North by Northwest

North by Northwest ★★½

Very Late Film School Drop Outs 2019
Week 21: Writer - Ernest Lehman

Well, it's been a little while, let's write another one of these that will prompt someone to come tell me I'm wrong.

Psycho. Rear Window. The Birds. For many, a list of some of the best American classics of all time. For me, more of a list of films that were pretty good but just never did anything that truly excited me. I've had unusually tepid reactions to Hitchcock this whole time, but this is the first one that I'm bordering on actually disliking. It seems Hitchcock and I just have fundamental disagreements on how movies should be made, just as we have disagreements on how to treat women, and whether it's a good idea to give laxatives to a handcuffed man. I can't resist the low blow, but I promise this movie has plenty I disliked about it regardless of who made it.

North By Northwest seems dead set on being simply entertaining fluff, which I have no inherent qualms with, but I'd be hard pressed to say it entertained me very frequently. For the sake of fairness, the crop duster scene is entirely good. Its build up is the only time I felt true tension in this movie, but it handled that masterfully, which is doubly impressive considering that there was no way for me to go into it not knowing exactly what was about to happen. Honestly, the blocking, camerawork, editing, really every technical element were all pretty well done, although I'll never stop being distracted and irritated at Old Hollywood's use of the glowing glamour shots. Alternating between those and normal shots repeatedly looks really bad. Still, while I'm not talking about this stuff at length, I want to emphasize that it is obviously a big deal. This technical accomplishment is a substantial part of why this review is probably going to sound really negative while still sitting at 2.5.

Also, Eva Marie Saint also played her part well, even if her part was inane and arguably pretty sexist. It's probably no more sexist than general portrayals of the time, but I don't consider it particularly enlightened to handwave away my dislike of her character because traditional attitudes called for it to be that way. From my perspective, other than as a way to jam a few more twists in the narrative, her real purpose is to be a bit of an object, whether that's of sexual attraction or a sort of refined fancy glamour. Even without any sort of social considerations, that's not exactly a character I'd like. Still, the point was that she seems to be a great actress, and in pure execution of what she was given, she's excellent.

On the flip side, three films in (The Philadelphia Story, Arsenic and Old Lace) and I have yet to enjoy a character played by Cary Grant. This is highly subjective (as is the whole review!), but for me, Grant was unpleasant and irritating most of the time, a void of charisma that kept me on the side of the generally charming villain. There's an element of modern blockbusters, particularly the MCU, that has seen a lot of complaints recently, and that is the constant use of jokes undermining the seriousness of situations. Well, this feels like an early example of that exact issue. Yes, the film's primary goal is just fun, using a web of spy shenanigans to shepherd us from car chases to airplane attacks to Mount Rushmore chases, but it feels like it wants to have it both ways. While attacking the seriousness of its own plot, it spends so much time and effort on the details of it, and the fact that this film felt it needed a whole 136 minutes for what it has might be a primary factor in the ways that it irritates me. It's not just that it failed to thrill me, but it failed to thrill me for so much longer than it needed to.

Well what about the action, then? I found it... just ok. The car chase was a little awkwardly put together, but I may have been too focused on Cary Grant's silly drunk acting. The famous Rushmore scene, for me, suffered too much from realistic practicalities. It sounds really cool when you're writing it, but then when you start shooting it, the spaces for people to move are small and awkward so it's primarily just people slowly shuffling around, taking (quite reasonable!) care to not fall, and that wasn't nearly as intense as the soundtrack's blaring wanted me to believe. That crop duster plane attack though, it really is a moment of something special.

But hey, I recognize the Hitchcock way of making films, for whatever reason, just doesn't quite jive with my preferences as a viewer. And even I would tell you if one of us has to be right about movies, I'd probably bet on him.

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