“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“Has anyone ever told you that you overplay your various roles rather severely, Mr. Kaplan?”
For a legendary film maker, Alfred Hitchcock’s lack of Best Director Oscar might be the of the Academy’s most notorious cock up. It’s also amazing that this is his first entry on this AFI count down. Sure, he’ll pop up again a few more times before I get to number one, but it still seems wrong that such an influential, iconic film maker would only have a handful of movies on here. But, one dude representing 4% of the 100 supposed greatest movies of all time is still pretty impressive. I guess I just assumed something as epochal as North By Northwest would rank a little higher.
One day, New York advertising man Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is suddenly kidnapped at gunpoint. Arriving at a country house, he’s accused of being a spy named George Kaplan and interrogated by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Confused and out of sorts, things only get worse when his captors force him to drink an entire bottle of bourbon, then put him behind the wheel of a car. Picked up for drunk driving, he tells the story to the police and his mother (Jessie Royce Landis). He convinces them all to go to the country house where he finds a woman who confirms he was there the previous night, but as Thornhill, not Kaplan, and says he drank too much.
Tracking down the owner of the house leads Roger to Lester Townsend (Philip Ober) at the United Nations. While Roger is trying to figure out who Townsend is and how all of these people and names are connected, one of Vandamm’s henchmen lands a well targeted knife in Townsend’s back. Holding the knife, Roger escapes, but not before he is seen with the murder weapon and becomes a wanted fugitive.
Leaving New York stowed away aboard a train, Roger meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a woman quick to help him evade authorities searching for him on the train. A little too eager. Because beautiful women in movies about intrigue, mystery and double dealings are rarely good news.
I’ve seen a few Hitchcock movies before. Some I’ve loved, some I’ve thought were not so great. But one thing I don’t expect from Hitchcock is snappy, funny dialogue. Sure, The Trouble With Harry is a funny enough farce, but it’s all about goofy laughs. North By Northwest surprised me with how smart and dark it was. And as great as the dialogue is, it’s the delivery mechanism that really works.
You can’t really miss when you have the legend that is Cary Grant, spouting bon mots like, “Now you listen to me, I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself ‘slightly’ killed.” Or, “Not that I mind a slight case of abduction now and then, but I have tickets for the theatre this evening, to a show I was looking forward to and I get, well, kind of unreasonable about things like that.”
North By Northwest is convoluted and messy and over stuffed with twists, double crosses, characters who aren’t who they first appear to be and red herrings from top to bottom. But I think all of those things are deliberate. It’s Hitchcock making us just as discombobulated as Roger Thornhill. And generally, I think that works. The only problem is, I got so discombobulated, I didn’t really care about getting an answer by the end. Not that North By Northwest is concerned with a big pay off or reveal as its climax, but at the end, I was kind of more relieved that it was over than I was excited to see how it all ends.
Best Original Screenplay (nominated, lost to Pillow Talk)