Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
If I had it in mind to make a movie, there are certain key components I’d need, aside from cameramen, key grips and all that stuff. I’d need actors, and if it is to be a Hollywood type affair, the stars would probably need to be easy on the eye. I’d need a soundtrack. I’d definitely need set-pieces…like planes crashing, cars crashing, ships sinking, shoot ups etc. The list of scenarios here is endless. A good opening title sequence would be handy for whetting people’s appetite. I think I’m about there, regarding the obvious crucial stuff, although I can’t help thinking I’ve missed something. Hmm. Ah, yes, that’s it. A plot. I’d definitely need a plot, wouldn’t I?
Let’s use that framework then to have a look at this movie. In this case happily it’s not me making the movie, it’s Alfred Hitchcock. I would happily classify Hitchcock as one of the directors whose movies I would watch, whatever they were about, just because they were made by him. For me, the only other directors that would apply to would be Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick. Loads of other marvelous directors about, yes of course, but those four, for me, are in a category of their own. And to think he made this movie in between making ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Psycho’. I find that staggering. How did he do that?
To the actors now. Cary Grant is perfectly cast as a man who allows himself to be dominated by his mother and subsequently finds himself becoming confused with another man who is maybe a spy. His easy manner, sly wit and complete mystification at every new scenario and peril he has to face are superbly played. And, of course, wherever he is, be it in jail or clambering over Mount Rushmore, he always looks fabulous. Eva Marie Saint is the mysterious lady, who may, or may not, be on the side of our hero. Hitchcock liked his blondes. The character she plays, ‘Eve Kendall’, among other arresting attributes, brandishes a traveler’s ‘lady-razor’. Cary Grant’s character naturally struggles using it for a bloke’s shave. It wasn’t designed for that was it. Hitchcock liked including oddities like this in his movies. Like making personal ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ appearances. James Mason is probably the most established conventional actor here. He had that chameleon like ability to play any character type he was asked to. In this film he is the smiling smiling villain, and of course he carries the part effortlessly. The rest of the cast are all perfect for their roles too. From Jessie Royce Landis’s charmingly dominant mother figure through to Martin Landau’s sinister henchman. So far, easily ten out of ten.
The Saul Bass created opening titles are a wonderful thing complemented as they are by the soundtrack composed by Bernard Herrmann. From them you instantly know you are in for two hours or so of high-speed action, intrigue, jeopardy and tension. The mood is set. All you now have to do as the viewer is sit back and enjoy all the action as it unfolds before your eyes. The actual soundtrack works for me throughout, due to the fact that I don’t really notice it. You get crescendos when you should get crescendos. You get the violins for the tense bits. A bit of romantic schmooze. It’s all there in the right places.
And then there’s the set pieces. Ah…the set pieces. The initial case of mistaken identity in the high-class restaurant. The grandiose United Nations building where our hero’s troubles really kick in. The night-sleeper train journey. The set for Mount Rushmore looks genuinely foreboding and sinister. I really could go on and on, and on. But the sequence that always gets the mentions is the ‘crop-duster’ sequence. ‘Classic Hitchcock’, is probably the most used description, which tells you everything you need to know about the director’s masterful ability to slowly create the tension until it builds to breaking point. The crows gradually assembling on the climbing frame in ‘The Birds’ is another example of this that comes to mind. There’s no guns or conventional weapons. Just birds gathering together or in this case, a plane off in the distance ‘dusting crops where there ain’t no crops’.
So that nicely brings us to the final thing on my little list of essentials. That’s it, the plot. With a movie that so far has all the ingredients you need in abundance, surely having a good plot is mandatory. And that’s the thing. For me at least, North by Northwest’s plot is utterly ridiculous. Like it doesn’t even make sense a lot of the time. OK, it’s a spy/mistaken identity caper with the archetypal baddies trying to steal secrets, or something. And it rocks along just fine. But it just seems so daft that I sort of forget about it. I know that sounds mad, but to a certain extent I see it as just window dressing. I appreciate that films do actually need a plot, unless they are one of those ‘out there’ experimental type films. And those movies are OK, well some of them. But this film isn’t one of those by any means. It’s just the plot is so stupid. Which curiously works for me on repeated viewings, because it becomes a case of ‘Oh yeah…of course. George Kaplan…is she or isn’t she?..the microfilm in the sculpture…etc etc.’ I can’t believe this is deliberate on the director’s part. That would be double treble genius clever. But because I forget the details of the plot, the film always seems fresh somehow alongside being familiar. It’s like meeting someone you haven’t seen for ages who you remember as an excellent person, but you can’t remember their name or how you know them really. Obviously getting older and more absent minded is a massive help here.
And there you have it folks. As you’ve probably gathered, I love this movie, and look forward to the next time I watch it. The number of times I’ve actually sat through it does now seem to be approaching treble figures. And the next time I do sit down and watch it, the wonderful thing is, I’ll immediately be hooked, because once again, I’ll have mostly forgotten the plot.
And hurrah for that!