Wednesday, April 13, 2011

North by Northwest

The next in my series of movies I watched because I should was North by Northwest, an Alfred Hitchcock thriller about a case of mistaken identity. In truth, I have seen precious little Hitchcock, so a few more of his movies are on my list.

Given how so many of those "must-see" movies have turned out to be not much fun to watch, as my previous reviews have documented, and given that this was a dip into an older movie than most of those, considering how little I usually enjoy older movies, I wasn't expecting much. So I was pleasantly surprised to find it mostly engaging, one of the few to make me look forward to the next block I could watch. This sounds like an obvious thing in hindsight: Hitchcock is famous for suspense, after all. However, lots of well-respected actors, directors, and producers are famous for lots of things that just don't resonate for me, so I didn't take it at all as a foregone conclusion that his movies would be suspenseful for me.

There were a few things about the movie I felt weren't all that great. A surprisingly large amount of the movie feels a little rambling, in that there's a lot of time spent that doesn't particularly advance the plot, but simply keep whatever current piece of the plot is going on going on. That's not really a cricitism, as all of that stuff does work, but it is an area where one might draw a line between a good movie and a timeless classic.

I can't be too critical about the unnecessarily elaborate schemes that the villains attempt to use to kill off the protagonist, for which there is little or no explanation offered (you can stretch "try to make the murder look like an accident" only so far, nowhere near far enough for some of these schemes), because Hitchcock clearly also noticed the same thing, since he has the protagonist take the time to hang a lampshade on it in one scene -- he asks the villain what the next elaborate murder attempt will be, dipping him in molten steel? (Sorry, Mr. Thornhill, you're no T-1000.) I guess if the movie's going to make fun of itself on that point, I can't really hold it against it.

Some of the innuendo-laced flirtation between the male and female leads seemed to go on far longer than I had a stomach for. This is just one of those things where movies were just done differently back then, and I don't have a taste for it. (That doesn't mean I always prefer everything about how movies are done now. For instance, I prefer having cameras to be steady and cuts to be far fewer than modern filmmakers do it. But ten solid minutes of clumsy-seeming double-entendre makes me say "oh, get on with it!")

I found some of the action sequences a little less believable than I might have liked. The famous (infamous?) cornfield scene confounds not just with the impracticality of the method of assassination but also the coincidences required for its end. The climbing-chase near the end seems wildly unlikely for skilled climbers in proper gear, let alone people in business suits or high heels carrying monkey statues. There were a couple of others, but they were fairly minor.

And I still don't see a good reason for the title. About all I can guess is that the action mostly takes place in the northern part of the country -- some in the northeast (New York), some in the northwest (South Dakota), and some in between. I guess it doesn't have to have any better reason for the title, but I feel like I would have been happier if it did. Maybe I'm just missing it.

And, okay, Cary Grant is a very handsome man, even by today's standards, let alone by those of the time. Even so, the movie treats him like he's Adonis. It's very glib about the idea that every female who sees him immediately lusts for him to such an extent they'd actually take action on the feeling if they could. This is most striking in a very off-hand scene where he's making an escape through, of all things, a hospital room, and the woman in the hospital bed, in the space of a couple of seconds without dialog, makes clear that despite being in a hospital bed presumably because of illness or injury, she wouldn't mind if he lingered a little while and joined her. It seemed affected to me.

All that is fairly minor, though. The meat and potatoes of this movie is the plot, and by and large, the plot does the two things it needs to do: it holds together (in that everything in it, in hindsight, makes sense, but wasn't always obvious beforehand), and it drives the action (making you want to know what's going to happen next). There are exceptions but they are minor (the unnecessarily elaborate methods of murder being the largest one, already mentioned).

There's one thing that I felt was missing, but I'm sure it's intentionally missing. Given the real nature of Mr. Kaplan, there's no good reason I can see why Vandamm's men would have mistaken Mr. Thornhill for him at the start of the movie. Sure, it's plain why later in the movie his actions corroborate their suspicions, against his intentions; but what got the ball rolling? I'm sure to Hitchcock this question was of no more importance than what the MacGuffin is, but I feel that there should have been at least a little hint of some excuse, just because the agency had every reason to ensure that no one would ever seem to be Kaplan, and Thornhill certainly wasn't doing Kaplanesque things, and didn't even fit Kaplan's fake clothes. About the closest thing we get is the chance that he's physically in the hotel Kaplan's supposed to be staying at, but is not staying at that hotel, is simply meeting some people in its lounge, the same as scores of other people are doing that day.

My last observation about the movie is to wonder if, in one scene near the end, Hitchcock is trying to hint-without-saying that Vandamm and Leonard are or were gay lovers. No single one of the things that make me think this is suspicious on its own. Once, Leonard makes a reference that seems out of nowhere to his "female intuition", another time, Vandamm accuses Leonard of being jealous of Vandamm's tryst with Ms. Kendall; and there are a couple of others that are all similarly innocuous enough that they're easily brushed off. However, they all happen in a very short period of time. (And it doesn't hurt that Vandamm was played by James Mason, who can come across a bit effete even when he's being a ringleader.) I find myself thinking, if Hitchcock had it in mind that they had been (or still were) lovers, that's precisely the only way he could have tried to telegraph it to those of us who might notice it, without drawing an unhappy reaction from everyone else (in 1959, even Rock Hudson couldn't be gay on screen). Or am I just reading too much into it?

In all, I enjoyed the film more than most of those in my recent efforts, and I've added a couple more Hitchcock to the list -- though I'll space them out amongst ones I don't expect to enjoy. (Next up -- in fact, I'm about 1/3 of the way through as of this writing -- is Taxi Driver.)

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