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?
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.
The “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.