Hitchock is an odd case in cinema history. Despised for years by critics as nothing but a gimmicky director, he was recognized when European filmmakers like Truffaut expressed their admiration for his work, and now, decades after his death, he’s praised by everyone. I personally think that he is indeed one gifted filmmaker, and “Vertigo” is one of the films that had the biggest effect on me. Still, I have some problems with some of his other classics. If you really get to the heart of it, “Psycho” is a B-movie with some great shots and a memorable score. As for “North by Northwest”, you gotta admit that it’s just a silly, somehow artificial adventure movie. Of course, it benefits from Hitchcock’s unique visual style, as well as yet another kick ass Bernard Hermann score and a great cast.
I guess I should summarize the film’s plot so you know what I’m talking about. You got old Cary Grant as an advertisement tycoon who’s mistaken for a spy by enemy agents, and then framed for murder at the United Nations. So he’s got both the police and the bad guys after his ass, and he’s got to run all over the country to avoid getting killed or sent to jail. Grant’s an interesting leading man in the way he can be devilish and charming at the same time. But to me, the film really ignites when we meet the sultry Eve Kandall, a mysterious femme fatale played by the gorgeous Eva Marie Saint. She’s one of these wonderful, classic Hollywood type babes: her sexuality comes from her attitude and her intelligence, not of her cleavage like most of today’s starlets. The other important character is villain Philip Vandamm (no relation to the Muscles from Brussels), played by old-timer James Mason.
But as always, the star of the film is Hitch himself. He takes obvious pleasure in crafting genre flicks that don’t quite follow all the rules. The most memorable set piece is the scene in which Grant goes to a rendezvous with someone who doesn’t exist in the middle of nowhere. He gets off a bus on a road where you don’t see anything at the horizon but fields. The suspense rises since we know there’s something wrong, and we get why when a machine gun-firing crop duster attacks Grant! I believe it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that this is the mother of all modern action scenes. You got the now cliché shot of the hero running from the menace, and it ends with a bang (literally), as the plane collides with a truck and explodes!
“North by Northwest” is highly entertaining, and its classy Technicolor photography and acting put it a notch over usual Hollywood fare, but I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece… I don’t know how anyone could say that about a film that ends with a few words between a couple cutting to a shot of a train penetrating a tunnel! Now that’s subtle innuendo!