Chris Burns’s review published on Letterboxd:
Mr. Hitchcock and I have a lot of catching up to do and what follows is less a review, more my disjointed ramblings after catching up with a classic 54 years after the fact.
A few years ago I watched Planet of the Apes for the first time. It was a strange experience as despite having never watched the film before, it is so ingrained in popular culture, that I knew the entire film as it played out. I thought North By Northwest was going to suffer the same fate. It's another film so iconic, that if you have even a casual interest in film, you're bound to have seen its two big set pieces, or at least seen them parodied on The Simpsons, Family Guy, etc. Having known these scenes very well, I'd pieced together my own story over the years, but I was surprised to discover how little of the story I actually knew. I sat down with a story mapped out in my mind (A will lead to B, which will lead to C, which will lead to crop duster), but from the get-go, I was pleased to discover that I knew very little about the story.
With little time for set up, we're off almost immediately and my first shock was to discover just how many little comical flourishes there are in the first act. I've found Hitchcock's comical turns to be hit (The Lady Vanishes) and miss (Family Plot), but here it he pulls it off brilliantly. After roughly half an hour of this lighthearted tone (well, lighthearted kidnap and murder attempts), Hitchcock shifts up a gear, and off we go on an adventure that's constantly building momentum and barely lets up for the rest of film (except for a slight lull midway through).
The story is full of surprises even through we know everything ahead of time. I loved that Hitchcock laid his cards on the table early on, but only for the audience, not for the protagonist. Every time Cary Grant makes a mistake, we know it's a mistake, making it even more painful to watch. I imagine if this was a modern film, we'd be kept in the dark too and everything would build to a grand reveal at the end and that just doesn't seem right for this film.
Even the aforementioned iconic scenes held some surprises. I've seen the crop duster scene countless times, but only ever from the moment that the plane begins it's descent upon Cary Grant. What I hadn't seen was the slow build up which occurs beforehand. The plane is glimpsed at the very beginning of the scene, but it's inconsequential, it's off in the distance, dusting crops and clearly isn't a threat. We don't focus on it and it could easily be missed. Vehicles slowly approach, clearly this is the threat, but no, they just drive on. A man gets out of a car and stands alone on the opposite side of the road, this is bound to be the threat. No, he's just waiting for the bus that's arriving now. But, he has a parting line.
"That's funny, that plane's dustin' crops where there ain't no crops."
Genius. This all plays out at a slow methodical pace and it's simply masterfully done (well, he is The Master). I can only imagine how tense this scene was originally, when viewed without any knowledge of the outcome of this scene.
When I attempt to write a serious review, instead of my usual silliness, I like to include a meaningful quote from the film. Here I'll do the same, but with a quote from another Letterboxd member, which perfectly sums up how I feel after finally watching this.
"You're SO lucky to be seeing North By Northwest for the first time."
How right you were, Steve.