Think Thin


I have two obvious entry points into talking about NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and they come from very different sources and angles.

The nostalgic angle: for this film, you see, was my parents’ first date movie. It was sufficiently enjoyable that their relationship survived the stumbling block of their second date movie, Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING, which is not really a great romantic night out.

The subtextual angle: David Wingrove points out the delicious ironies of the very camp Martin landau character, united with his boss, James Mason, who brings even more Siamese cat purr to his purr-formance than usual, and who seems quite close to Landau 9whose very jealous of Eva Marie Saint) pursuing Cary Grant across America. While many have commented on Landau’s salaciously sinister homosexual characterisation, nobody, perhaps, has taken things quite as far as Mr Wingrove — I’m eager to watch the thing again and see how it all plays out.


Before the movie begins, two deleted sequences. From Ernest Lehman’s screenplay, this prologue —

“Would it not be strange, in a city of seven million people, is one man were never mistaken for another… if, with seven million pair of feet wandering through the canyons and corridors of the city, one pair of feet never by chance strayed into the wrong footsteps?

(a pause)

Strange, indeed.”

Not however, that despite this opening VO’s absence, the canyons and corridors of NYC are nicely evoked by the opening shot that emerges from Saul Bass’s title graphics. Hitch’s fave colour — GREEN.


But those graphics were themselves a cost-saving alternative to Hitch’s preferred opening, cited by Bill Krohn in Hitchcock at Work. We would have moved through Cary Grant’s advertising office in Madison Avenue, scanning a series of layouts for glossy magazine ads — these layouts would have covertly contained the film’s credits. And this would have emphasized Cary’s job a lot more, which seems to have thematic significance. As Cary will state a couple of minutes in —

“In the world of advertising there’s no such thing a lie, Maggie, there’s only the Expedient Exaggeration.”

This sets the movie up as being about the worlds of illusion, advertising and espionage, where appearances matter more than substance. Even Cary Grant’s diet plan — “Think thin” — has more to do with perception than reality. There’s a poetic justice to this character getting caught up in an unnamed government department’s scheme to deceive an enemy spy with a fictional agent. The phantom initial — the “O” in Roger O Thornhill stands for “Nothing” — like the MacGuffin, like the “O” in David O Selznick — marks him down as a semi-fictitious character to begin with.

(We never see Thornhill either at work or at home, although we can deduce the presence of a gi-normous sun-lamp in his pad.)

None of which is to suggest that NORTH BY NORTHWEST is particularly serious about its subject. While a very Hitchcockian morality runs through the story — sex is good, sexual infidelity is bad but human, killing people is wrong — and Cary often finds himself on the wrong side of his own government, hinting at Hitch’s discomfiture with his adoptive homeland’s conduct in the Cold War, the plot gets going with almost indecent haste — Cary is kidnapped just six minutes in — and from then on thematic elements are shuffled rapidly to keep up with a furiously meandering storyline, one which was written under the title IN A NORTHWESTERLY DIRECTION, suggesting that geographic logic supplants thematic unity in this case.

Hitch has been praised for splitting up his villain into three parts, but it’s more complicated than that. The logic goes that an action movie bad guy must be a mastermind, a sadist and a thug. Hitch gives us James Mason as Vandamm, Martin Landau as Leonard, and Adam Williams as Valerian. But Valerian, the thug/gardener, is initially partnered by Licht, who dies offscreen in the crop-duster, and he also has his wife, the housekeeper. There’s also the fake Mrs Townsend, who turns out to be someone’s sister, as if we cared (touchingly, the film tidies up a few loose ends long after we’ve forgotten about them — Lehman reported Hitch to be surprisingly concerned with story logic).

Cary Grant’s Roger O Thornhill, by contrast, is a gent. He only throws a single punch in the film (during the auction house ruckus) and otherwise shoves one bad guy from a moving car and another off Mount Rushmore. James Bond does more than that in a trip to the dentists. Those opening few minutes set up his lifestyle, his marital history, his cheek (lots of cabs get stolen in this film) and his mother.


I fairly often use the first confrontation between Thornhill and Vandamm in teaching. Students often have great ideas for visuals but stop thinking when it comes to dialogue and just shoot coverage. In classic Hitchcock, the dialogue scenes are not about the dialogue — the overall meaning of the scene dictates everything, and the changes in shot size, camera moves and edits all advance our understanding of the scene. Here, Mason and Grant stalk each other round the toom, Mason switches on lamps, pauses in front of one, backlit in sinister fashion (You’d never catch Grant doing that — paranoid about his protuberant ears, he would frustrate DP Chris Challis on THE GRASS IS GREENER by banning all backlight: Challis took to fading up the light as soon as Grant turned his back on it… “The biggest old woman I ever worked with…”).

The idea of a fictional spy, invented to divert attention from real ones, is a lovely notion, and one that supposedly saw service in the war. How exactly the Unnamed Government Bureau (UGB) are moving the imaginary Mr Kaplan’s belongings around, lovingly sprinkling dandruff on his hairbrush, and attracting the attention of Vandamm without tipping him off — that’s need-to-know information, and we don’t need to know.

