What can you say about a 50-year old movie? If it's by Alfred Hitchcock, and it's a classic of suspense, humor, and style, and it's influenced both the best series on television, Mad Men, and the ongoing Bond franchise, quite a lot. There are a few spoilers here, incidentally, in case you've never seen it.
A few weeks ago, the 50th anniversary edition of North by Northwest was released on DVD and Blu-Ray. I don't know that it's Hitchcock's best movie (that's probably Vertigo) or his most influential movie (that's probably Psycho), but it may be his most enjoyable. The picture looks and sounds wonderful, better than ever, from its famed Saul Bass linear abstraction titles giving way to a New York skyscraper and the teeming bustle of the advertising mecca of Madison Avenue to the witty closing shot of the train roaring into a tunnel.
The original trailer to North by Northwest.
The DVD extras are good as well, with excellent documentaries on Hitchcock and on Cary Grant, as well as the movie itself (one of them featuring Eva Marie Saint), and a terrific rendition of the great score by Bernard Herrmann. (The studio had wanted something Gershwinesque. What it got instead was what the composer calls "a kaleidoscopic orchestral fandango" to reflect "the crazy dance between Cary Grant and the world.")
As screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who knew the advertising/publicity game from his Sweet Smell of Success and does the commentary track on the movie itself, put it, he set out with Hitchcock to write "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures." It has, as he correctly points out, "wit, sophistication, glamour, action."
Now, of course, some of the film actually makes no particular sense. Why the rather effete Cold War villain, the always very good James Mason, has his lair in the form of an incongruously Frank Lloyd Wright-style house next to Mount Rushmore of all places makes little sense. Nor does his plan to use South Dakota as his jumping off point to leave the country, dropping his treacherous mistress into the ocean -- which one, or is it a lake? -- in the process. Why does Grant's suave advertising executive Roger Thornhill -- paging Jon Hamm, excuse me, Don Draper -- take the knife from the back of the real Lester Townsend in the lobby of the United Nations? And why are the secrets being passed at an art auction?
But if some of it is nonsense, it's wonderful nonsense, suggesting that the movie is nearly as much covert screwball comedy as overt suspense thriller.
Go North by Northwest. Advice from the Alfred Hitchcock Travel Agency.
"In the world of advertising, there is no such thing as a lie. There is only the expedient exaggeration." That's Roger Thornhill, a Mad Man, wittily establishing his character not long before his his life goes utterly mad as a sudden twist of fate presents him to Soviet agents as the elusive intelligence agent George Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan, of course, is especially elusive in that he does not actually exist.
Not until the advertising exec becomes him, that is. And the chase is on, on many levels. I won't recap the plot of North by Northwest, which is either familiar, in which case there's little point, or unfamiliar, in which case you should see the picture. It's a thriller, an action-adventure picture, a romance, and a comedy.
It's also quite sexy, even though it shows virtually nothing. Thank the censors of the day for that. The restraint, as it happens, makes it more romantic. But they didn't need to be quite so prudish. In the elegantly titillating club car scene, Saint's seeming femme fatale Eve Kendall says: "I never discuss love on an empty stomach." But that's dubbed, as you can see that what she originally said was: "I never make love on an empty stomach."
Though they are different beasts, North by Northwest is clearly a precursor to Mad Men. There's central character Don Draper, who looks a great deal like Roger Thornhill. (Though Roger Thornhill's witty gibes are more like Roger Sterling's.) There's Betty Draper, played by January Jones, a doppelganger for Grace Kelly, who was always Hitchcock's first choice to play his leading ladies. (As Princess Grace of Monaco at the time of North by Northwest, she was no longer available. Which didn't stop Hitchcock from trying to get her as late as Marnie, a 1964 film.)
Since they are both around the same period, and the Sterling Coo crew have been lagging their time more than a bit, the look and style of the two are very much the same. As is the advertising milieu, which lends itself so readily to shifting versions of reality.
North by Northwest's title sequence, with design by Saul Bass and music by Bernard Herrmann.
And then there is the central theme, that of identity, deception, and a certain sense of theater. In North by Northwest, everyone is playing a part. That's certainly true of Don Draper as well. Identities are in flux in both.
Roger Thornhill/George Kaplan is akin to Don Draper/Dick Whitman. Though Roger Thornhill's evident cynicism gets a far more bitter twist in Don Draper.
