Tuesday, 14 August 2012
Alfred Hitchcock - North by Northwest
Friday 3 August 2012
Life, most of the time, is matter of routine. We get up, go to work, pass the day as we have hundreds like it before. But this predictability is an illusion, because at any moment, the whole reassuring framework could collapse. An accident, an incredible stroke of luck, a crime: and suddenly everything has changed.
Roger Thornhill's life turns on a dime in the bar of the Plaza Hotel on 59th street, at the moment he calls over the bellboy. He's an advertising executive – one of the original Mad Men – whose anxieties centre around keeping his women sweet (with gifts dispatched by an obliging secretary), his mother happy and the Skin Glow account ticking over. But that bellboy was looking for a certain George Caplan, and he's not the only one: a couple of shady characters waiting around the corner see Thornhill and think they've found their man. When he steps into the lobby for a moment, one of them presses a gun to his heart.
He's whisked out of his natural habitat – no more martinis for Roger, at least not quite yet – and into a world which no longer seems to be following the rules. Who are these men who keep insisting he's Caplan? Who threaten to kill him if he tries to escape? And why, having arrived at a well-appointed country house, is he asked how much he knows and how he knows it?
At this point, we're as baffled as Thornhill. Despite having been with him for only a couple of scenes, we feel all the disorientation – and the rising panic – of his having been taken for someone else. Hitchcock, as ever, taps a reservoir of primitive fear. How would it feel if no one believed you were you? And the harder you tried to convince them, the less they took you seriously?
Luckily Thornhill isn't the kind to go down without a fight. Fifteen minutes after the opening credits and we are in a car chase with a quirk – our hero is almost blind drunk behind the wheel, having been force-fed Bourbon. He escapes, not for the last time, into the hands of the police, a safe haven compared to the gang who have it in for George Caplan.
The pace doesn't slacken. Thornhill finds himself at the UN, then suddenly accused of murder and on the run, dodging the cops on a sleeper train to Chicago. That's where he meets the devastatingly cool Eve Kendall, a Hitchcock blonde who's clearly nobody's fool. True, the shine she takes to a strange man she knows may be guilty of murder stretches credulity, but only until we receive the first hint she may already be in on the game.
If you haven't already seen North by Northwest, I'm jealous. You're in for an amazing ride. I haven't even mentioned the famous crop-duster scene – which again plays on a very deep-seated fear of having nowhere to hide – or the climax on Mount Rushmore, a sequence that elevates nailbiting to an Olympic-level sport. This is Hitchcock at his slickest, his most crowd-pleasing, his least encumbered by cod-psychological plotlines involving trances or kleptomania. It is a rollicking, old-fashioned adventure, laced with excitement. Cary Grant is a leading man so assured he makes James Bond look insecure, and Eva Marie Saint a love interest with more charisma than Tippi Hedren and Kim Novak combined. Then there's Bernard Hermann's punchy and frenetic score, and Saul Bass's revolutionary titles, the very essence of 50s metro chic.
Which is why it baffles me that North by Northwest is regularly eclipsed in assessments of Hitchcock's oeuvre, not least by the all-conquering Vertigo, which has been fetishised by critics since the 1960s. It received another boost earlier this week in Sight and Sound's once-a-decade poll, while North by Northwest was nowhere to be found.
Perhaps the lack of Freudian handwaving leads people to rate it poorly in comparison. But despite the preposterous (though seamlessly woven) plot, it's a rather good psychological fable, and a lot less pretentious into the bargain. Thornhill is a man who can't – or hasn't had to – grow up. Eve saves him, but not before she breaks the bonds that have kept her in a terrifyingly subservient relationship. Hitchcock's ability to conjure up that sense of a perfectly pleasant life going haywire is especially powerful.
Our thrill is to see it all unfold, safe in the knowledge that at the end we'll be able to return to the old routine. And even if things don't always go as planned, perhaps we'll be able to tackle them with a little of the old Thornhill panache.