North By Northwest

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Movie Review by Dr Kuma

Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

The BFI are re-releasing a classic in the form of NORTH BY NORTHWEST. As a movie fan since my first visit to the cinema at the age of 4, I’ve tried to see at least 4 movies a week ever since. That’s a lot of films but my favourite movie since I first saw it at around 13 is still NORTH BY NORTHWEST. This film is to me what cinema is all about – pure unadulterated escapism. It’s easily the most enjoyable Hitchcock film, being made as it was at the master’s career high water mark, book ended by such classics as TO CATCH A THIEF, VERTIGO, THE BIRDS and PSYCHO – NBNW being a diamond in a coal mine if you consider the darkness of those last three masterpieces.

The film is one of the best examples of the famous Hitchcock ‘McGuffin’; a plot device to drive the story which in this case is a micro film hidden in a statue. Without the McGuffin it’s unlikely we’d have seen the likes of Stephen Spielberg who has run with the McGuffin baton held high since the last Hitch cameo.

The story revolves around charming New York advertising man Roger O Thornhill who finds himself the victim of a catastrophic case of mistaken identity; to clear his name – and stay alive – he has to leave town, first for Chicago, then on to South Dakota. It’s a race against time as he tries to find Caplan (the man he has been mistaken for) before both sides (the bad and the not so bad guys) find him and he finds himself!

Don’t be fooled- this isn’t merely a retread of another Hitch classic THE 39 STEPS. It’s the classic thriller which set the blue print for the Bond films (great set pieces, armoire on a train, a deadly villain and fantastic sets) – all the key elements are present and correct. Of course the films most famous scenes are set out in the open, suggestive of agoraphobia unlike the claustrophobia of PSYCHO and the set pieces in a barren crop-field and on Mt Rushmore are classics of the genre. The girl with whom Thornhill (Grant at his most sleek in the finest suits in movie history) “bonds” with is aptly named Eve (Eve Marie Saint – one of the great movie femme fatales). She represents the new woman of the late 50’s – a confident feline who knows exactly what she wants and gets it via temptation. The best dialogue scenes take place aboard the Century Express as it streams through the open heartland of prosperous post war America like a silver river and were most recently lifted, again by the 007 series, in CASINO ROYALE. My favourite line in movie history takes place over the dinner table of the Century when Eve asked what the O stands for on Roger Thornhill’s monogrammed match book cover as it reads ROT. Looking at this status symbol he simply says “nothing”. This beautiful line represents the level of writing throughout this film which easily matches the wonderful direction and acting.

Both Martin Landau and James Mason are simply wonderful as the villains, Landau being one of the first openly gay villains (“call it my woman’s intuition” when he thinks Eve is a double agent) again pre-dating DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER and James Mason is so smooth Alan Rickman seems to have made a career out of mimicking his character in this film. Just listen to his off hand delivery of the line “Rapid City South Dakota” -if any one wants to mimic a line that sums up an actor in the same way PLAY IT AGAIN SAM sums up Bogart, then this is it.

I’d urge anyone to go and see this film on the big screen. The Saul Bass titles alone are worth the admission fee which again pre-empt Maurice Binder’s classic 007 titles. Perhaps NORTH BY NORTHWEST was the first Bond film? If so then it’s the best.

Dr Kuma’s verdict: The film’s title is taken from a line from Shakespeare. If Shakespeare is still seen as the high point in literature centuries after it was written, then this is still the high point of cinema, 50 years after it was filmed.

6 out of 6 stars