There’s also the promising idea of Thornhill being mistaken for Kaplan (“a much shorter man”) through a stupid henchman mistake, and then being Kafkaesquely unable to convince anybody of his true identity — and then being forced to progressively ASSUME Kaplan’s identity in order to investigate the situation.

In a tradition since honored by time, Vandamm elects to dispose of his nemesis in an elaborate scheme full of potential pitfalls: though not quite Dr Evil’s shark-mounted laser beams, the idea of getting Roger plastered and setting him behind the wheel of a hot car is one of Gavin Elsterish complexity and fallibility. It’s nice that ultimately the scheme fails because Roger is NOT a clean-living federal agent, but a Madison Avenue exec “with several bartenders dependent on me,” so the vast libation (“THIS much”) forcibly inserted by Martin Landau doesn’t knock him out, and he’s able to blearily steer his way through the shifting weave of process photography and into the path of a police car.


Although NBNW is clearly modeled on the 39 STEPS (Eva Marie Saint inhabits room 3901 on the train), what follows is a variation on THE LADY VANISHES, as Roger tries to convince everybody there’s a conspiracy afoot, only to find all the evidence disappeared. Enter Jessie Royce Landis as his contemptuously skeptical mother — and exit Jessie Royce Landis, regrettably, shortly afterwards, because to keep her around would undercut the heroics just a little too much.

vlcsnap-227798The “invisible weaver” appears across JRL’s butt, making it look like she’s wearing a phantom nappy.

“Maybe he has his suits mended by invisible weavers,” scoffs Landis, and seconds later an invisible weaver APPEARS — or rather, a phantasmal figure — in fact a crewmember in a white shirt reflected in the hotel’s glass doors. How this one got past Hitchcock’s quality control (he regularly reshot things he wasn’t happy with) I’, not sure. In frame-grab it’s just a white smear, but in the movie it moves, in an unmistakably shirt-like way.

The elevator gag – -“You men aren’t really trying to kill my son are you?” doesn’t totally work for me — maybe because people laughing is rarely funny. But it reminds me of Hitch’s favourite elevator gag: leaning over and in a deafening stage whisper, remarking to a friend, “Who’d have thought the old man would have so much blood in him?” Which in turn reminds me of Terry Southern’s novel Blue Movie, where the vulgarian movie producer’s elevator gag is to turn to his fellow passengers and say, “I expect you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here.” And his taxi gag: getting into a cab and saying, “Ah, what the hell: let’s go to your place.”


Although it’s understandable that Rog flees the UN after being photographed holding the dagger recently used to dispatch a delegate (and with such a guilty look on his face), in reality he’s probably in the clear as soon as he starts talking to the cops. The police met Mrs Townsend at the Townsend retreat, but the real Mrs Townsend has been dead for years — there’s your conspiracy right there. But the SURFACE LOGIC is pretty strong at this point. I could never work out if there was anything beyond the most fatuous coincidence behind Thornhill catching the same train as Vandamm, though. Hitch gets away with that by revealing his plot points in a particular order — we don’t learn that Vandamm and Leonard, cosy together in a shared cabin, are on the train, until we learn that Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) is in cahoots, as they say, with the bad boys. So hopefully we’re too astonished to question what they’re actually doing there.


I was too busy questioning Eve’s blatant seduction of Grant, a fugitive murderer, the first time I saw the film as a kid. I guess it figures that Grant, playing a male heterosexual, is too dumb to question why Eve is so into him. Men never ask. That’s why, when wives hire attractive female detectives to test their partner’s fidelity, the partners always fail the test. “They never, ever ask ‘Why me?'” says one sextective. So his error is just about believable. But as an audience, are we just meant to go with it because he’s Cary Grant, and because “There’s always a girl in the picture,” and this one’s overdue?

Then too, I do wonder exactly what James Mason thinks is going on. Why does “Kaplan” pretend he’s on the run from the police? He is, after all, a government agent. Why does he become jealous of Eve, after presumably ordering her to seduce Grant? I guess because of the suggestion that she’s enjoyed her work too much. It’s all slightly woolly, but the bits that matter hang together and propel us forward. The love affair starts as a professional seduction and somehow becomes real, the way Kaplan starts as a figment and acquires flesh and blood.

What a monochromatic film this is! After the seething greens of VERTIGO, we spend a lot of time with our man in a gray flannel suit (recently voted the movie’s best ever bit of men’s fashion, although I find the gray tie a bit samey, and it’s a relief to get Cary into black slacks and a white shirt for the climax) in brown or gray rooms. Eve turns up in black and white, although when Grant sees her in the hotel after his cropduster dust-up, she’s wearing a dress apparently cut from the wallpaper at Ernie’s (see VERTIGO) — the Scarlet Woman.



The cropduster sequence — Hitchcock originally suggested, with touching naivety, that Vandamm somehow send a tornado to persecute his foe — is so celebrated and so obviously effective that I quail at the prospect of having to discuss it. Obviously it’s very exciting. The situation is clear and simple — that vast landscape of nothing around Prairie Stop 41 is like the ultimate expression of the film’s desaturated colour scheme — and Hitchcock lavishes countless VistaVision frames on setting up the sequence (with a high angle filmed from a specially-built derrick). That slow, pedantic plod: look left — nothing. Look right — nothing. The taciturn man! “Can’t say it is ’cause it ain’t.”

