RogerBW's Blog

North by Northwest (1959) 14 October 2023

1959 thriller, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint: IMDb / allmovie. The ordinary man is suddenly thrown into Cool Spy World.

And it's all very confusing and cool and sexy and the moment anything seems to make sense there's another twist and… it's all great fun, but never terribly smart.

An early problem that really threw me was the house. Our hero, an innocent (or as innocent as an advertising man can be), is mistaken for a spy, kidnapped, taken to a house, invited to change sides, then when he refuses is filled with whisky and put in his car to drive off a cliff. He manages to recover in time and drive far enough to get the attention of the police, who arrest him for drunken driving. Then he goes back to the house (with the police, and his mother) the next day… and it all looks completely innocent, with the hostess talking about the party they had last night and did he make it home all right?

Which is great. It's a lovely "am I mad, or is the world mad" moment. But the voice in the back of my head said, hang on, if they really think he's a spy, they would expect him to report in and come back with lots of support from his agency; Plausible Hostess would just get arrested. So why don't they just abandon the house (which they've unofficially borrowed from a man who's about to be murdered and for which they have no further use anyway)? I don't like films which I can only enjoy if I stop thinking about them, and I had expected better of someone with Hitchcock's reputation.

There's a lot of the attitude of the James Bond films here: not just bits of detail like vanishing evidence, but the general air of cool superiority in our hero (even if he only sleeps with one woman). But really I found myself enjoying the acting more than anything else, especially on the villainous side: James Mason makes an excellent threatening mastermind, and I'm always happy to see Martin Landau, who does a fine menacing henchman in this early film role. (Meanwhile, I can't help suspecting that Leo G. Carroll got the part as "not M, honest" in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. at least partly on the basis of his performance here.)

The famous strafing scene makes effective use of the threatening wide open flat spaces of middle America. The auction scene may be basic genitalia-waving between hero and villain, but our leads carry it off well. As in Vertigo, women still can't be trusted to climb things, but the fake Frank Lloyd Wright house towards the end is excellent. I just can't help a slight feeling of disappointment that this extremely effective thriller couldn't also be a smart thriller.

I talk about this film further on Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

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