One of the first movies my partner and I ever went to as a couple was Rear Window, which was playing as a fundraiser for our local art house. This was shown at the historic Missouri Theater in Columbia, Missouri, and its ostensible purpose was to buy the Ragtag Film people a 35mm film projector. This was fourteen years ago. Things come full circle. Last Friday night, fourteen years to the very day, the Ragtag bid a fond farewell to 35mm as their primary means of projection in that self-same Missouri Theater, which has since been wonderfully restored thanks to a central role in the cultural life of the city (and, not coincidentally, the True/False film festival). The film with which they chose to send 35mm into its great hereafter was, fittingly, another Hitchcock film. It was North by Northwest (1959), one of the movie-est movies ever made.
North by Northwest is, I think, the eighth Hitchock film I've seen in a theater. I never pass up the chance to see Hitchcock with an audience. There's an ineffable something about seeing a film with an audience that changes the way I perceive film. Hitchcock, for his part, was a master manipulator of crowds. Some of the director's films that lay flat on a TV screen come to miraculous life when you see them in a communal setting. If other people are having fun, you'll likely have fun, too. It's infectious. North by Northwest is one of the best crowd-pleasers ever made, stocked with just about everything that people go to movies for: action, romance, suspense, movie stars, sex.
The plot finds advertising man Roger Thornhill being mistaken for George Kaplan by some very bad men. Kaplan, it seems, is a government agent. He's abducted in broad daylight from a lunch date and taken to meet the urbane Mr. Lester Townsend, who interrogates Thornhill about his activities. Determining that Thornhill will give him nothing, Townsend's flunkey, Leonard, contrives an accident for him involving an entire fifth of bourbon and an out of control automobile. Thornhill manages to survive the incident, and determines to find the culprit, he traces Townsend to the UN, where the man who bears that name there is not the man who abducted. Unfortunately, for Thornhill, Townsend is killed before his very eyes in a way that makes Thornhill look like the murderer. The chase is then on, as he makes his way west from New York. Along the way, he comes to the attention of the intelligence agency for whom Kaplan works--or, rather, doesn't, because he doesn't actually exist. Kaplan is a decoy to divert attention away from the real agent. Thornhill also encounters cool femme fatale, Eve Kendall on the train to Chicago, where they have a whirlwind romance. In Chicago, she sends Thornhill to meet "Kaplan" at a lonely bus stop in Indiana, where a crop duster is dusting an empty field before turning a machine gun on Thornhill. Thornhill survives, barely, and catches up to his enemies at an auction house in Chicago, where he confronts the villainous Philip Vandamm, and ends up being reeled in by the Intelligence agents, led by the mysterious "Professor." All things converge at Mount Rushmore...
The thing that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle with North by Northwest is that it's a remake of sorts. Oh, Hitchcock wasn't above cannibalizing his own movies--hell, it's what makes him the poster director for the auteurists--and it's not like his career isn't absolutely littered with "wrong man falsely accused" cross-country romps. But this is a bit more than an auteur grazing over his personal obsessions. In this case, it's more a matter of the director realizing that he made a botch of a previous film and making another film to correct that botch. The climax of this film is an inversion of the climax of Saboteur (1942). In that film, Bob Cummings's man on the run finally catches up to the bad guy who can clear his name at the Statue of Liberty. He chases the man to the top of the monument where he knocks him over the edge. Cummings's character is unable to save him and the man falls to his death. It's a memorable scene, but it's something that must have gnawed at Hitchcock, because he restages this scenario at Mount Rushmore, but instead of knocking the bad guy over the side, it's the hero who dangles from the monument. And this is exactly right. If it's the bad guy, the audience isn't invested in his fate. But if it's Cary Grant? Well, that just ratchets up the tension. Boy, howdy.