The nightmare of terror from a clear blue sky is a very Hitchcock idea — he often expressed his ideal of happiness as being a clear sky without even the tiniest cloud. Here, danger descends from just such a sky. You’re never safe. Bernard Herrmann’s great fandango is put on hold for the duration, allowing the sequence to benefit from the actual sounds of aeroplane and machine gun. Geography is slightly abstracted — the cornfield in which Grant shelters is not visible in the establishing shot, existing in some out-of-frame limbo until required. Does the plane crashing into the oil tanker make sense? What was the pilot thinking? Hitch somehow sells it.


As an action thriller, NBNW is actually very concerned with characterisation — not as much as NOTORIOUS, certainly, but it partakes of some of the same dynamic. Espionage is always a dirty business in Hitchcock, and love is perverted by being around it. Though the string of action climaxes approach may have influenced the James Bond movies, the emotional throughline of Hitchcock’s caper is far more twisted and tortured than anything Sean Connery got up to — until MARNIE.

Hitchcock regular — he’s in more films than Cary Grant or James Stewart — Leo G Carroll (The Man from UNCLE) turns up in a Basil Exposition role, as an unnamed Professor from the Unnamed Government Bureau. He’s a pretty ruthless customer, underneath his professorial air of kindliness, happy to sacrifice innocents for the cause of winning the Cold War.

(Listen — I remember reading a secondhand Man From UNCLE annual as a kid — crappy comic strips inspired by the show — and there’s this tour of UNCLE and we see a THRUSH agent strapped to a kind of hi-tech ducking stool, being dunked in a swimming pool until he confesses — effectively waterboarding — “Unpleasant, of course, but our methods are far more humane than our opponents’,” explains Uncle Leo.)



So now Cary is mad at Eva and gets her in trouble with James, necessitating the fake shooting which fails to lift suspicion. Lovesick hero escapes the clutches of his own state’s secret police — fairly easily — and arrives at Vandamm’s modern architecture masterpiece in time to discover that his love has been rumbled and does need rescuing after all. Cunningly, Hitch and Lehman have arranged things so that by interfering, their hero is not going to jeopardise national security after all, he’s going to protect it. But for a while there, we were rooting for him to grab the girl and the hell with America, which is an interesting position to find ourselves in.

Great business with the ROT matchbook, established earlier, and double use of the blank-firing gun — every object in a story has its own character arc, y’see. Objects are people too.

Cary is now wearing a bright white shirt, like the invisible weaver earlier, which is the wrong thing to wear when attempting to elude pursuers in the rustic Dakotan darkness, and Eva has an orange dress, also not ideal. (Read Eva on her clothing for this film and Hitch’s perfect fashion sense, over at Kim Morgan’s place.) The Mt Rushmore climax used to be my least favourite action scene in this film, dependent as it is on process shots and matte paintings and fakery, but I love it for those very things now. And Herrmann’s music is a triumph here.


Lehman wrote a page of “possible ad libs” (how can they be ad libs if they’re written?) for this sequence, none of which were used. I thought they were pretty dreadful first time I read them, but thinking about it, Cary Grant could make this stuff funny —

THORNHILL: You’re wearing too much. Take something off.

EVE: Like what?

THORNHILL: Your shoes! Get rid of the jacket! (pointing to her handbag) And that valise!

EVE: Mind if I keep my girdle?


EVE: Oh darn — there goes my stocking.

THORNHILL: C’mon. This is no time to darn stockings.


EVE (after Thornhill stumbles precariously): Your slip is showing.

THORNHILL (sourly): Laugh? I thought I’d die.

EVE: We should ahve taken the escalator down.


THORNHILL (laboring for breath): My mis-spent youth is catching up with me.

EVE (looking back): That isn’t all that’s catching up with you.


THORNHILL (staring at the president’s faces): That reminds me – -I forgot to register.


But I’m still glad they didn’t use them. I chuckled delightedly at nearly every line, plot turn, facial expression and camera angle in this movie, but I think very often I was responding to Mason or Landau or Grant or Landis’s delivery, more than the specific lines. It’s a witty script, but maybe not quite on the order of John Michael Hayes’s dialogue.


I really like Grant’s call for help when he’s dangling and trying to save Eva — Landau’s the only one around, so he asks him for help. That’s because he’s a nice guy. Landau would cynically ask for help, presuming on his enemy’s humanity. Grant desperately hopes for some humanity in his opponent, even though he has no reason to suspect the existence of any. This typifies a different era in which protags were very much better people than antags. Now, I like anti-heroes and moral complexity, but it’s been a long time since I saw a thriller where the hero was genuinely nice.

It’s William Goldman, I believe, who pointed out the incredible economy of the ending Hitch unveils the MacGuffin (his most misty and meaningless yet), kills Landau, apprehends Mason and friends, rescues the girl, marries her to the hero, and sends them off on their honeymoon in about twenty seconds. And throws in a memorable dirty joke with the last image.



