Tuesday, May 31, 2011

North by Northwest - free to the public...

When I was a little girl, the only director whose name I knew was Alfred Hitchcock. Though I didn't see any of his signature films of the era in a theater - Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) - I must've seen the trailers, because I was well aware that he made exciting, colorful and glamorous movies.

Psycho (1960) was the first Hitchcock film I watched on in a theater. I saw Psycho (a far cry from his elaborate VistaVision/Technicolor creations of the 1950s) second-run (I was finally old enough) at the local movie house, the Ritz Theater, with a friend who'd already seen it. Pal that she was, she nudged me just as Arbogast, the detective, reached the staircase landing of the Bates home and a figure with a knife darted toward him...naturally, I shrieked long and loud...

I was fortunate enough to see Rear Window when it was re-released into theaters in 1984, but have seen most of Hitchcock's films on television. There's no question that his work comes through powerfully on TV, but his films were made – carefully - to be seen on full-size theater screens.

The Rafael Theatre, San Rafael, California
Last July the nearby Rafael Theatre screened the silent version of Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929). The film exceeded my expectations in just about every way possible. I was surprised that it as well-crafted and fluid as it was and that it contained so many elements that were to become Hitchcock trademarks. Live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra underscored the action and added dimension. And it was thrilling to be surrounded by an appreciative SRO audience.

Six weeks later, at noon on Sunday, September 5, the Rafael presented North by Northwest, free to the public, as part of its quarterly "Everybody's Classics" series. At 11:40 a.m. the line was long, but good seats were still to be had. By show time Theater 1 was packed and anticipation ran high.

Then Bernard Herrmann's pulsing score began and the crisscrossing lines of Saul Bass's title sequence filled the screen. North by Northwest was upon us and in just a few exhilarating moments I was whisked into the adventure.

Cary Grant - the adventure begins
Possibly Hitchcock's quintessential thrill-ride, North by Northwest incorporates many familiar themes and plot devices - an innocent man accused, a romance complicated by mistrust and betrayal, a double chase (the police after the innocent man and the innocent man after the true villain), a backdrop of international espionage...

North by Northwest has been linked to two of Hitchcock's earlier classics, The 39 Steps (1935) and Notorious (1946), but by 1959 the director, at the height of his powers, was in a position to control just about every aspect of his films, much more so than he had been 10 and 20+ years earlier.

He was able to cast his favorite actor/star, Cary Grant, in the lead. And though he was unsuccessful in enticing Princess Grace back to the screen as his leading lady, he transformed Academy Award-winning method actress Eva Marie Saint into a stunning and complex femme fatale. James Mason, Martin Landau, Leo G. Carroll and Jessie Royce Landis rounded out his first-rate cast.

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, hands on
Bernard Herrmann, who by now had worked with Hitchcock on several films, was just completing the score for the pilot of "The Twilight Zone" when he began North by Northwest. Ernest Lehman wrote the sophisticated and clever script that earned an Oscar nomination. Academy Award winning cinematographer Robert Burks, production designer Robert F. Boyle (also Oscar-nominated for this film) and other Hitchcock stalwarts joined in the collaboration.

All of these ingredients plus glorious VistaVision and Technicolor added up to produce one of Hitchcock's most successful and exciting films.

I'd seen North by Northwest countless times and felt I knew the film well, but to finally see it on a movie screen was akin to seeing it for the first time.

To begin with, Cary Grant's starpower was almost overpowering - his screen presence was that commanding. What grace, what confidence…and how impossibly handsome he was. It's not surprising that Bernard Herrmann adjusted his score to match what he described as Grant's "Astaire-like agility."

As might be expected, the suspense seemed magnified on a theater screen, and so did everything else - the humor was more direct and the seduction scenes more intense in their intimacy and erotic implications. The film’s pacing is acutely precise – with suspense building to an exquisite pitch, then, at just the right moment, relief - via wit or romance. Then, once more, the suspense begins to build…

Climax of a classic chase scene
The crop-dusting sequence with its truck-in-flames finale and the moonlit chase across the face of Mount Rushmore are striking set-pieces on a screen of any size. Via the big screen I could almost feel the heat of the truck’s explosion and smell South Dakota’s night air. These scenes are legendary and, for obvious reasons, much imitated. The early James Bond films emulate the crop-dusting scene... Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters (1977) includes a well-known homage with its replication of Hitchcock's night-time Black Hills.

Afterward, I couldn't help wishing I'd been able to see North by Northwest back in 1959 at the Ritz. The kid I was then would've come out of that theater exhausted and elated, convinced she'd just been on the greatest rollercoaster ride of her life.

Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau
Alfred Hitchcock has been widely acknowledged for his matchless ability to maneuver an audience's emotions and point of view with ease, and it's hard to maintain much distance from Hitchcock's best films. This could be why I enjoy the experience of his films as much as I enjoy the exercise of studying them.

As with all Hitchcock films, North by Northwest has a few things going on beneath its slick surface. But last Labor Day weekend, inside a darkened theater filled with laughing, sighing, cheering people, I was a child again for a while. Happily immersed in a suspenseful, clever, sexy adventure, I didn't really notice that, from the first note of Herrmann's score to the final shot of a darkened railroad tunnel, I was being swept along as if aboard a sleek 20th Century Limited under the command of a very crafty locomotive engineer.


  1. Not one of Hitch's more complicated efforts, but my favorite film of his to watch by some distance.

    Everything works so perfectly here. Grant and Saint are immense and Mason is a wonderful villain. The plot is punchy and fun and the suspense holds true more than 40 years later. I've seen this about a dozen times and still love it. Have a poster of it in my house.

