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Classics Revisited

Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest


Forty-six years after its original 1959 release, Hitchcock's North by Northwest is no mere cinema classic--it's also a really good movie. There are those that believe that Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant are a can't-miss combination, and I happen to be one of them. Held up by Hitchcock's witty framework and Grant's charisma, North by Northwest is a top-notch thriller that stands the test of time.

In a classic mistaken-identity setup, Cary Grant (not exactly playing against type) is carefree, debonair Manhattan ad exec Roger Thornhill. Mistaken for someone named George Kaplan by hoodlum spies, abducted and grilled for information he doesn't possess, Thornhill narrowly escapes these dangerous men with his life. Looking for answers--not to mention Kaplan--Thornhill follows a lead and ends up left holding the bag for a diplomat's murder and is forced to flee both the spies and the authorities as he tries to extricate himself from the mess in which he's unwittingly stepped. In the process Thornhill gains an ally in "amorous blonde" Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who may or may not be what she seems. Thornhill and Kendall are set loose to unravel a plot that keeps a high level of tension until the last, abrupt scene. The theatrical trailer tells it best: "Cary Grant becomes a secret agent against his will ... propelled at gunpoint onto the highest level of international intrigue and framed for murder ... Cary Grant, running for his life, searching for a man who doesn't exist and a secret nobody knows ... Excitement lies dead ahead, North by Northwest!"

Not for nothing, some of the most famous imagery in cinema history comes from North by Northwest. Even people who haven't watched the film have likely seen a clip of the homicidal crop-duster chasing Cary Grant through a field or a literal cliff-hanger from the face of Mount Rushmore (actually a set, as filmmakers couldn't obtain permission to use the real thing). Singular scenes like these are what set North by Northwest apart from conventional mystery/thriller films. The plot might unfold in the expected way (setup/action/resolution), but the particulars moving it along are often unique, humorous and audacious. (For example, we feel for Thornhill when the authorities don't believe his story; his mother's eye-rolling reaction to his seemingly Rube Goldberg excuse for drunken behavior, though, is droll.) Throughout the movie, Hitchcock throws complications at his characters in order to move the story forward--such as the scene where just as we're wondering how Thornhill is going to extricate himself from the spies' hideout, Hitchcock tosses in the matchbook. Movies like North by Northwest almost all have chase scenes; most, though, aren't as original. Few directors would know how to heighten both the tension and the surreal quality of a culminating chase on a national monument.

In this consummate Hitchcock film, Cary Grant gets the A-material that puts him at his charming best. Eva Marie Saint plays her role with an understated savoir faire that's a nice complement, and James Mason is a cool, un-cartoonish villain. North by Northwest is a light film, emotionally--making no grand philosophical statements--but there's no shame in being a ripping good story. And that's North by Northwest, par excellance. The plotting is fast-paced, the dialogue crisp, the suspense high. Any there's nary a slow-motion CGI explosion to be found. (It's all but guaranteed that a remake today wouldn't be able to make the same boast.) More than standing the test of time, the crack storytelling of North by Northwest is refreshing.