North by Northwest

North by Northwest ★★★★½

If you'll indulge me, friends, I'd like to tell you about my proudest moment as an undergraduate. You see, having been given the infuriatingly delightful and dauntingly iconic North By Northwest as a group assignment, I picked up on the detail that basically the first thing we see Cary Grant do is steal a cab. He does it in an incredibly charming fashion, mind you, but he steals a cab. He's resourceful but self-interested, able to move fluidly through the world but not able to foresee the consequences of his actions. He controls space, but is vulnerable to the constraints of space, too. He's the perfect Hitchcock hero. He steals a cab, and the man he takes it from knows he's lying about why.

We know he's lying about why, and that makes it more fun and charming and masterful. This is kind of the joy of North By Northwest, that Hitchcock has absolute razor-control of what we know in relation to Grant, in relation to the obstacles Grant has to face, in relation to the complications of those challenges - and yet we also know, or are pleasantly reminded, that Grant can surprise us with his ability to improvise. The spy acrobatics are transgressive but innocent, thrilling but playful. We're in suspense, but aren't quite tense.

Take the famous crop-duster sequence, just for instance. Going into the scene, the viewer has knowledge that Cary Grant doesn’t. We know that Eve is working with Van Damme and the instructions she gave Thornhill came from Leonard. So the extreme long shot, with all the lovely lines intersecting in the landscape, establishes Cary Grant in a space with unseen danger, all the more so because we see so much of it. However, as the scene plays out, there are an increasing number of point of view shots, placing us with Grant as he tries to situate himself and work out what’s going on. So are we: but more confidently, because we have expectations; more tensely because we know to expect something. So we're with Grant and we're observing him. It's the best of all perspectives, all at once.

When that car pulls up from behind the cornfield, Grant is unsure whether the man is Caplan, we’re initially unsure where the man is there to kill Roger, and we’re both proved wrong and left scrambling to understand this reversal. Hitchcock shows us the plane early, but makes us forget about it while we’re placed with Grant working out where he is. Hitchcock uses our knowledge to feed our suspicion about the man by the roadside, and then he reverses that, and it’s in this moment of uncertainty that the plane barrels in. The variation between suspense and surprise works to keep us in a sweet spot where we're just thrilled, period. And the whole movie is like this, just this perfect alternation of perspective and knowledge and improvisation and action, specifically geared for your enjoyment as a viewer - from the Saul Bass credits to the final sight-gag.

"He steals a cab!" was, in the stress of getting the presentation ready and failing miserably to make Chicago style Red Cap pizza for a class snack, my way of articulating all that, and my group-mates were not having it. What a stupid detail. It's not important. You're being fixated. Well fine then. Nobody mentions it. The presentation went off, and I'm not so modest as to say we didn't do well with it; but in speaking with our professor afterwards, she was pleased with how we'd sort of traced out Grant's - it's not exactly growth - but his arc of going from being mistaken for a secret agent to actually being one, and how Hitchcock makes that as seamless and delightful and organic as everything else in the film; and this woman, this author of books and holder of tenure and named chair, says to us, completely oblivious to all our conversations, "I mean, he steals a cab!" And that was basically better than graduating.