  2. SKW - Bernard Herrmann called "NxNW" a "picaresque romp," and it is that - one of the best ever made. Interesting that "NxNW" came right after stunning and complex "Vertigo," and just before stark and shocking "Psycho." Fascinating trio of films...
    If you love "NxNW," I hope you've had the chance to see it in a theater.

  3. I have seen this film more times than I can count. I absolutely love the Mt. Rushmore scene.


  4. Hi Dawn...I've read that after "NxNW" was released, Mt. Rushmore had a big surge in popularity and an influx of visitors. Many of them wanted to trek across the presidents' faces - not realizing that this was off-limits or that the scenes in the movie hadn't been shot on location.

  5. AFI is doing Hitchcock all year, so hopefully I will get a chance to see this. Thus far, I only caught Suspicion. If you're lucky enough to live near an AFI venue, I highly recommend.

  6. SKW - I just took a look online at AFI's Hitchcock retrospective. Wow. Judging by the films already shown and those scheduled, I would bet "NxNW" will screen during the next part of the series. Must admit, I'm green with envy...

  7. 'Borrowed' North by Northwest from my Granny's Hitchcock boxset recently, will have to dedicate a night to watching it soon.

  8. Hi Chris - "NxNW" is great on a screen of any size, but I'd watch it on the biggest one available. If your Granny's boxed set is "The Alfred Hitchcock Signature Collection," that's a very good set - includes one of my very favorite Hitchcocks, "Strangers on a Train."

  9. The elaborate set pieces look great on the big screen (though I always wish the Rushmore scene looked more realistic). But what I enjoy about NbNW is the light surface with the dark undertones. It's definitely more escapist than NOTORIOUS, but many of the same themes are prevalent in both films. As always, a great read, Eve.

  10. Hi Rick - I actually like the stylized look of Hitchcock's Mt. Rushmore. I haven't mentioned this before, but I love that mid-century modern Black Hills house of Vandamm's. Last time I watched, I took a good look at the living room (and the rest of its interiors and exteriors) and thought, that place would look modern and stunning even now, 50+ years after the fact.
    I agree about the film's light surface and dark undertones. Even though one can take it as a straight thrill-ride (which it is - on the surface), like most Hitchcock films it can also take one into deeper and darker places - if one wishes to go...
    As you may know, "Notorious" is one of my favorite Hitchcock films. I've never watched the two films back-to-back, but you've given me an idea...and the comparison might be a very interesting post. When is our next Hitchcock blogathon?

  11. Eve, I loved your review of my favorite movie of all time, NORTH BY NORTHWEST! Although I reviewed it in TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED earlier this year, your blog post had several nice details that even I didn't know about, like Hitchcock wanting Grace Kelly (of course! :-)) to play Eve Kendall. Much as I love Grace, however, I thought Eva Marie Saint was perfect for the role because I always had a sense of soignee Eve's underlying gravitas (no doubt the result of those pre-Roger men who "don't believe in marriage") that led her to become a spy. I enjoyed your reminiscences of the Hitchcock films you were lucky enough to see in a true movie theater. Wonderful post, Eve!

  12. I love this movie and your review. It is probably as close to perfect as you can get and I think Eva Marie Saint out-sexed every blonde that Hitchcock ever presented.

  13. I agree with you Dorian and FlickChick about Eva Marie as Eve Kendall. "NxNW" fans might be interested in reading Charlotte Chandler's Hitchcock bio, "It's Only a Movie." She interviewed several who worked on the film, and talked with Eva Marie, James Mason and Martin Landau about their roles, Hitchcock and other aspects of the film.

  14. an almost perfect cast..including a sly JAMES MASON and thuggish MARTIN LANDAU...please...DO NOT REMAKE THIS!! nice post as usual!!

  15. Hi Doc, I think "NxNW" is one of Hitchcock's best-cast films. As for remakes, the director who attempts to remake classic Hitchcock is foolhardy - i.e., Gus Van Zant/"Psycho." I've seen British TV versions of "Rebecca" that have been done very well - but still, Hitchcock casts a long shadow...

  16. What a great experiencer for you, Eve! This movie must be incredible on the big screen -- it was obviously made for it! LOL!

    I was lucky enough to get to see Gone With The Wind on the big screen, and like you, I couldn't believe the breathtaking effect it had on me, much more than on TV. You could really see everything, set pieces, costumes, everything in complete detail that you can't get on TV. Also with Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera. I've seen that a million times, but when he was unmasked, I gasped as if I had not seen it before.

    Good review of a great favorite for me too!

  17. Hi Becky - I saw GWTW on the big screen, too, with my parents on one of its re-releases. Those were the days when I was seeing a lot more movies in theaters. Years ago, the first time I saw it, I watched Jean Cocteau's "La belle et la bete" in a theater - talk about magical...
    I found out today that Lon Chaney's "He Who Gets Slapped" (with John Gilbert and Norma Shearer) will screen at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Definitely worth seeing - so I'll be seeing Chaney on the big screen soon, too. Finally.

  18. OK, now I'm jealous. I have come to believe that He Who Gets Slapped is one of Chaney's greatest performances, and a chilling, ahead-of-its-time film. that should be great!

  19. Becky - I agree completely. I saw "He Who Gets Slapped" for the first time (on TCM) last year. Unforgettable. Chaney was an incredible actor - as well as a mime. He breaks your heart in his best roles.