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North by Northwest (1959) March 20, 2022

I watched North By Northwest with my Dad at an Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX. It was our first time in one of their theaters and my first time seeing North By Northwest. A quick note on the theater experience before discussing the film. Alamo Drafthouse is my kind of theater. Push a button and pizza, burgers, bottomless soda, and of course popcorn are quietly delivered to your seat. Before the film starts you’ll see no fewer than two videos warning against speaking or using your phone during the movie. Break the rule and you’re immediately escorted out of the theater. They feature a mix of contemporary and classic films like North By Northwest. It’s my kind of place. And now, our feature dissertation.

In North By Northwest Cary Grant’s character, Roger Thornhill, is mistaken for an American spy by foreign agents. This case of mistaken identity leads to a series of misadventures escalating in scale from hiding on a train to literally dangling off a face of Mt. Rushmore. A high stakes pseudo-spy adventure, North By Northwest is an eye candy smorgasbord of practical special effects, larger than life locations, and mounting tension familiar to Hitchcock fans because he made a startlingly similar movie sixteen years earlier titled Saboteur.

Hitchcock repeated narrative contrivances in his films like mistaken identity, running from the law, and uninspired romances but the similarities between these two films is like comparing different colored Crocs. Sure they look different but they’re built the same way. Let’s play a game. I’ll write a synopsis and you tell me which Hitchcock movie I’m describing. A man on the lam takes a cross-country journey to clear his name. Along the way he meets a girl and in the end his enemy falls to their death from atop a national monument. Saboteur or North By Northwest?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Hitchcock is overrated. Time and again I watch a Hitchcock film hoping to experience something justifying his legend but time after time I am let down. North By Northwest is no different. I stand by everything positive I said in the previous paragraph because I don’t recall ever being critical of Hitchcock’s capacity for visual storytelling, his inventiveness gave us so many modern film techniques, his infamous ability to force noteworthy performances out of his actors must’ve inspired Kubrick… no, my beef with Alfred Hitchcock remains his penchant to disregard cause and effect in his films… most of the time.

Hitchcock has selective attention to detail, and in some North By Northwest scenes he shows Thornhill escaping a train disguised in the uniform of a train employee. The Police begin stopping every employee they can in search of him, dramatically spinning them around. Roger makes his way to the mens room where he ditches the costume and lathers up his face for a shave, once again hiding his face from the law. This sequence is great and it all feels reasonable and justified in the world of the film. But if we take another scene from the same movie we get the opposite effect.

Before escaping the train, Roger hides from a ticket attendant in (Eva Saint Marie’s character) Eve’s private train car. It’s compact, he can’t just hide behind the door so he squeezes in the overhead bedding compartment. He jokes about being closed up like a sardine. Once they’re convinced they’ve avoided detection, Roger and Eve begin kissing each other in the privacy of the cabin. One of them suggests they’ll have to share a bed because there’s only one in the cabin. The bed to which they’re referring is not the collapsable overhead bed Roger just spent a few uncomfortable minutes squished in, but instead the bed Eve sat on during the entire incident with the ticket taker. A bed that is in plain view through the duration of the ‘one-bed’ conversation! Nevertheless there’s this weird talk of only one bed… indicating the only option available is for the two of them to sleep together. I’m inclined to believe that had a lot more to do with film censors and decency police than lazy disattention to detail… but that’s only the first example.

North By Northwest‘s most famous scene involves Thornhill being chased down by a cropdusting pilot-assassin. The scene is great! Dramatic, visually stunning, well edited, and iconic… but why at the very end… does the crop-duster crash into a gasoline truck… the only object protruding above the flat fields in the scene? Are we supposed to believe the pilot, so blind with murderous rage, forgot crashing into a fuel truck would be a lethal mistake? No, it seems plainly obvious Hitchcock didn’t see the point of letting a fictional pilot’s sense of self preservation get in the way of his very real film’s only explosion.

The same ‘film over function’ logic tracks when Hitchcock places the villainous Phillip Vandamme’s palatial Frank-Lloyd-Wright style mansion just behind or on top of Mount Rushmore. It only takes a pinch of thought to recognize how unrealistic owning a historic home in the middle of a national park would be for anyone, much less a foreign spy.

Why is his attention to detail inconsistent? Why do many scenes successfully suspend my disbelief and others seem like no one put in the effort? Why was it worth justifying actions in some instances but not others? I seek these answers to better understand Hitchcock’s loyalists.

Hitchcock is a world-class cinematographer and director of photography. He can pace a film like no one else and his ability to manipulate human emotion through suspense and camera motion is unrivaled… but I wish he would’ve let someone else make story choices. In the rare event he does reluctantly cede creative control we get my favorite Hitchcock films like Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, but he’s not sharing altruistically… he’s not truly collaborating. He’s had the dictatorial control of the director stripped from his viselike grip by another filmmaking despot like David O. Selznick or Charles Laughton. To their memory I toast, for making Hitchcock, though kicking and screaming… collaborate.

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