Note the overdubbed dialogue looped in to establish clearly that this couple are MARRIED. The tunnel shot was a last minute addition, a revenge, suggests Bill Krohn, on the niggling censor’s demands for marital sanctification. Although the question of whether Rog and Eve have already slept together on this train, on their outward journey, has never been 100% clear to me — the film seems to confirm this, then deny it. I guess if they had, by the moral law of movies then, Eve would have had to DIE. At least James Bond destroyed that rule — it’s only the first girl he sleeps with who has to die.

The coming of Bond would vex Hitch slightly — he felt they’d trespassed on his territory somewhat — and TORN CURTAIN, TOPAZ and the unmade THE SHORT NIGHT were all attempts to fashion a “serious Bond,” a project successfully completed already, I would argue, by THE IPCRESS FILE and THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD. Oh well. In a way, NORTH BY NORTHWEST sews the seeds of some of Hitchcock’s less satisfying work, but in itself it’s one of his most delightful entertainments. Not empty, but still lighter than air.

57 Responses to “Think Thin”

  1. I love the scenes with the mother most of all. It really makes the character and the film so fun. Apparently, the actress was a year or two younger than Cary Grant. She’s VERY good in this.

    How does this set the scene for less satisfying work? PSYCHO is next! And THE BIRDS is good too.

  2. “At least James Bond destroyed that rule — it’s only the first girl he sleeps with who has to die.”

    Or maybe the second one – the first is usually the comedy fling bit at the beginning of a Bond film (the girl having comedy moments and/or casual sex and even, say in The Spy Who Loved Me, trying to double cross Bond but surviving the opening sequence), then the second woman who has to be killed for being too ambivalent, then the third woman who pretends to be ambivalent to cope in this wild and crazy world but in the end wants a stable relationship with an alpha male.

    Though these ending relationships never seem to stick – we never really get a clear answer about whether Bonds throw the girl over or if the girl dumps him first?

    Sometimes though there are slight variations – there may be no second girl or the third girl may be a Diana Rigg type who is too powerful and significant a partner for Bond and so needs to be conclusively dealt with in order to assure the restoration of the status quo with an added element of loss and vengeance.

  3. AnneBillson Says:

    Interesting to compare Roger O Thornhill with Don Draper in Mad Men, perhaps. They’re both in advertising, both concerned with appearances, both mistaken for someone they’re not. Jon Hamm’s look was surely modelled on that of Grant, and they’re both involved with an ice princess.

    You wonder maybe whether Roger and Eve’s marriage will somehow end up like Don and Betty’s.

    I wonder whether Matthew Weiner had N by NW in mind when he first conceived Mad Men.

  4. Having recently watched a few of the early Bond films, I’ll take issue with this. The Bond films have all sorts of great women characters, strong and weak, driven, pure, eccentric, fetishized. The girls don’t always die.

    One of my favorite scenes in Doctor No is when Bond sort of manipulates sex out of a bad girl, having already called the cops on her. She goes to jail, not to the morgue. He gets his face spat on, then shoots the bad guy in the back. The girl who gets shot is the bad girl, who I don’t think has slept with anyone, by her own guy.

    The later Bond films make you forget what a great character he was. It would have been fun to see Bond and Thornhill have a martini together. I think Bond would have seen Thornhill as rather shallow, as I think we are meant to see him. Bond was more about King and Country and he loved his job. Thornhill uses his wits, but ultimately, he’s just trying to get out of sticky situations. Bond goes out of his way to get into them.

  5. Pango, that’s what I was saying — the Bond films are kind of the first movies where the girls can have extramarital sex and not have to die/be punished for it, necessarily.

    Mad Men’s Saul Bass-inspired credits certainly suggests a North by Northwest influence. It’s more that than Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? anyway.

    Cary Grant was in therunning to play Bond, but I think he was too expensive. Connery was astonishingly cheap — even by the time of Goldfinger he was hardly getting paid anything.

    I’d heard that Jessie Royce Landis was the SAME age as Cary G. It ought to be true. Of course we all know the great telegram, sent by mistake to Grant instead of his agent, “How old Cary Grant?” to which Grant replied “Old Cary Grant fine how you?”

  6. david wingrove Says:

    One day, I dream of writing a long and learned article (OK, I’ll probably never get round to it) on NORTH BY NORTHWEST as a parable of homosexual paranoia. It would focus on the following:

    – Martin Landau as a more-or-less openly gay sub-villain.

    – James Mason’s sexual ambuiguity as the main villain.

    – The possible homosexual liasion between Landau and Mason (with poor Eva Marie Saint as a ‘beard’ in between).

    – The gay couple’s active and obsessive pursuit of Cary Grant – for reasons that are barely explicable in terms of the ‘McGuffin’ plot.

    – The sexual ambiguity of Cary Grant’s on (and off) screen persona, which Hitchcock was doubtless aware of and may have consciously been playing on.

    – Even the overbearing mother played by Jessie Royce Landis feeds into a lot of old-fashioned gay stereotypes – which, again, I think Hitchcock is making conscious use of.

    There are, in fact, many more obviously ‘gay’ Hitchcock films – ROPE, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, REBECCA. I even have my theories about Joseph Cotten as ‘Uncle Charlie’ in SHADOW OF A DOUBT and the rather butch school-mistress played by Suzanne Pleshette in THE BIRDS.

