being tried for drunk driving in the next scene, we see Cary Grant at his best as an actor. Only scenes prior he was somewhat confused and concerned about his situation, and now he is a giddy drunkard. It's clearly a comedic performance, one just handcrafted for a film this lightweight.

More intrigue, more spying, and the United Nations all enter the picture within another half-hour. The film
(and Roger himself) gets allocated a small break when Roger, on the run from the United Nations for supposedly killing a man, boards a train that contains the mysterious Hitchcock-blonde Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). Both fall for each other, but keep their distance for unexplained reasons (at least within the scene). The shining thing at this point is Ernest Lehman's witty script, where Grant and Saint toss one-liners around like hot potatoes. 

More happens when Eve tells Roger to visit a certain cornfield where he is courted (unexpectedly) by a crop duster that almost kills him in one of the most famous film-sequences ever. The magical thing about this scene in the movie is that it is dialog free and for the most part, music free. What prevails is the increasingly-louder engine sound of the crop-duster.

The film moves steadily along with events better left disclosed. There is a stunning Mount Rushmore chase that pumps the blood like no other, and there is a transition between the two scenes that literally made my jaw drop. 

Hitchcock, though being a British filmmaker, crafted the definitive American film in 1959. We see a Communist conflict expressed so naturally and relevant to the time. We see a 2,000 mile cross-country chase over America that has many American landmarks. Hitchcock even advertised this in the film's trailer: 

Alas, that is beyond the point. What makes North by Northwest a masterpiece is the bold style and originality, and the sheer fun of it all. 

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