North by Northwest

North by Northwest ★★★★½

Preposterously plotted and polished to what would otherwise be a fault, North by Northwest succeeds tremendously on the grounds of sheer entertainment. It isn't Cary Grant's average-joe persona, or the ludicrous storyline, or even the well-conceived set pieces that save the day; no, it is the man behind the camera, Alfred Hitchcock himself, who shoots everything with just such careful panache that it all feels not only believable, but utterly engrossing.

Roger Thornhill is that metropolitan man who has got it all together: successful in business, suave with women, a general pleasure to be around, master of his own domain. But it is really a shallow world that Thornhill lives in, and Ernest Lehman's exhilarating screenplay does the most possible to rip Thornhill right out of his comfort zone and into an ever-descending rabbit hole of intrigue and danger. And, that's as much as the film ever really cares to do with him. Funny in an offbeat way, there are times when North by Northwest feels it is trying to push the envelope of audience believability. I mean, we've got the charm of Cary Grant to keep us anchored, but it takes a lot of doing for a film to get away with having a murder in a government building and see the accused simply rush out the front door. But then, Hitchcock never did concern himself with realism or historicity, did he?

Ah, Hitchcock. The name immediately brings an ear-to-ear grin on the face of any reputable cinephile, and here he proves beyond shadow of a doubt his mastery of the visual medium. Were this script in the hands of any other director, it would surely have been worthy of dismissal; yet each scene is crafted with such care, attention given to the smallest and largest details alike, each performance tailored for just the right chemistry, that the result is supremely entertaining. Because I've seen and heard the crop duster scene referenced numerous times, it felt instantly familiar, and yet it managed to exceed my great expectations. The balance of sound and silence with an endlessly flat expanse creates a suspense that seems counter-intuitive on paper, but is nothing short of mesmerizing in practice.

It's a funny thing to consider Hitchcock's choices of leading man across his pictures. There are qualities that Cary Grant and James Stewart share which make them such irrefutably magnetic screen personalities, and yet the qualities which separate them are even harder to pin down. Grant is the perfect blend of sophistication and warm welcome, a man who looks quite in control of himself, and yet uses his one phone call at the police station to dial none other than his mother. There's a sheepish side to his performance here that make it all the more amusing as things progress out of control, and although we never forget that this is Cary Grant we're watching up on the screen, this works to the film's advantage because the whole point is to have one heaping load of fun anyway.

This has been the final of Hitchcock's big five to avoid my attention, and finally seeing it after a long anticipation has been a wonderful satisfaction. The total mastery of cinema as entertainment has earned North by Northwest a rightful spot as one of the all-time greats, and I can't wait to see it again, and not just for the sexiest train chat I've ever seen!

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