    But NORTH BY NORTHWEST strikes me as the most fascinating, because its ‘gay’ them is at once omnipresent and wholly unacknowledged.

    Or is my ‘movie gaydar’ just in a state of chronic overdrive?

  7. A tad “overdetermiend” I’d say Mr. Wingrove.

    Hitch — like Bresson (about whom I have a pice in the new “Film Comment”) — is always polymorphous-perverse.

    Raymond Bellour did a very detailed structural analysis of the crop-dusting sequence for the French structuralist journal “Communications” back in the 70’s. Sadly it has never been translated into English.

  8. My favorite Jesse Royce Landis moment is when she and Cary are snooping in “Kaplan’s” hotel room at the Plaza. Cary discovers a hairbrush and notes that “Kaplan” apprently has dandruff.

    Jessie Royce Landis: “In that case we should leave!”

  9. Ah, but I know too much about railroads to laugh at the dirty joke at the end except as a dirty joke. The Southern Pacific doesn’t go anywhere near Rapid City, Chicago or points east, and Hitch was careful enough to use the right road to go the other way – the New York Central to Chicago. Hell, even the trivial musical comedy Dames used the right road (the Erie) to go from Buffalo to NYC. Didn’t stop my enjoyment of NxNW, despite its other implausibilities.

  10. Oh, as far as Roger being in the clear as soon as he talks to the cops, um, maybe, maybe not. Shadowy government TLAs aren’t known to share information, nor are they particularly inclined to do so to any police agencies unless it’s in their interests. That part to me is mostly believable.

  11. I think it’s quite possible that the UGB wouldn’t help Cary out, in fact, Leo G Carroll has said as much. But Grant can show that he was set up due to the cops having seen “Mrs Townsend”, so even without inter-bureau communication he’s probably well on his way to clearing his name.

    As for the wrong train at the end — the shot was a last minute pick-up. But there’s nothing explicitly to say that Grant hasn’t taken Eva back to New York, married her there, and then departed for his honeymoon by whatever route seems agreeable.

    I wonder what Martin Landau gets up to with Cary after he pours a bottle of bourbon into him but before he puts him in the car?

  12. As to Hitch’s “decline” — I’m trying to reserve judgment on it until I’ve watched all the films in order, but my thought was that while Hitch was making a few more classics, North by Northwest helped inspire the Bond series, which led to Hitch being induced to make a couple of less-than-suitable films about professional spies, which otherwise he might not have done. So in a very roundabout way, NBNW eventually led to problems for him.

  13. Another good serious spy film from the 60s is a film I revisited recently, on David E.’s recommendation actually, Michael Anderson’s The Quiller Memorandum, it has George Segal, Alec Guinnes, Max von Sydow(as a mix of James Mason and Martin Landau) and has a screenplay by the much missed Harold Pinter.

    N. by N-W. goes is a trip into the subconscious of the 50s where everything Cary Grant’s middle class character takes for granted rebounds on him. The key moment is when he enters George Kaplan’s room and he gets a phonecall and we hear Van Damme on the other end. Van Damme says hello to Mr. Kaplan, Thornhill says it’s not him, and then van damme says, “you sleep in his room, you wear his clothes and you answer his phone, and you say you are not him.” Amazing bit of dialogue there, sounds almosts Sartrean. Though N. by N-W. is a much sunnier film. Antonioni’s The Passenger deals with that dark subtext. That in urban living, identity is fragmented and fractured. Saul Bass’ multi-cube poster shows that.

    Eva Marie Saint’s character is interesting. She’s a double agent and as part of her job she sends Roger Thornhill to die knowing fully well that he’s innocent. The amazing bit is when he comes into her hotel later and she spontaneously goes to him and hugs him in relief. Great piece of acting and subtlety there.

    This movie has inspired a lot of popular films from James Bond to Indiana Jones but nothing can top the sense of fun and sexiness and lightness of touch.

  14. David Boxwell Says:

    “Think thin.”

    “Think pink!” (“Funny Face”, Donen 1956).

    Being pink and thin: the Eisenhower era ideal.

  15. David Boxwell Says:

    Jessie Royce Landis was only 8 years old when she gave birth to Cary Grant. It was very painful for her.

  16. How much did this movie influence Bond? I always assumed it did, but watching the early Bond recently, I’d say that Bond stands on its own. There’s a certain style that they share, but that’s also the style of the time. And the sets in both films are genius in their own ways, while in some ways interchangeable. But remember, Dr. No was a low budget movie and a lot of it was done on location, so what was there was also part of the aesthetic. Hitchcock had to build the inside of the UN, but the UN itself was a hugely influential building, so I’m sure the airport in Jamaica was influenced by that. It’s interesting.

    Hitch did some great spy movies. It makes sense because it goes along with his recurrent themes of identity and love and who are we really falling in love with. Hitch’s women, especially in the later films, seem like these beautiful, magnetic traps and if you get too close to them, your world will fall apart. Hitch’s women (and men) really fall in love, in a big way. Bond women are much more exotic, eccentric creatures, more liberated, more dangerous. God help you if you fall for one of them. One of Bond’s greatest weapons is his ability to remain unengaged, as it were.

