Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Film Review - North by Northwest

Starting with a pale-green Leo the Lion (the trademark of MGM), Saul Bass creates a vibrant title sequence, seamlessly transitioning from an animated crisscrossing of animated black lines to a real-life skyscraper reflecting the bustling traffic of New York City below, all accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s most underrated musical score. This splendidly sets the stage for the fast-paced action of the film set to follow. It is here we meet Roger Thornhill, the protagonist of our story, played charismatically by Cary Grant, as he rushes to a business luncheon, dictating his memos to his secretary who is feverishly trying to keep up with him. Even from this brief encounter we can sense that Thornhill has an air of confidence about him (too much perhaps) and acts frivolously and boorish to anyone other then himself. To his loyal secretary he sums up the seemingly unethical life he leads, “Ah, Maggie, in the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only the expedient exaggeration. You ought to know that”. It is ironic therefore that he should later be so trusting of Eve who in turn deceives him through ‘false advertising’ and leaves him betrayed by her ‘expedient exaggerations’.

As Thornhill arrives for his business luncheon at the famous Plaza Hotel, he remembers that his mother is playing bridge at a friend’s house at that very moment and she can not be contacted at home as he has instructed his secretary to do (to reminder of a play they are attending that evening at the Winter Garden Theatre). Unfortunately he remembers this small detail just as the taxi carrying her pulls away. A little annoyed, he shrugs it off and goes inside. It is however this minor detail that will set off a chain of events which will ultimately lead him to a ledge on Mount Rushmore, far from his laidback world in New York City. Before he conducts business with his clients at lunch, he calls for a busboy the precise moment a page for a Mr. ‘George Kaplan’ is announced over the hotel’s PA system. Two henchmen laying in wait for this ‘Kaplan’ assume Thornhill is the man they are looking for and as soon as he walks away from his table to send a telegram to his mother, they grab him and take him off in a car to their boss’s headquarters.

Grant’s dry wit and acid humor is the driving force of this picture and it works expediently well. Upon hearing of a dinner party at the Townsend residence as he is dragged by the two henchmen to their boss’s office he exclaims, "By the way, what are we having for dessert?" And when he is confronted by a man who claims to be Lester Townsend (later we learn that he is actually a foreign spy named Philip Vandamm who has taken up residence at the UN diplomat’s home for the time being) about what he, or rather what Mr. Kaplan, knows he replies, “Not that I mind a slight case of abduction now and then, but I have tickets for the theatre this evening, to a show I was looking forward to and I get, well, kind of unreasonable about things like that”. A tall glass of bourbon is then forced upon, making him entirely bombed. The two henchmen then plan to place him in a car and have Mr. ‘Kaplan’ drive himself off a cliff. Things don’t go quite as planned and somehow Thornhill is able to grab control of the wheel and drive manically through oncoming traffic. This as well as the booking scene which soon follows are classic. Seeing Grant, an actor notorious for his serious demeanor, pretend he’s drunk is priceless.

Hitchcock manages to truly put himself into the mindset of his audience. Having just watched Thornhill weave intoxicated in and out of traffic, the precise moment we query to ourselves as to where a police officer is during all of this, a police car’s sirens blare as he is in pursuit of Thornhill.

Having been made a fool of by his abductors (when Thornhill returns to the Townsend residence with his lawyer, mother, and two police detectives in tow to investigate his claim, Mrs. Townsend – in reality Vandamm’s sister – greets Roger Thornhill as Mr. Kaplan and coyly insists that Kaplan became quite drunk at their little dinner party the other night), he returns to the Plaza Hotel and breaks into Mr. Kaplan’s hotel room to see who this man truly is. He is then chased by the same two henchmen who abducted him the night before from the hotel to the United Nations Assembly Building where Lester Townsend works. However the man he meets is not the same man who had him abducted at the Plaza Hotel. Suddenly, a knife is thrown into the back of Mr. Townsend (presumably aimed for Roger Thornhill but missed) and coincidently (wink-wink) a photographer is right there in the Assembly Building to ‘capture’ Thornhill holding the murder weapon in his hand and standing over the victim’s body. Not only does Thornhill have to track down this George Kaplan and figure out why these foreign spies want him disposed of, he must also clear his name of a murder he did not commit, all while avoiding the detection of either the police or the foreign assassins.After learning that Kaplan is headed for the Hotel Ambassador East in Chicago, Illinois, Thornhill decides to pursue this mysterious man and clear him name. In a quick call to his mother Thornhill tries to convince her that for a man on the run from the law traveling by train is safer then flying. “Well, because there's no place to hide on a plane if anyone should recognize me...oh, you want me to jump off a moving plane?” which is of course a foreshadowing of the famous crop-dusting sequence later on. Recognized by the sales clerk working at the ticket counter booth, he successfully sneaks aboard the train destined for Chicago and is concealed from detection by the police by a platinum blonde bombshell named Eve Kendell, played scintillatingly by Eva Marie Saint, who he bumps into on his way aboard the train.

The two meet again a few moments later at dinner (we later learn that Eve tipped the waiter five dollars to seat him with her if he entered the dining car). Roger and Eve, perceptibly attracted to one another, exchange sexual innuendos over dinner. She reveals to Thornhill that she knows exactly who he is and what he is accused of, but she doesn’t care. He asks her why. She responds, “It's going to be a long night” and that she doesn’t “particularly like the book” she’s started. Inquiring as to whether he has picked up on her sexual proposition, he replies, “Uh, let me think. Yes, I know exactly what you mean...” She then invites him to her drawing room in Car 3901 (a reference of course to Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps which this film is modeled after) where further double entendres are made by the two lovers to make the censors squirm. As they kiss passionately, she lets him know that she’s ‘a big girl’ to which he responds, “Yeah, and in all the right places too”. Wanting to know more about him, acknowledging his taste in clothes and food, he quickly retorts, “...and taste in women. I like your flavor”. However, Hitchcock bows to the censors and forces Thornhill to sleep on the floor.

Easily one of the most identifiable sequences not only of director Alfred Hitchcock’s career but in all of motion picture history, the crop-dusting scene in North-by-Northwest is magnificently choreographed to the hilt. Roger Thornhill, traveling by bus so as to ensure that he is alone, is led to a desolate cornfield in Illinois under the pretext that he will be Kaplan. In reality this is merely a bluff, a plot by the foreign spy organization to lure Thornhill into a false sense of security and eliminate him with the least amount of witnesses as possible. However, Hitchcock does not simply deliver the sequence to the audience, Heaven no. He builds us up with excitement and anticipation when the moment finally arrives. He does so by having Cary Grant stand alone on a deserted dirt road while cars pass by occasionally. Does Kaplan actually exist? If so, will he show? And then what? The tension builds. Suddenly a car drops a man off on the other side of the dirt road and takes off. Is this Kaplan? Hitchcock couldn’t make it that easy, could he? He must be an assassin then. But before we even have time to query our suspicions, the man points out to Thornhill that the crop-duster across the way is dusting a field with no crops. As soon as the man boards a bus and is out of sight, the crop-duster proceeds to terrorize Thornhill by running him down. He hides in the cornfield to no avail; the plane sprays the crops with poisonous pesticides, forcing Thornhill out into the open. Thornhill successfully flags down a gasoline truck just in the nick of time, causing the crop-duster to swerve out of control and crash head-on into the gasoline truck, creating a marvelous explosion.

After tracking down Eve at the Hotel Ambassador East, the same hotel George Kaplan was suppose to be staying at (‘Kaplan’ supposedly checked out a full two hours before Eve called his hotel room and claimed that she had arranged a meeting between him and Thornhill – the encounter with the crop-duster in the cornfield), he pursues her to an auction where he is confronted by Vandamm and his two henchmen. He provokes a fight and uses the police escort to escape Vandamm’s henchmen who were lying in wait for him. He is then taken to an airport where a kindly ol’ man referred to as the Professor brings him up-to-date on the situation (Eve, Vandamm’s lover, was recruited by the C.I.A. to spy on Vandamm who in reality is a foreign spy trafficking government secrets in and out of the country – ‘importer/exporter’ as the Professor refers to his occupation as which is a coy reference to The Man Who Knew Too Much). Realizing Eve may be exposed and presumably killed by Vandamm, he flies out to Rapid City, confront Eve, and pretends to be critically wounded by her (a gun loaded with blanks) so as to convince Vandamm Eve is still on his side.

Leonard, one of Vandamm’s henchmen, doesn’t trust Eve and for good reason. Vandamm on the other hand believes him to be jealous of his mistress, clearly a homosexual allusion. "You know what I think? I think you're jealous. No, I mean it. I'm very touched, very”. Leonard then exposes Eve for the fraud she is, firing her gun with blanks straight at Vandamm. He is of course left unharmed but stunned and (emotionally) hurt. He knows what he must do, choosing to throw her off the plane as soon as they are over water.

The crescendo of crescendos in North-by-Northwest is the chase scene on top of (what appears to be) Mount Rushmore (but because the government would not allow the famous director to shoot such a sequence on top of a national monument, gigantic busts created on a soundstage out in California and rear projections were used instead). The film ends with a scene in which Eve, dangling dangerously over the edge of Mount Rushmore, struggling to hold on to Thornhill’s hand transitions immediately to him pulling her up to their compartment bed aboard a train heading east after they are married. It properly sums up the entire atmosphere of the film – sadly and deliciously absurd (to quote the federal agent earlier in the film, “It's so horribly sad. How is it I feel like laughing?”).

My Rating: **** ½ out of 5 (Grade: A)