The image of violence perpetrated against a backdrop of monuments, particularly monuments full of symbolism like The Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore or The Royal Albert Hall, is one of key arrows in Hitchcock's quiver of techniques. It's brilliant for its simplicity: give us a portrait of order, of law, of peace and tranquility, then tear it down by showing us a world of chaos just behind the curtain. But Hitchcock was also interested in evil set against utterly mundane settings, too. Think Uncle Charlie coming to Santa Rosa or Norman Bates running a third rate motel. One of Hitchcock's best evocations of this idea can be found in North by Northwest, when Grant is placed against an utterly featureless landscape where the only other thing of interest is the biplane that intends to kill him. With apologies to the elaborate chase across Mount Rushmore, this is the film's signature set piece. While most suspense films will dig deep into feelings of claustrophobia, this film is the opposite. It's an agoraphobe's worst nightmare: there's nowhere to hide. There's nowhere to run. This is a scene that works best on a big screen, much to my surprise: that vast expanse of prairie and sky doesn't quite communicate the same sense of almost Lovecraftian isolation on a television screen. Writ large, though? Man, that's an amazing sequence.
The devil is in the details, usually, and North by Northwest is a film that's festooned with fun little excrescences, whether it's the subtle hints that Vandamm and Leonard are lovers or the woman who is awakened to find Cary Grant invading her room and then begging him to stop. The film's generosity is such that it takes time away from its mounting plot and tightening suspense to stage a piece of comedy with a tiny razor. This wouldn't be out of place in a silent film, a fact elided when Grant scrapes a Charlie Chaplain mustache into his shaving lather. And, of course, the film's last shot is one of the cinema's great visual puns. None of this is a throwaway, of course. The shaving bit serves a plot purpose, as does Hitchcock's ribbing of David O. Selznick by giving Thornhill the "O" as a middle initial so that his initials are "R.O.T.". This is a film with fun diversions, but those diversions fit together like gears in a transmission. Everything drives the narrative.
This is a film stocked with interesting faces, too. Grant is a movie star, of course, but James Mason is almost his equal as Vandamm. As urbane, cultured villains go, he could give some James Bond villains a run for the money. I'm sure that Ian Fleming would agree: he thought Hitchcock and Grant would have been the perfect filmmakers for Bond after seeing North By Northwest. There's a direct line of descent. Others: Jessie Royce Landis is sharp as Thornhill's mother, in spite of being only seven years Grant's senior. Martin Landau is wonderfully sinister and just a little bit fey as Vandamm's right hand man, Leonard. Leo G. Carroll bankrolled this part into the head of UNCLE on television a few years later. Eva Marie Saint is a distillation of every icy blonde Hitchcock ever dangled in front of a hero. This is a film that acts as a kind of summation, perhaps to remind the public that Hitchcock was the cinema's premiere entertainer in 1959 after Vertigo fell on uncomprehending eyes a year earlier. Hitch does love his games, because this is a film that indulges in abstraction for its own sake and makes it seem like Norman Rockwell. I mean, just look at this shot. It's the apotheosis of Hitch's obsession with overhead shots, to the point where it's complete abstraction.
The print at this showing was complete, more or less. I'm not as nostalgic about film as some of my friends. I mean, I'm sure that it will be a long time before I see a digital projection that's as gorgeous as the 70mm dye transfer prints of Lawrence of Arabia and Apocalypse Now that were circulating a decade ago, but those were special occasions long before I started paying attention to such things. One of the things I noticed about this print of North by Northwest was how beat up it seemed around the reel changes. North by Northwest is also compromised somewhat by Hitchcock's choice to decline MGM's offer of Ultra-Panavision and its stereo soundtrack. Vista-Vision limits the sound quality, and in a vast auditorium like the Missouri Theater (capacity 1200, and largely full at this showing), the sound often gets sucked into unintelligibility. Obviously, film is fine when it's pristine, but older films are so rarely pristine. Hell, most newer films are only pristine on opening night. And really, film is only the vessel. So I'm not overly upset by its passing.