    I don’t think any of his films is really homosexual. He told Truffaut that he didn’t have sex, at which point Truffaut nearly choked on his coffee. Rope was based on the Leopold and Loeb killing, which was laced with homosexuality, but besides that, I don’t remember thinking of any gay subtext in his films. Even the jealousy of Landau’s character can be read as him trying to protect James Mason from himself. North by Northwest seems like a very heterosexual film to me.

  17. David Boxwell Says:

    You CAN wear loafers and kitten heels to climb around Mt. Rushmore!

  18. David Boxwell Says:

    Populuxe Modernist architecture (Van Damm’s SD house, the UN building) is as dangerous as a flat Midwestern field or a fake-Georgian NY suburban manse.

  19. The problem with the later spy films is that all about the Cold War. Hitch was in no position to deal with poltical specifics so they’re weak from the start. And now they’re just dated. Paul Newman and Julie Andrews were big stars, but far too problematic as such to fit into the Hitch picture. The killing of the spy in Torn Curtain is a memorable set piece as is the escape from the hotel inTopaz. But of the films that surround them there’s not much to say.

    Re the decline, Marnie was rdiculed on its release. I daresay it’s one of Hitchcock’s finest, most complex achievements, and I know I’m not alone in thinking this. Frenzy was a critical and commercial “comeback” but aside form that fabulous tracking shot (which I know we’ll discuss at length with the filom comes up) I didn’t care for it. LOVE Family Plot however.

    Mad Men does indeed relate to North By Northwest. But where Cary Grant is attacked by exterior forces, John Hamm’s “Don Draper” is his own worst enemy.

  20. Indeed!

    Rebecca certainly has lesbian subtext galore, Strangers on a Train is sly but fairly clear, and I think Roscoe Lee Browne in Topaz may be the first gay black secret agent in a US film. Hitch was always very interested in sexual quirks, in life and art. He didn’t partake of actual sex, it seems (“I was so fat when I got married I had to father my daughter with a fountain pen.”) after a certain point, but it all came through his imagination.

    Brigitte Auber says he made a clumsy pass at her, and SOMETHING seems to have upset Tippi Hedren — occasionally he seems to have attempted to abandon celibacy, always with unsuccessful results.

  21. And don’t forget he was madly in love with Ingrid Bergman.

    But then, who wasn’t?

  22. Poor Hitch may have been one of the few men in Hollywood who didn’t stand a fair chance of getting into Ingrid’s pants.

  23. David E on Robert B!!

    Daresay this may make Film Comment worth picking up…for the first time in a long time. (Though some contributors are worthwhile.)

    David, is your piece available online, or print only?

  24. In print only, alas.

    Meanwhile in other movie news, according to Michael Musto Marc Christian has bought the farm.

  25. I shall have to get my hands on that too.

    Don’t know much about Mr Christian — he was Rock Hudson’s partner and he sued RH’s estate, or something?

  26. He was the boytoy who sued the estate — and won 5 million. Rock had a weird set-up with older semi-official lovers and periodic boytoys like Christian.

  27. Well, emotional distress is undoubtedly a serious thing, but five million bucks could probably help me get over something like that.

  28. Inspired by your post, I watched NXNW again last night. It’s really a fun movie, very light after Vertigo. There’s so many great lines and characters in it. My favorite last night might be when James Mason turns to Cary Grant and says, “Has anyone ever told you that you overplay your roles?”

    There’s a lot of implausibility in it, but you have to be a real drag to point it all out and ruin the fun.

    The architecture really struck me, as it always does. The Saul Bass credits really capture the feeling of this film. There’s all these lines going on, horizons, buildings, trains, cities. It’s such a kinetic film.

    And the other thing that struck me this time was the way it just moves and moves, until you get out to the corn field – and it just STOPS. It’s like Ernest Lehman says, only Hitchcock can give you 8 minutes of total suspense when nothing really happens.

  29. All true. Also, Hitch’s thrillers have these nice shifts of direction. We think of them as chase films, but part 1 is an escape, then an investigation, part 2 is a chase, and then the ending is a rescue. With lots of different adventures along the way. A wealth of different tasks and troubles for Mr Thornhill.

    Hitch obviously enjoyed changing pace and scale and mood, going from Vertigo to North by Northwest to Psycho!

  30. I take exception to the concluding assertion that NBNW is “lighter than air”. As a novelist, I’ve come to understand that a book’s worth–to literature and to the ages–lies in the felicity, delight, skill and beauty of its sentences. Its content is dependent upon its execution. Thus Dan Brown or Ayn Rand are seriously bad and lightweight writers because their prose is so rank -rotten it cannot support ideas nor plot. I don’t “believe” them when they write that it’s day time. I do believe Marquez or Barthelme, even when they are inventing impossible and irrational events–because form and function are one and they are masters of form. As, of course, is Hitchcock. The “sentences and paragraphs” of the narrative of this film are so masterly that they have been borrowed by a hundred thousand lessr film makers since, attempting and usually failing to convince audiences of their more ponderous and preachy ideas. I have believed that Roger Thornhill navigated through those August days since I first saw this film. One of Hitchcock’s epigones, say Paul Greengrass, with his Bourne souffles, is in fact lighter than air.

