North by Northwest

North by Northwest ★★★★½

Included In Lists:
Sight and Sound Top 250 - #54
Ladies and Gentlemen: The Essentials -#68

Review In A Nutshell:

I cannot believe it. I simply cannot believe it. I adore Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest. Please dismiss all of the lashings I gave towards the film and Cary Grant previously. I came into this film, expecting to disapprove it; finding a moderate thriller that is far too over-hyped and over-constructed for its own good. North By Northwest has managed to win me over by finding the little details that make it such an entertaining film; within the first five minutes, I decided to not take the film too seriously and base it alone by its ability to engage me. Boy, was I engaged! I do not know whether it was Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score or the intelligent display of Saul Bass' title sequence; possibly it was the mixture of the two that grabbed my attention, but I know for sure that it was when Roger Thornhill appeared on screen, I knew this was going to be an amazing film.

It begins with the appearance of a familiar figure, Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill, an advertising man in a sharp grey suit, walking side by side with his secretary, discussing his personal schedule and ticking off simple and unimportant errands. It was in the dialogue exchanges between the two characters that screenwriter Ernest Lehman has subtly but comprehensively fleshed out his protagonist; we identify that he is selfish, egotistic, and a socialite snob. Lehman achieves a sense of balance in constructing the character as though flaws are pointed out; he never came across as unappealing. There are qualities of the character that are revealed early and later on in the film; qualities that would make normal men envious and women charmed.

A lobby boy walks among the background shouting to catch the attention of a George Kaplan. In the middle of a conversation with associates, Roger Thornhill decides to make a telegram to his secretary, snapping his fingers at the lobby boy to gain attention. Then so begins the downhill adventure of Roger Thornhill, as he has been mistaken to be Kaplan. He is a put in a car by two thugs and takes him to an isolated house where he meets a posh gangster of sorts, Philip Vandamm and his right hand man, Leonard. There Thornhill is accused of being Kaplan and the problems he has supposedly caused in his operations. Baffled by this accusation, Thornhill attempts to leave, but is instead forced down to drink a whole bottle of bourbon in order to stage a drunken vehicle dive over the cliff. It was from that point where the film begins to show some fun, displaying Hitchcock at his most inspired sequences, balancing a sense of humour and danger that would keep his audiences aggressively engaged. During initial viewings, I was put-off by Thornhill's humorous personality, especially when dangers loom above him, as I myself would never react in that way if placed in a similar situation. This viewing came off differently; I actually found the humour to be sharp and relieving, especially when paired with heavy story elements, like a chaser after a heavy drink. My only concern with Thornhill is that his character arc is not as well defined as I hoped it would be; the film had the opportunity to play with the idea of opening his once dull and tailored life to a more adventurous one; the idea reveals itself in the clutch moment of the film, where it felt a little forced.

Hitchcock intended the film to be a light fantasy adventure; he takes his trademark formula and pushes its boundaries, bursting through to a point where realism is almost completely stripped from its surface. Areas in the film that demonstrate this are the film's iconic sequences that place its protagonist, Roger Thornhill, in the most spectacular of dangers. The Mount Rushmore and Dust Cropper sequences are so iconic because they are so wild; giving off a sense of escapism from its audiences and implanting unforgettable imagery that would immediately arise when thinking of the director. These scenes are constructed in such a way that create excitement and suspense, ensuring that the protagonist is placed in a mismatched position where risks have to be taken in order to survive in one piece; if Hitchcock decides to allow opportunities for ensure safety, then the suspense would be cut significantly.

A romantic relationship lingers in the background between Roger Thornhill and Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint. Eve is introduced in a train ride to Chicago and runs into Roger Thornhill, whom at the time was a fugitive for a murder he did not commit; I am still unsure whether their meeting was intentional. Eve decides to help him and mislead the policemen that were after him. In the middle of the train ride, Thornhill finds himself in Eve's presence again at the dining cart, but this time with intent. It was during this scene that the female lead is properly introduced, giving the audience a better insight into the character; while also between the lines, building the romance between the two characters. Eve's bold and forward sexual personality is emphasised through the use of sexual innuendos, a person who clearly prefers going straight to the point rather than beating around the bush. After seeing her in this film for about the fourth time, I think, she has become one of my favourite Hitchcock leading ladies, reaching out for a femme fatale quality but not committing itself too much into it, and providing wonderful grounded characterisation during the film's third act.

As mentioned at the start of this review, I was immediately swept away by Bernard Herrmann's score; and as of now, one of my favourite musical score from a Hitchcock film - though nothing surpasses Psycho, it does come close. The score's presence allows the action to feel majestic; the film's iconic scenes much larger than they already are with the support of Herrmann's contributions. It is in the way the score controls the pace of the film that add to the sense of urgency and threat; in its own artful way, it replicates the sense of tension that protagonist Roger Thornhill is facing. It is music that wants to draw us in but also want to run away from - and I mean this in a good and effective way.

North By Northwest would also be Robert Burks' most ambitious film with Hitchcock, achieving a sense of grandeur that no other film has been able to capture at the time. There is a sense of tension in the way Burks captures particular scenes, a notable example would be the familiar shot of Thornhill running from the crop-duster, placing the camera right in front of the character, never letting a moment take the point of view of the men controlling the aircraft. It keeps the film at Thornhill's level, an approach that without a doubt would deliver more suspense and tension.

North By Northwest is a grand achievement by Alfred Hitchcock; a film that pushes the ceiling of his trademark formula and does so with enough sharpness in its humour and execution that it almost feels like a parody. This is the quintessential adventure film that has shaped the minds of New Hollywood directors like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Robert Zemeckis.

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