North by Northwest (1959) … Remembered

Warner_NXNW19-800The second in my “Remembered” series, North by Northwest (1959) is an Alfred Hitchcock mystery classic.  It has some great scenes and some of the most memorable backdrops in all of Hitchcock’s movies.  The picture stars Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and James Mason, with a special appearance from Martin Landau.  It has one of the most striking scores I’ve ever heard on a movie, composed by Bernard Hermann, who did Citizen Kane, Psycho, and other great movies.

The movie starts with a case of mistaken identity when Cary Grant’s character Robert Thornhill is kidnapped by thugs thinking he is someone else.  The thugs take him to meet a criminal leader played by James Mason, who you might remember as Captain Nemo from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954.  When Roger escapes the thugs, no one seems to believe his kidnapping story.  Since he can’t get anyone to believe him, Thornhill goes to investigate the mystery himself, trying to discovery why everyone thinks he is a man named George Kaplan.

Although it is clearly a 50s film, it has many themes of period spy thrillers like you might find in a James Bond film.  It also has elements of Cold War espionage, with two organizations vying against each other for a secret microfilm.  The microfilm is what Hitchcock called a “macguffin”, an object everyone in the movie is after, be it a government document or secret plans.  It doesn’t play much of a role in this film except to drive the plot forward, but there is the romantic twist to do that too.

I’ve heard discussion about this movie at colleges and universities, but there are two famous scenes in this movie people always mention.  The first is the cropdusting scene in which Cary Grant’s character is buzzed by the old-style plane.  The second is the Mount Rushmore scene, with them scaling down the monument with the criminals in pursuit.  Whenever I hear someone speak about this movie’s scenery or action thrills, its either one of those scenes that they talk about.

Besides all these facts you could simply look up, what I think is that this movie as one of my top classic movies of all time.  It may be underrated today, but I don’t see what else could throw it out of the top 10 of all-time mysteries.  When the top mysteries were honored in 2008, North by Northwest was honored as number seven out of all of them.

It might be classic because of its style, score, cinematography, or Cary Grant’s grey suit.  He wears a one-color suit, the same type and the same kind, the entire movie.  I guess that is how old traditional movie actors showed their style in those days, but I’ve never seen another suit like that one.  It is grey but has this very faint plaid or twead or something that makes it striking.

When I first saw this movie, I thought it was enjoyable to watch and added it to my collection at my first chance.  It’s a given I like Sherlock Holmes and mysteries, but the mystery in this seems to stick out thanks to its picturesque scenes.  They also move the thing at a brisk pace, taking us everywhere.  I thought the most hilarious part of the movie was where Cary Grant escapes from assassins by acting up in an auction so the police are forced to take him into custody.  That part always makes me chuckle a little every time I see it, especially as the people around him look at him strangely.  Not to say that the humor and the one-liners make it less of a Hitchcock thriller, no it is still enjoyable with the comedy.

In a counter-point to this movie, I can’t think of anything to criticize really.  Perhaps the acting might be a bit wooden and old-fashioned for younger people today, but I think everyone can understand the circumstances of the movie.  But mostly, I’ve heard the plot being called unbelievable.  Mistaken identity is a classic and oft-used device in mysteries, but its believable enough for me in this movie, although perhaps North by Northwest is not the captain of realism.  I think everyone can also understand its influence, as well. It is also a bit of fluff, with no real deep meaningful conversations or monologues that taint villain versus hero movies.  When it doesn’t stay in one place though, it has environments enjoyable to watch or look at as the characters interact.

The video itself is alright and the DVD copy I have is a cheap single disk.  I understand there are two other newer versions available on DVD since I’ve bought my copy, one in 2000 and the newer 50th anniversary two-disk set.  I understand the two-disk set has a “Making Of…”, additional commentary, features, stills and an award-winning documentary about Cary Grant himself.  Although all these things are simply extras, I would probably buy the newest version simply for the video transfer and surround sound if I didn’t have a good-enough copy already.

All in all, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest is a classic film that I can still watch today with enjoyment.  It is entertaining, has great-looking scenery, and a quick-moving plot.  It also has Martin Landau in it.  It’s a young Martin Landau folks, holy cow.  That’s gotta be a plus to this movie.  Overall, any lover of mystery or suspense has to make this movie part of their collection because it is essential, entertaining Hitchcock.

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