One of my favorite “perfect” films, North by Northwest is one of those films that stands the test of time thanks to everyone involved being at the top of their game and throwing themselves fully into their work. Everything clicks from the moment Bernard Herrmann’s famous score kicks off into that Saul Bass-designed title sequence (note the booming drums that out-roar Leo, the MGM lion) until the final nod and a wink sex joke the adults will snicker or laugh out loud over (while the kids wonder what they’re snickering or laughing or loud about about) closes things out. I’ve seen this countless times since the 80’s and it’s always entertained me to no end.
This is probably the best “wrong man” film made (yes, it’s even better than The Wrong Man) because it combines dramatic, comedic and action elements in Hitchcock’s inimitable style. Sure, there are some plot holes and silly stuff that don’t hold up to too much scrutiny if you’re the overly picky sort. But if this film doesn’t have you cracking a smile or hanging out near the edge of your seat by the time it’s through, you’re either too jaded or watch films with one or both eyes shut…
For those of you who have seen this one already, just go make a pot of tea or whatever as you pop that disc or tape back in or dial this one up on whatever digital service it may appear on. Everyone else, welcome to Roger Thornhill’s nightmare of comic proportions. Poor Roger is a NYC ad executive who gets mistaken for a spy, kidnapped and almost killed a few times over the course of a few days where he ends up more or less saving the U. S. of A. from some serious spy trouble. That’s the basic outline just so you can go see this ASAP and not merely make it to the end on this post and just bucket list this classic and forget about it for too long. Yeah, I know how you operate.
What makes the film work is the humor, which fires on all cylinders thanks to the wonderful Cary Grant (it’s his birthday today, so this is my little tribute). He plays Roger as a cool under pressure everyman with no edge because he’s initially highly amused at the mistake that sends him to that Glen Cove house and soon, drunk off his ass into a car out of control in the funniest bit in the film. As he realizes he’s actually in danger, his demeanor shifts only a bit and then while hiding aboard a train, he’s distracted by the lovely Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who saves his bacon but ends up getting him into much more trouble. How much more trouble? Oh, you’ll see… you’ll see…
As the film zips along from New York City, Chicago, Rapid City, South Dakota and eventually to its thrilling Mount Rushmore finale, Hitchcock piles on the layers, adding a few red herrings (yum!) to this dish and making you guess what’s going on a few times as the story hooks and reels you in. Even when poor Roger is in the worst peril there’s a laugh to be had within a few seconds or minutes, but that infamous crop dusting murder attempt is probably the film’s most famous sequence. Yes, it makes NO sense to try and kill someone with a airplane loaded with pesticides and machine guns, but there it is on screen. I laughed the first time I saw it, and I laugh just thinking about it. Absurd as it is, it’s a thrilling sequence and in a big surprise, played without music until the closing moments.
As noted, the entire cast is brilliant, Grant ans Saint make a terrific couple, James Mason, Martin Landau and assorted other mean-faced guys make spectacular bad men, Leo G. Carrol gets an interesting turn (I’ll let you see how he fits into it all) and those locations are all wonderful, although you’ll clearly be able to tell what’s a set and what’s location-shot. That said, there are some great visual effects here, from a top-down shot of the UN that’s a wonderful matte painting, to the mix of sets and backdrops that make up the fantastic final sequence. It’s a film that you may just run again after you’ve seen it because you’re grinning when it’s all over, and it’s one that’s a recommended BUY if you love movies and are starting up your own collection.
So, I’ll shut up now and let you go check this out. You probably should, you know. In case you’re picked up by a bunch of strange man who mistake you for someone else, you may find some necessary survival skills here at the very least…