  31. I hoped to imply, with “Not empty, but lighter than air,” especially after all I’d already found to say about the film, that the film is full of ideas and promising avenues for exploration, and that it’s a paradoxical effect of the skill with which it’s made that it appears “lighter than air” the way Fred Astaire does. It’s a romance, a cold war drama, a paranoid thriller, a self-parody, and many other things, with no sense of visible effort or strain, and no difficulty in aligning its varied tones. So I meant it as a compliment!

    You’re quite right in everything you say — Hitchcock’s grammar not only expresses his worldview, it embodies it, which is why imitations so often fail — a filmmaker following in the Master’s steps must adjust the style to her own conception of reality, or risk flat pastiche.

  32. To the author: I understand. Light in the sense of Prospero’s conjured spells. We agree completely.

  33. That’s the one. I generally would think of “light” as a compliment. “Lightweight” is a bit more barbed, but something could be successfully lightweight and still decent.

    I think light is a better thing to aim for than heavy.

  34. (having only just finished reading this piece)

    Marvelous work, David. As for Grant and Martin Landau … was this, perhaps, the origin of the memorable “Boys in the Band” phrase “Christ, was I drunk last night”?

  35. It’s been too long since I’ve seen the film, but … my memory tells me that drunken Roger Thornhill, behind the car’s wheel, starts crooning to himself a Henry Higgens-esque “I’ve grown accustomed to her berber [or some such muffled syllable].” Can anyone with a DVD at hand confirm this?

    With the chase on Mount Rushmore, I’ve often though that it wasn’t so much disappointing as it was a gesture toward abstraction. Protagonists often seen against a background of solid color, and all that. A trend to be continued in the ’60s, what with the exploded balloons at the party in “The Birds” and suchlike?

  36. Homosexual subtext: Thornhill asking Van Damm “Are you going to ask this female to kiss me again and poison me to death?”

    Note, too, the nod to Saint’s Actors Studio background.

  37. Bill Krohn talks about the Broadway musical influence in NBNW — Thornhill was originally going to specify that he was taking his mother to see West Side Story. Herrmann’s score seems to echo la-la-la-la-lamerica… then Thornhill sings “I’ve grown accustomed to your bourbon,” a reference to a previous year’s hit.

  38. AnneBillson Says:

    I LOVE the scene where Cary Grant is drunk behind the wheel of the car. It’s basically just him making funny faces in front of some ropey back projection, but it cracks me up every time.

  39. It’s beautifully played. Apparently it took a lot of work in the editing to find the balance between road shots and Grant reactions. I think the long dissolves where the road winds and straightens unpredictably are quite hair-raising, despite the complete artifice.

  40. On the subject of Thornhill’s morality, I thought the nineties saw some very effective nice thrillers. Watching District 9, in which the schnook’s hounding by the state is solved by his access to even bigger explosives (which of course was exactly how the studios wanted to end “Brazil”) I kept thinking fondly – very fondly in fact – of “Enemy of the State” which managed to orchestrate exactly that level of persecution and satisfyingly resolve it without ever turning Will Smith into a murderer. And of course in “Sneakers” EVERYONE is lovely.

  41. I’d forgotten about Gallo’s little act! Almost enough to make one forgive him for his many many sins.

    I’ve heard great things about Enemy of the State, but always managed to miss it. Writer Henry Bean is a smart fellow, and he said that Tony Scott was extremely bright and interesting. “You could talk ideas with his brother and it was… okay… and he sharpened up enormously when you got onto visuals. But with Tony Scott, this was immediately obviously a very bright guy.” I wonder why he makes some of the films he makes.

    Sneakers is awful good fun. And clever, too. Must be hard to write something like that. And most of the times it happens, the scripts probably never reach the screen. Phil Alden Robinson seems a tad uneven, but he did a great job there. Sadly, he seems to be writing a spy film for McG now…

  42. Gallo’s sins are why I love him. Buffalo 66 will always be at the top of my list, and Palookaville is quietly gorgeous.
    Do catch Enemy of the State if you can. You’ll feel good. I was thinking recently – having watched True Romance again for the first time in fifteen years (Detroit looks amazing, and Walken’s and Hopper’s scene together is remarkable IN SPITE OF Tarantino’s script) – of really paying some proper attention to Scott’s complete oeuvre, then realized that would mean starting with the Hunger and got cold feet.

  43. Tony Scott’s The Hunger is a very interesting film and for me it’s as good as Alien or Blade Runner and certainly directs actors better there than Ridley ever did.

    Enemy of the State is a real boring action film. Gene Hackman is the real auteur as he plays a funnier, looser Harry Caul. Imagine North by Northwest with Robert Taylor instead of Cary Grant, and the character as a monogamous married man on the run and without any humour and action chases that are fast cut and lot of explosions and you got it.

  44. By the way, after a long hiatus, my latest blog post…I plan to be more regular from now.

  45. Cool!

    Ridley Scott had great taste in actors for a while, Alien and Blade Runner are just crammed with fascinating players. And then he made Legend.

