Sunday, August 2, 2015

AFI Top 100: #55 "North By Northwest"

Cary Grant in North By Northwest (1959)

I'm tempted to cite surprise that it took us so long to get to an Alfred Hitchcock film on this list, but then I remember that Hitchcock is likely the greatest, most influential director of all time, and having any of his movies above #50 is practically sacrilegious. Four of his most beloved pictures grace the AFI Top 100, and it's never a boring debate when you get into it with people whether those on there should be replaced by different ones. Coming in at #55 is Hitch's thrillingly fun tale of mistaken identity, North By Northwest.

We're introduced to Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a 'mama's boy' Manhattan advertising executive who quite literally raises his hand at the wrong time. In a restaurant while flagging down a waiter, he's overseen and mistaken as George Kaplan, a CIA operative being pursued by foreign spies. He's kidnapped despite declaring fervently there's been a mistake and taken to the home of Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), where he's interrogated and thoroughly confused. Confused turns to frightened when they try to murder him by propelling him over a cliff. Narrowly escaping with his life, Thornhill embarks on a mad search across the country for the real Kaplan just as a manhunt begins to find him.

The premise is infuriatingly simple. The mechanics, however, are not. I've always viewed this as Hitchcock's great screwball comedy, which is aided in the casting of his longtime favorite, Cary Grant. All of the elements are there: bumbling man in way over his head; a myriad of communication problems, and of course, physical hijinks. But unlike, say, the obnoxious Bringing Up Baby, North by Northwest possesses a sophisticated eleganceand a clear upgrade in every cinematic element, from the dramatic score by Bernard Herrmann to Robert Boyle's unparalleled art direction. The humor is also hugely understated. Grant may bring light doses of comedy to the part, but it's an undercurrent that runs throughout, and it's never overt. His paramour is played by the glorious Eva Marie Saint, and she offers Grant a calm, confident, and balanced counterpart. Without her, the film would have been void of much of its dramatic and romantic charm.

Personally, I've always preferred Grant as a dramatic actor. When he's not babbling on through silly dialogue, he's really something quite special. He's no chameleon, though; he'll always be "Cary Grant," which is why his stylistic brand of confounded tomfoolery makes him so beloved in the comedy realm, and why it's difficult to shake that off for a movie such as this. Thankfully, he didn't have to. His maturity helps him slip nicely into this role, and despite Thornhill's desperation, Grant is never in a hurry. It's his scenes with Saint that highlight this. The train sequence is classic, bringing a flush to my cheeks, and Hitchcock knew exactly the effect the character Eve Kendall was meant to have. She's sly, seductive, and intelligent, with just enough mystery to make us all forget what we're running from.

Unlike other films on the Hitchcock playlist, the conflict and goals of the film remain pretty steadfast. Our MacGuffin is arguably the reason Thornhill (or rather, Kaplan) is being pursued at all. There is apparently information Kaplan possesses that Mr. Vandamm must have, but as it were, we never discover what it is. And in true MacGuffin fashion, it also doesn't matter. Us knowing wouldn't change Thornhill's predicament, and bypassing exposition allows for the true nature of the thriller to take hold. Everything appears a bit more hopeless and insurmountable when no one has the answers.

We run into a bit of a conundrum once the climax begins its steady climb down. The ending (and I mean the very last scene) is awkward, no matter how many ways you try to swing it. Like the insufferably forced ending to My Man Godfrey, sometimes it's nearly impossible to put that metaphorical 'period' at the end of such a glorious sentence. Closing out an already perfect movie is hard enough, so the little "tie it up with a little bow" moment we're forced to endure feels more like the hand of the studio than any vision of Hitch's, and the tone suffers for it. It is, of course, the last image of the film we see. Thankfully, though, it's not the one any of us remember.

North By Northwest isn't remembered for its plot so much as it's celebrated for its design and cinematography, which has only served it well. Scaling down the face of Mount Rushmore, fleeing from the ominous crop-duster, the mid-century modern estate... they all contribute to why this movie remains so timeless. It's patient through the frantic hustle and bustle, and for the majority of our viewing experience, it doesn't rush.

We have three more Hitchcock films to explore on this countdown, and while I have my own opinions about the ones that are blatantly absent (*cough*Rebecca*cough*), I look forward to no movies more than the ones to come. Because really, they all deserve applause.

Rating ★★★★½ / 5 stars

Check back next time for #54 on the list, MASH — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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