By William Boyd
North by Northwest was released in 1959 between two of the great masterworks of Hitchcock’s career,Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960). Looking at the film today and knowing its chronological context one is tempted to see it as a welcome moment of light relief between the darker, more complex forces that powered the other films. For North by Northwest belongs squarely in the genre of ‘caper movie’: that type of comedy adventure with a certain amount of violence and a certain amount of love-interest that nearly always ends happily. We are not going to be very shocked or frightened and our intellect is not going to be stretched. To a significant degree the conventions of the caper movie virtually conform to that of classical ‘Romance’: the ordered world is cruelly disarranged by some upheaval and then put back together again — order is always re-established.
North by Northwest’s plot illustrates this narrative line perfectly. The hero is Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant), a suave, handsome, impeccably-dressed, Madison Avenue advertising man. Thornhill’s world is turned upside down by a case of mistaken identity — he is assumed, by some foreign spies, to be a US secret agent called George Kaplan, is kidnapped, escapes and goes on the run, trying vainly to find the mysterious Kaplan and thereby reclaim his identity. There is a beautiful woman who helps him called Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) and with whom a romantic dalliance ensues, there is a saturnine villain (James Mason) and his henchman in pursuit and a series of adventures occurs along the way to the denoument, played out on the vast sculptured rock heads of Mount Rushmore. There is some business with a microfilm being smuggled out of the country, a murder at the UN, an American intelligence agency run by a man called The Professor (Leo G. Carroll) but one senses that Hitchcock really isn’t much bothered with the details of the plot or with plausibility.
Indeed, Thornhill needn’t have gone on the run at all. He finds himself confronted by two villains in a crowded lift at the Plaza Hotel in New York with his mother. The villains are stumped, incapable of capturing Thornhill, witnesses are all around. So what does Thornhill do? He dashes out of the hotel, abandoning his mother and puts himself in harm’s way again.
Raymond Chandler worked with Hitchcock on the film Strangers on a Train and did not enjoy the experience, claiming that Hitchcock possessed no sense of ‘dramatic plausibility’. It’s a sentiment I agree with but Hitchcock’s defenders say such a demand is a typical by-product of the novelist’s meticulous mind and needn’t apply to the filmmaker. Hitchcock felt that if you kept the action moving fast enough the audience wouldn’t spot the inconsistencies and errors in the story. His films are full of them; he would have detested the arrival of the video tape and the DVD — devices that allow his films to be analysed like books: stop, review, start again, go back — as the lapses in his plotting and motivation are in fact very evident. North by Northwest is no exception and it’s best just to surrender to the light-hearted mood of the caper and not ask too many questions. Hitchcock himself hints that this is the best approach in a scene where Thornhill asks the professor which intelligence agency he works for. ‘FBI, CIA, ONI,‘ the professor sighs, ‘we’re all in the same alphabet soup‘. Don’t be so pedantic, Hitchcock seems to be saying, sit back and relax.
So what is it about this slight, facetious movie that makes it so memorable? The answer is one sequence that raises this film out of the run-of-the-mill, namely the famous attack on Thornhill by a crop-dusting plane. Thornhill, still vainly pursuing the elusive Kaplan, is given instructions to meet him at a remote bus stop in the middle of the endless flat plains of the Midwest prairie. Suddenly the movie becomes strange and eerie. Thornhill, smartly elegant in his grey business suit, white shirt and tie, steps down from a bus into the empty landscape. He waits. A car appears and another man is let out. The two confront each other across the baking tarmacadam. Is this Kaplan, at last? Grant nervously crosses the road and introduces himself. No: just a stranger waiting for a bus. The bus appears, the stranger boards and Thornhill is alone again in the scorched silent landscape, silent except for the distant hum of a crop-duster aeroplane. The plane banks and heads towards Thornhill — solitary man suddenly confronted by demonic murderous machine. Bullets fly. Thornhill takes shelter in a parched maize field. The sequence has a surreal beauty and seems to draw on and hint at iconic features both of the American landscape and movie history: the two-lane black top in the empty flatlands; the men, like gunslingers, facing each other across the road, the immaculate, pampered, advertising man confronted by incomprehensible and sudden mechanised violence. One can go on quarrying symbols endlessly and it’s in this one sequence that Hitchcock’s peculiar genius manifests itself — his uncanny ability, as the critic Peter Conrad expresses it, to make scenes from his films ‘enter our unconscious mind’. No-one who sees North by Northwest will ever forget this scene and beside it the rest of the movie seems a bit of ephemeral fun.
This is not to say that there aren’t elements in the film to satisfy the true Hitchcock fan. Watching it again I became aware of a running sub-theme in the film to do with Thornhill’s clothes and obsessive cleanliness. Is this Alfred Hitchcock — small obese, bald — having some irreverent fun with Cary Grant, the ultimate handsome leading man? In the film Grant is always worrying about his clothes, having them cleaned and pressed, and seems almost unnaturally fastidious — in one scene fervently combing his already perfectly combed hair. Rifling through Eve Kendall’s toiletries in her bathroom he comes across her lady’s shaving kit: a tiny shaving brush and a tiny razor. Hitchcock favours us with a huge close up of this doll’s razor and later in the film contrives an absurd situation where Grant has to shave himself with it. The subtext of this scene is full of Hitchcock’s perverse eroticism — where has that razor been before? Hitchcock was annoyed that Grant was being paid more than he was on the movie — perhaps this was a nicely Hitchcockian way of getting his revenge.
This article was published in Le Figaro in July 2007