Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Planes, Trains & Automobiles: Alfred Hitchcock Travels North by Northwest

When daily life seems bleak—surely the case in the past week or so—movies can waft us away to another place and time. I’m finding that watching a Hitchcock thriller helps to take the edge off more immediate worries. True, Hitchcock movies come in many shapes and sizes. Some are intimate; others were made on a grand scale. Some (like Psycho and The Birds) intend to scare the bejeezus out of us. Others wink at us that the dangers the characters face will eventually melt away.

 One of the very best in the latter category is 1959’s North by Northwest. This is a film that will give the viewer some queasy moments (notably in that scene in which Cary Grant is forced to drive drunk on a winding mountain road high above the Atlantic coast). But I suspect we’re more apt to feel gleeful as (in classic “wrong man” fashion) Grant’s stodgy businessman character is mistaken for a crafty spy, and then pursued all over the American continent by a group of thoroughly nasty types led by James Mason and a creepy Martin Landau. The very title “North by Northwest” wittily suggests deception. It’s borrowed from a moment in which Shakespeare’s Hamlet, feigning insanity in order to track his father’s killer, explains to the audience “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.”  (I can’t resist noting that this scheme doesn’t conclude terribly well for Hamlet, who winds up dead. Cary Grant is considerably more fortunate. In fact, I can’t think of any movie in which Grant is bumped off. No matter the pickle in which he finds himself, he always survives . . .  and gets the girl.)

 The script for North by Northwest was dreamed up by Hollywood veteran Ernest Lehman, who also contributed to the scripts of such classics as Sabrina, The King and I, and Sweet Smell of Success. He and Hitchcock agreed on a thriller that would hop, skip, and jump across the American landscape, ending up with a fight to the finish on Mt. Rushmore. In some ways, the film can be seen as an offbeat ode to American forms of transportation. After that near-deadly car ride, Grant’s Roger Thornhill (now suspected of a murder he did not commit) tries to escape his pursuers by hopping aboard the 20th Century Limited, choo-chooing its way to Chicago. In a cozy compartment he finds an attractive young lady (Eva Marie Saint), who may not be what she seems. But blissful train travel is followed by a scary scene in which—after being summoned to a mysterious cornfield—he finds himself chased by a low-flying crop-duster plane, in what is probably the film’s most famous scene. At the climax, though, everyone is on foot, scrambling past Lincoln’s granite nose on a convincing-looking (but actually studio-made) Mt. Rushmore.  

 It’s scary, yes, but it’s a lark all the same. An earlier film of Hitchcock’s—one he has called his very favorite—is much darker in all senses. While North by Northwest glows colorfully, 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt is a small black & white thriller that for a while seems as innocent as an early sitcom. A large, chaotic but happy family in comfy Santa Rosa, California is welcoming the mother’s beloved brother, Charlie, who’s just arrived from the east coast. Especially thrilled is the household’s eldest daughter, who was nicknamed after her uncle. Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) feels her dashing, courtly uncle (Joseph Cotten) can do no wrong. Alas, what she doesn’t know CAN hurt her.

Fans of my friend and former Corman colleague Steve Carver are now mourning his death. As a quick tribute, here’s a link to one of my several blog posts about this talented director and photographer.



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