North by Northwest

North by Northwest ★★★★★

Part of the Alfred Hitchcock Sound Era Films In Chronological Order project.

I love it when a film becomes so well loved and has had so much written about it that discussions about piffling and largely unimportant elements of the film become major topics of debate.

For instance, people still debate what the title means. There are those that insist it is a Hamlet reference - "I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw." I would love that to be the case, actually, as it fits nicely with the changing realities that Cary Grant experiences throughout the film. In reality, it's probably just a pretty cool-sounding title that they stuck with even though the action did not climax in Alaska as was originally planned.

It is always the mark of a truly great film when people start discussing the side-issues once all that there is to be said about the film itself has been said. I'm of the school of thought, however, that believes that the events and people in a film as good as North By Northwest cannot actually be discussed enough. Retreading old ground though it may be discussing Grant's drunken escape from James Mason's clutches and the comedy therein, but who wouldn't want to think of those moments again?

For me, those moments are the funniest in Hitchcock's entire canon. They are easily the best comedy he created since The Lady Vanishes, too, although Grant's utterly convincing portrayal of an utter drunkard (albeit a forced drunkard) helps immensely. Him climbing on the police officer's desk for an attempt at a quick snooze strikes me as one of those scenes that he probably improvised. "No, they didn't give me a chaser!" probably wasn't improvised but could be my favourite one-liner of all time.

The comedy in the first half of the film is what, in my opinion, really keeps the film moving. However, rather than it coming to a screeching halt and heading into more serious and dangerous territory for the second half, the transition is completely fluid. The set pieces are, of course, wonderful. The crop duster scene works, for me, not necessarily when the plane actually attacks or when it comes a cropper (oh ho!) but because of the whole quiet and slow build-up of mystery and tension before that. It's a masterpiece of timing and slow-build.

Importantly, it doesn't get bogged down in the whys and wherefores as to who Mason is, who he works for, and what he is trying to achieve. This isn't a serious-minded commentary on the Cold War, it's meant to be a change of pace and something more light-hearted from Hitchcock after the dark masterpieces that were The Wrong Man and Vertigo. It concentrates on getting Grant into some scrapes, how he gets out of those scrapes, and how he's getting (it) on with Eva Marie Saint. That's all that is needed in a film like this.

I doubt very much that I'm in the majority here but I enjoyed Saint's performance here more than I enjoyed the higher profile performances of previous 'Hitchcock blondes' Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly and Madeleine Carroll. Her initial reasoning for siding with Grant when they first meet is perhaps the sketchiest part of the film but she plays it with such a completely straight bat that you really have no idea what her motives are. She is wonderful here and Hitchcock was right about the hair - she looked so much better with it shorter.

I don't think Grant could be having more fun if he tried. As debonair and sophisticated a man as he always was, it's often forgotten that he would not only quite happily play the fool, but he would do so incredibly effectively, too. As excellent during the action-packed scenes as he is during the talkier ones, this was the film that should finally have convinced everyone that he was one of the greatest all-round Hollywood stars of all time.

Delightfully, Leo G Carroll makes an appearance for his sixth and final Hitchcock collaboration as The Professor. Time for him to get more recognition for his key contributions to several of Hitchcock's best films, I think. Mason is a completely charming villain who would prove to be extremely influential on the Bond baddies - as would his sidekick Martin Landau. What a tremendously handsome chap he was in early years, too, not to mention every bit the fine actor he would go on to be recognised as in later years. My only letdown with the cast was that we don't get more of Jessie Royce Landis as Grant's hilarious and cantankerous mother.

So, from the crushingly emotional and dramatically dizzying Vertigo to the wonderfully playful action comedy of North By Northwest. Two brilliant films, so different in so many ways. Top that, Alfred! Oh....

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