Friday, July 12, 2013

North By Northwest (1959)

Alfred Hitchcock’s celebrated contempt for “the plausibles” – his derogatory term for literal-minded spoilsports who carp about coincidence and logical inconsistency -- infuses almost every frame of North By Northwest, a perpetual-motion machine geared to move faster than the speed of thought.

The impossibly complicated scenario of this 1959 must-see movie has something to do with a New York businessman who’s mistaken for an FBI agent, and something else to do with a cross-country chase from Manhattan to Mount Rushmore. For the most part, however, the plot concocted by Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman is little more than a gossamer thread, or a wispy excuse, to link a series of dazzling and audacious set pieces intended to surprise and delight.

Get a load of this: The hero is forcibly inebriated, then sent down a winding mountain road in a brakeless Mercedes.

Look at that: The same hero arrives in the lobby of the United Nations building, just in time to be framed – and, worse, photographed – as a knife-wielding assassin.

Check it out: The poor sap keeps an appointment near an open field in the middle of nowhere, standing precisely where he can be a sitting target for a crop-dusting plane armed with a machine gun.

There’s more – much more -- here, there and everywhere. A luxury apartment where expensive accoutrements are stocked for a man who never was. An auction house where a fugitive desperately bids to save his life. A passenger train where an alluring woman is suspiciously eager to assist. An airport where a government agent explains the entire plot in 30 seconds – only we can’t hear him over the sound of whirring propellers. And, of course, a Mount Rushmore precipice where a spiteful villain stomps on the fingers of a dangerously dangling hero.

The template for countless other fleet and flashy action-adventures – including many, if not most, of the James Bond films – North By Northwest is propelled along the fast track by the megawatt star power of Cary Grant, one of Hitchcock’s favorite collaborators. The funny thing is, even Grant was mystified by the knotty plot throughout much of the production. At one point, Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut, the actor complained: “It’s a terrible script. We’ve already done a third of the picture, and I still can’t make head or tail of it.” Hitchcock couldn’t help laughing. “Without realizing it,” he said of Grant, “he was using a line of his own dialogue.”

Grant plays Roger O. Thornhill, a carefree advertising executive who stumbles into the adventure of a lifetime when enemy agents wrongly identify him as an FBI operative named Kaplan. Thornhill actually is an ordinary fellow – at one point, he admits his ex-wife divorced him because he was so dull – but the chief villain of the piece, Phillip Van Damm (James Mason), suspects otherwise.

As it turns out, Kaplan doesn’t really exist – the imaginary agent was invented by a cunning spymaster (Leo G. Carroll) to distract Van Damm from a very real mole in his organization. So Thornhill repeatedly finds himself dodging bullets engraved with someone else’s name.

Lehman frequently described North By Northwest as his one big chance to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” Strictly speaking, he didn’t quite succeed: Hitchcock went on to make seven more films, including one – Family Plot (1976), his swan song – that Lehman also scripted. But Hitchcock did indeed express a special fondness for this classic thriller, if only because the crop-duster scene allowed him to realize his long-cherished goal of generating pure terror in broad daylight.

“No darkness, no pool of light, no mysterious figures in windows,” Hitchcock crowed. “Just nothing. Just bright sunshine and a blank open countryside with barely a house or tree in which any lurking menaces could hide.”

Of course, this wouldn’t be a true Hitchcock picture without a hint of aberrant psychology, or a smidgen of sexual tension. There’s an ineffably kinky undercurrent to the relationship between Mason’s villain and his wild-eyed right-hand man (Martin Landau). And Thornhill himself appears to have issues with a domineering mother (played by Jessie Royce Landis, even though she was ten months younger than Grant).

But the most obvious Hitchcockian touch is Thornhill’s wary bonding with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), the mysterious blond beauty working as an undercover agent. Not unlike the FBI operative Grant played in Notorious, Thornhill turns frosty and judgmental when his leading lady feels duty-bound to sleep with the elegant bad guy. Almost as if to punish our hero for his presumptuous moralizing, Hitchcock sends him racing through that open field, pursued by that bullet-belching crop-duster, and later forces him to dangle from Mount Rushmore.

Serves him right, too.