North by Northwest and what it (might) mean

I saw 'North by Northwest' for the umpteenth time the other week - one of those 'comfort films' that makes me feel more at home in myself; nostalgia sometimes gets a raw deal these days, but if a work of art helps you integrate yourself at the end of a busy day, there's no shame in that. At any rate, what you remember when you watch 'N x NW' is the texture and colour on screen - Cary Grant's suit, Eva Marie Saint's red dress, the cement lines on the neck braces of the Mount Rushmore Presidential faces. I wrote the notes below on my last viewing, five or six years ago:

I have a problem with Alfred Hitchcock. His films have so comprehensively entered the popular consciousness that it is impossible to come to them fresh, perhaps even if we have never seen one before. Something about 'North by Northwest' prevents it from being a tense experience for me; similar to the fact that our folk knowledge of what happens in 'Psycho' prevents us from feeling excited or scared; even if we have never seen it, we know who did it, and why (s)he did. Thankfully, this doesn’t at all inhibit our delighted wonder at these works of genius. NXNW is perhaps Hitch’s most perfectly realized marriage of thrills and laughs, as a flamboyant anti-hero and cad Cary Grant is mistaken for a spy and spends the rest of the film running from (and into) James Mason’s heavies. His character’s name is “Roger O. Thornhill” – he says the “O” stands for nothing, and this is one hollow guy. I think this is a none-too-subtle way of representing the ROT of the upper middle class that Hitchcock, the working class miner’s son despised. He has a perfect tan and handmade shoes, like Grant himself, he’s a “little more polished than the others.”
The story is at once simple and convoluted – Thornhill is mistaken for a spy and kidnapped by some nefarious bad guys led by James Mason and his “special friend” Martin Landau. There are two chases – by car and plane (the buildup to which is a masterpiece of editing and mise-en-scene) – a couple of fights, and some spectacular set-pieces, a femme fatale (or is she?), a government conspiracy, and our hero gets the girl. What more could we want? But I think it is a mistake to see NXNW as a simple action comedy – it’s riddled with metaphorical bullets and aesthetic pleasures. For one thing, the dialogue is some of the most sparkling Hitch ever worked with. We discover that there is “no such thing as a lie, merely the expedient exaggeration.” Mason has a marvellous moment of villainy when he says, “The least I can do is afford you the opportunity of surviving the evening.” I was reminded of how funny it is on a recent viewing, when for example Grant says, “Not that I mind the odd case of abduction once in a while but I’ve got tickets for the theater tonight” or responds to “I’m a big girl” with “Yes, and in all the right places.” The story is beautifully structured, building mystery and tension (in spite of Grant’s inability to play drunk in a key scene; he’s clearly having a lot of fun, and so are we.) But there is much more than humour and action here – I think Hitchcock is using Grant’s character as a commentary on modern superficiality and relationships.

Thornhill is an advertising executive, and I guess some people might think you can’t get much more superficial than that; he runs away from his mother while being chased by people who want to kill him, so we get some of Hitch’s trademark misogyny and distrust of parents; the romance between Grant and the divine Eva Marie Saint is totally unconvincing – Cary can’t kiss for toffee; he’s so cold and unpassionate that if I thought Hitch were more cynical I would say he’s trying to make a point; this same point is alluded to in the relationship between Landau (one of Hitch’s stereotyped gay villains) and Mason – there’s all kinds of weird sexual stuff here, from Mason accusing Landau’s character of jealousy and saying he’s flattered to the downright crass – but hilarious – use of a train speeding through a tunnel as a saucy metaphor.
So, all in all, NXNW isn’t a particularly profound film, but it does present an archetype of anti-hero as cad. Thornhill is morally without foundation, he’s selfish and a user of women, but he’s enormous fun to be around (in small doses). The icy blonde is portrayed as far stronger and more intelligent, and Grant is obviously older than the actor playing his mother, so it’s pretty clear that Hitchcock doesn’t particularly like his protagonist. He’s the kind of guy you’d invite to a cocktail party but never go on holiday with – like Hannibal Lecter without the blood. NXNW is a story based on coincidence upon accident upon downright naïve construct switching back through predictable denouement, but still thoroughly entertaining. The use of soundstages is pretty awful – the trees even shake in one scene, and if this had been directed by somebody else, I’m almost certain it would not have the reputation. But, for what it is, the breeze that blows through NXNW is a refreshing one, and a pretty magnificent lesson in how to make a film.

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