    The Hunger isn’t too appalling — the first half is kind of fascinating, then it gets into its plot and characters and kind of turns to sludge. Amazingly bad ending. But the opening shows the Scott style at somewhere near its best.

    I have a copy of Brown Bunny but I’m waiting until I’m in the right mood. The trouble is, I have no idea what the right mood IS.

  46. Lovely piece on NXNW – I’ve just got the bluray and am loving how crisply beautiful it looks and sounds.

    Re the Scott brothers – Alien aside, I’ve always found Ridley to be bloated and overly self-important, while Tony’s films are at least breezy and entertaining for the most part, and at their best (the scabrously hilarious The Last Boy Scout, the delirious, hallucinatory Domino) they attain a kind state of being pure cinema. I find it very difficult to convince ‘film buffs’ of this but that doesn’t strike me as a problem.

  47. I’m now the proud owner of a couple of blurays courtesy of Masters of Cinema, but have nothing to watch them on! Would need to upgrade my TV as well to get the benefit. Maybe my next writing cheque will go in that direction, it’s that or a holiday or make a no-budget film.

    Ridley has been basically uninteresting for a long while now, I think. Tony is admired by a number I respect, but I haven’t yet decided whether to go along with this. At a certain level, his style resembles a lot of random noise. In some projects, however, that seems to be the point. I’m not sure I’ll ever really warm to his style, but I might come to appreciate it somewhat. I tend to like it fine in short, commercial-length segments.

  48. Arthur, no you haven’t got it. I mean, casting Hackman as an older Harry Caul probably wasn’t Gene’s idea. I couldn’t tell you what the right mood for Brown Bunny is, David, having seen it. Probably Insomniac.
    Actually that’s definitely the right mood, if it counts as a mood, and not because the film’s soporific. Well, not just because it’s soporific. I love Gallo’s public apology for it at Cannes: “What really twisted the knife is that the French LOVED it!”

  49. In that sense, we might not be able to call Hackman the auteur, but we might call him the only reason for watching, if we sided with Arthur. This controversy just makes me more curious to see it.

    TScott is much responsible for this terrible thing of recycling movie scores from other films (Actually, Ridley was guilty of it in Alien, borrowing part of Goldsmith’s score for Freud and mixing it with his original Alien score) which is generally deplorable. The Badlands music (a bit of Carl Orff) has now become a staple, and it actually hurts the Malick film.

  50. You’re right. But unlike the pilfering of, say “Mishima”, Scott isn’t simply lifting the music because he likes it, he’s referencing the Voice Over, the voice, the whole killing spree thang. The trouble is so tiny a percentage of the original audience of True Romance would have registered this. So it’s sort of deplorable, but no less – or mare – justifiable than the plundering of “The Conversation” for Hackman’s backstory (and mugshot) in Enemy of the State. And when I watched it recently the music I was surprised how much really worked – it wasn’t just “that tune” – simply because the ugliness of the scenery and the puffiness of the leading man (maybe the best use of Christian Slater I can think of; he totally convinces as a schlock enthusiast just, jussst the right side of handsome) is in such stark opposition to the open skies, colour and James Deaniness of its first use. I was going to say “of the original” but I don’t think Orff actually wrote it for Malick did he? So it’s not actually a film score to begin with. No excuse then, but not without its reasons.

  51. The trouble with this stuff is partly that it establishes a precedent. Tarantino’s own use of pre-existing scores, a trick he got from Scott (having initially registered dismay at it) is often skilled and effective, but it doesn’t necessarily help us enjoy Twisted Nerve or Fear Over the City. And now we have the Orff turning up in Monster too. Again, serial killer, crime spree, road trip: these things have nothing to do with the music itself, so its use is just lack of imagination or misuse of imagination.

    I don’t really approve of rules, but quite a good guideline would be “Never use a piece of music in your film that you heard in another film.”

  52. And I guess ESPECIALLY not BECAUSE you heard it in another film.

  53. Yes, that would be the worst, trying to cash in on the associations rather than using it for its musical value.

  54. “Does the plane crashing into the oil tanker make sense? What was the pilot thinking?”

    The pilot was aiming to mow down Cary Grant when he was standing in the middle of the highway, but by the time the plane reaches Grant he’s fallen under the gas tanker and the tanker has come to occupy the space where Grant was standing. That’s obviously the way it was supposed to play out, but thanks to some maladroit editing it looks like the plane’s pilot sees the tanker with enough time to change course and avert a collision.

  55. chris schneider Says:

    Another song quotation in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, which for some reason I never noticed until recently: when Thornhill enters the hotel, at the beginning, the combo in the dining area is playing Jane Powell-associated song “It’s A Most Unusual Day.” (Sung by Powell in A DATE WITH JUDY.)

    Oh, the MGM-osity of it all!

  56. And of course it IS a most unusual day, Cary just doesn’t know it yet.

  57. But since Grant doesn’t move, he ought by rights to be under the part of the tanker hit by the plane, which I fear would be fatal.

    Far from being maladroit, the editing uses the tanker to distract us from the plane long enough that most people don’t ask this question, and it only occurred to me after several viewings.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: