#ThrowbackThursday – North by Northwest

Original U.S. release date: July 28, 1959
Production budget: $3,100,000
Worldwide gross: $13, 275,000

Alfred Hitchcock is unquestionably one of the most renowned directors in all of film history, yet if one was to ask an average person on the street to name every Hitchcock film they know, most would quickly exclaim, “Psycho!” and then be hard-pressed to come up with another (The Birds would probably come in a distant second).  Yet, as highly regarded as Psycho is among film lovers and critics, it’s probably not their most beloved film from his library; that honor would more likely fall to either Vertigo or this film, North by Northwest.

Starring the legendary Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint (a then-future Martha Kent), and James Mason, the film tells the story of Roger Thornhill (Grant), who gets unwittingly and unknowingly swept up into an ongoing game of cat-and-mouse involving law enforcement and a group of spies (led by Mason’s Phillip Vandamm).  Throughout his efforts to unravel himself from this less-than-ideal predicament, there are beautiful women (Eve Kendall, played by Saint), mystery, intrigue, humor, and everything that people generally love in their movies.

North by Northwest is certainly a product of its time.  The blu-ray version that I own is impeccable, so it doesn’t particularly look or sound as old as it is, but the presentation and execution unquestionably betrays its period of origin.  For those who haven’t seen many films from the fifties and sixties, there may be a bit of an adjustment period; the characters are fast-talking (and not always particularly well-enunciating) and larger than life.  The more subtle, nuanced performances that modern audiences are accustomed to seeing simply weren’t the typical acting practices of the time.  Movie stars were seen as bigger and better than everyday civilians and their performances were crafted to reflect that perception.

So, be ready for exacerbated body language, dynamic dialogue, and type-double-A personalities abound.  All I know is that if I used the direct approach on women that Thornhill uses on Kendall (who is nearly a full 20 years his junior, to match), my efforts would not conclude with the same results that his do.  My jaw dropped at some of the things he said – in 1959 – to this woman he had just met.  Her responses are partially explained by the narrative, but not entirely.  This was absolutely a different era and it shows all over the surface of the film.

But, underneath all of that, basic filmmaking fundamentals haven’t changed in the last 58 years and Hitchcock had as firm a grasp on those as anyone.  The mystery lays bait early and it’s practically impossible to avoid biting.  We follow Thornhill from one exciting locale to the next as he pieces the puzzle together, desperately but confidently taking control of the situation in any way he can fathom in order to get himself out of a situation that he had no role in getting himself into.

Grant is spectacular throughout all of this, oozing an irresistible mix of charm, wit, and conviction – and all while wearing a suit.  The film jumps from spy thriller to action film to suspense movie and everything in-between and Hitchcock navigates these transitions effortlessly.  There’s even a scene at an auction that plays as straight-up comedy, and Grant excels at this, too.

A pair of iconic action scenes add some adrenaline to the proceedings.  The first is a riveting one-on-one encounter between Thornhill and a crop duster that occurs in the middle of the film.  The second is a pulse-pounding finale atop one of the United States’ most iconic landmarks.  This scene in particular is expertly crafted and features some truly astonishing work by the stuntpeople involved.  There were certain moments throughout this finale when I had to stop and marvel at the dexterity and control these professionals had to maintain in order to pull off the required stunts.  Amazing work.

The end scene is admittedly rushed, but it’s not a full blindside like the ending of The Birds.  It had been a while since I’d seen the film and my thought was, “Well, that wrapped up quickly.”  If you were frustrated by the time it took for Return of the King to tie up its loose ends, then you’ll love North by Northwest.  Despite that, the journey to get there is full of thrills, laughs, surprises, excitement, sexiness, and that old-school Hollywood panache that has all but evaporated in today’s world of film.  This film is an allt0ime classic and an absolute must-see for anyone who purports to be a lover of film.

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