Original release: November 22nd, 1959
Running time: 130 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Ernest Lehman
Composer: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason
North By Northwest has a special place in my heart, as it was the first film to open my eyes to the potential for cinema to be more than just spectacle, and that like any other art form, it can have a lot more going on beneath the surface than might first be apparent.
After ad-man Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for a Government spy and framed for murder he is forced to go on the run to try and clear his name. Along the way his life is saved by a beautiful blonde lady, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) – but she may not be all she first appears to be.
I grew up watching old action and spy films, and North By Northwest was a particular favourite, due to the fact that, for a change, the main character wasn’t a spy or action hero, but was thrust into the world of espionage by chance. However, I certainly never considered it to be anything other than lightweight entertainment; a handsome leading man and his attractive sidekick being chased around America by bad guys.
How wrong I was. North By Northwest cropped up as part of a Film Studies course I took at college and the preamble from the lecturer, invoking the works of Freud, and using phrases like “Meta-reference”, completely blew that perception away. Far from being as straightforward as I thought, it can be read more like a sly send up of the thriller genre, particularly those revolving around chases and mistaken identity, a style that Hitchcock had arguably made his own with the likes of The Thirty Nine Steps (1935) and Saboteur (1942); and the hero, far from being a suave man turned action hero, is in fact rather infantile, still lives with his mother, and really needs to grow up if he is going to get out of this alive.
It was at that point that a light bulb switched on in my brain (or if you want to use a more cinematic metaphor, it was like the bit in The Wizard Of Oz when it goes from Black & White to Colour) and the subsequent viewing was at times like watching another film, with every aspect of it ripe for reappraisal.
The ideas concerning the obvious artifice of the story, and the Freudian undertones of Thornhill and the women in his life, originated in an extremely detailed (and I mean extremely – nearly 70 pages are taken up purely with the famous crop-duster scene) analysis of North By Northwest by French film critic Raymond Bellour (you can read it as part of the classic anthology of his work “The Analysis of Film”); others occurred once I was able to view the film with a slightly more detached and critical manner, and I mean critical in a positive way, engaging with a film rather than just being a passive viewer. From that viewing three main themes emerged.
Firstly, North By Northwest is packed with absurd situations, and plot twists and turns, but also I now noticed, unusually for the time that it was made (and not easy to appreciate in this modern irony drenched age), it has a detached, knowing tone in the dialogue and performances that at times seems to be acknowledging to the audiences the ludicrousness of what is taking place. For example:
My wives divorced me. They said I led too dull a life.
While there may not be anything implicitly ironic in the text, the context that it is spoken in – hanging by their fingertips from Mount Rushmore, about to plunge to the deaths, and the way it is spoken – detached from the situation, almost like talking over dinner – makes the whole thing unlikely, to put it mildly, and faintly ridiculous.
Elsewhere you have the absurdity of Grant trying to disguise himself as a railway porter – it doesn’t matter what you dress him in, he always looks like Cary Grant; and the classic scene where he’s attacked in the middle of a field by someone piloting a crop-dusting airplane, which with its combination of unlikelihood and sheer inefficiency, foreshadowed the woefully unsuccessful methods used by the enemies of James Bond.
Secondly there is the question of identity and roles. Nearly all of the main characters are not who other people think they are, and this subterfuge and confusion is what initiates and drives the story along. However, the screenplay is also littered with allusions to theatre and playing, such as this between Thornhill and the man trying to have him killed, the urbane and charming Phillip Vandamm (James Mason):
Apparently the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.
Your very next role, and you’ll be quite convincing, I assure you.
The frequency of these kinds of exchange mean they can be seen not merely as a reference to playing roles in the game of espionage, but also work as a meta-reference, a sly wink to the audience to say that we all know the whole thing is a work of fiction, in keeping with the self-aware tone of the plot.
Even the film itself is playing a deceptive role, masquerading as a standard 1950s spy/chase movie.
Now, for me, the really mind blowing stuff: our “hero” is in fact a wimp, completely dominated by his mother, who constantly belittles him as though he’s a sullen and stupid teenager. For his part, Thornhill seems to begrudge his dependency on his mother, yet seems unable to do anything to break it. When talk of other women in his life crops up, we find him unable to communicate with them in any other way than the pithy empty slogans of his professional background, as evidenced by the box of candy he sends to the one, with the message “something for your sweet tooth and all your other sweet parts”.
However the Eve character provides him with a chance to break this cycle, and she comes to supplant his mother, both symbolically, as the primary female in his life, and literally, as once she appears, Thornhill’s mother is elbowed out of the movie. More importantly, she also provides him with an opportunity to grow up out of his adolescent relationships with women, by becoming his wife. Despite the unsuccessful attempts to kill him off in a literal sense, in a symbolic sense, Roger Thornhill does die – the passive, henpecked, childish Roger Thornhill that is.
Looking back, some of the theories pushed by Bellour, and some of the wild ideas popping into my head seem a little farfetched and unsubstantiated. Bellour argues the links to the mother-lust side of the Oedipal ideas well, but I’m still not convinced by his sometimes torturous leaps of logic in order to tie the murders in the film in with the father killing imagery; and for my part, my over enthusiasm led to me finding meaning in things about that film, from Eve’s name to the customary Hitchcock cameo role, that I don’t see there now (I am more than happy to be convinced otherwise).
The point was though that it got me thinking and talking with other people about their thoughts and ideas; it got me reading books, not just on film theory, but on subjects such as art, modern history or Freud; most importantly it got me engaged, and not just with this film but with the whole medium.
Simon grew up on a steady diet of James Bond and Ray Harryhausen films, but has been fascinated with the horror genre since a clandestine viewing of A Nightmare on Elm Street as a teenager. Since then his tastes have expanded to take in classic horror from the Universal and Hammer Studios, as well as branching out into Video Nasties, Sci-Fi, Silent Comedies, Hitchcock and Woody Allen.
Apart from getting married, one of his fondest memories is buying a beer each for both Gunnar “Leatherface” Hansen and Dave “Darth Vader” Prowse at a film festival, and listening to their equally fascinating stories of life at totally different levels of the industry.