A chance event sets in motion the sequence that rapidly flips the identity of each. And it turns out that each is actually quite good at being who he ends up pretending to be.
Some even believe the title North by Northwest was taken from a line in Hamlet, which also concerns itself with shifting perceptions of reality.
It's not a real compass direction.
Perhaps, more slyly, and Hitchcock was very sly, it's that the action climaxes after a trip from Chicago to Rapid City, South Dakota. Via Northwest Orient Airlines. In a northerly, actually northwesterly, direction.
The essential milieu of Mad Men is not all that admirable.
Of course, the music in Mad Men is not at all like the great North by Northwest score by Bernard Herrmann, though I heard a Herrmannesque cue when Betty discovered Don's little box of big secrets.
And the memorable opening titles have only a hint of the North by Northwest titles by legendary graphic designer Saul Bass. The motifs from Hitchcock's Vertigo seem more influential on Mad Men.
Some see North by Northwest as the precursor to Bond. There are some similarities, but I don't really see it that way. For one thing, Ian Fleming's novels, and the Bond character, were already very well established as hits in Britain, if not yet in America. For another, Roger Thornhill is an advertising executive, not an assassin, a gentleman amateur, not an action hero.
Dr. No, the first Bond film, only three years after North by Northwest, feels like it's in an entirely different era. Rawer, much more violent and sexual. And Cary Grant is decidedly not Sean Connery.
Still, North by Northwest showed that there was a public appetite for a glamorous spy movie with wit. And the two characters have wit, style, and glamour, though Bond was a far nastier customer from the beginning.
Roger Thornhill gets on a train and encounters Eve Kendall.
And there are no Bond girls in North by Northwest.
Which is not to underrate the attractiveness of Eva Marie Saint. While Grace Kelly may have been Hitchcock's real first choice to play Eve Kendall -- having already starred in Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and To Catch A Thief in rapid succession before becoming Princess of Monaco in 1956 -- Saint proved to be an inspired choice.
The studio wanted dancer Cyd Charisse. Hitchcock picked Saint, an Oscar-winner for On The Waterfront known for decidedly unglamorous roles. He had Saint cut her waist-length blonde hair for the first time in her career. "Short hair gives Eva a more exotic look, in keeping with her role of the glamorous woman of my story," observed Hitchcock.
Saint transformed into a mysterious seductress, cool and controlled, keeping Cary Grant's self-possessed Thornhill/Kaplan at least a bit off-balance throughout. She says Hitchcock gave her only three pieces of direction: Lower her voice, don't talk with her hands, and always stare into Cary Grant's eyes.
In other words, rather than a Bond girl, she became a Hitchcock blonde. (Mad Men's Hitchcock blonde, of course, is January Jones's Betty Draper.)
Saint's deftly portrayed Eve Kendall confounds expectation as a femme fatale who is actually, well, not a victim per se, as Evelyn Mulwray is in Chinatown, but a secret, albeit compromised, heroine.
The Madison Avenue man comes to Prairie Stop.
With all this panoply of the terrific on display in North by Northwest, I must say that one classic sequence now looks very glitchy to me. And I'm not referring to the boy extra who sticks his fingers in his ears three seconds before the cafeteria shooting. (How did Hitchcock miss that?!)
No, I'm referring to arguably the most famous sequence in North by Northwest, Cary Grant's encounter with a cropduster plane out in the middle of nowhere.
It's the great sequence at Prairie Stop, where Roger Thornhill goes by bus to meet, he thinks, with George Kaplan. He's an hour and a half out of Chicago -- this was actually shot outside of Bakersfield in California's Central Valley, an hour and a half outside of Los Angeles -- waiting on a desolate stretch of road.
It's a wonderful sequence that builds for minutes, quietly, letting the tension and strangeness wash over the viewer. Finally, after six minutes of this, the cropduster plane begins its attack on Cary Grant, sending him diving, running through the corn field to hide.
It's all quite wonderful right up to the moment when the cropduster plane crashes into the tanker. That looks incredibly awkward now.
Well, I suppose nothing is perfect.
Yet the movie does recover, quickly and in high style, thanks to the pickup truck with the refrigerator in back. And it's off and running the rest of the way.
A fabulous movie. Now in a fabulous special edition.