1959 was an interesting and eclectic year for film releases. Hollywood’s Golden Age had passed, but many of that era’s iconic directors were still working – and turning out some terrific films. In 1959, Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger were in the latter halves of their careers, and gave us, respectively, Some Like it Hot and Anatomy of a Murder. That same year, filmgoers got to experience William Wyler’s epic Ben-Hur, and Howard Hawks’ classic western Rio Bravo. Both of these men were in the latter quarter of their directing careers. 1959 also gave us A Pocketful of Miracles, the penultimate film from the much-loved and prolific director Frank Capra.
This last year of the fifties also saw the release of North by Northwest, directed by the great Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock himself was in the latter third of his career, but still had some of his greatest and most-enduring works ahead of him, including Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). North by Northwest is an outstanding film, and it’s my Five Star Films pick for this month. Here are some brief thoughts about my five favourite scenes from the film …..
[WARNING: some spoilers follow]
1. THE INTERROGATION AT THE ESTATE
Our leading man in North by Northwest is the always-suave Cary Grant, as Madison Avenue advertising executive Roger Thornhill.
[SIDE NOTE: The opening titles of critically-acclaimed TV series Mad Men (2007- ), set in a Madison Avenue ad agency around the same period (its opening episode was set in March 1960), pay homage to Saul Bass’ beautiful North by Northwest openers. And our super-smooth Thornhill looks like he’d be right at home throwing back an Old Fashioned or three with Don Draper and Roger Sterling].
In a case of mistaken identity, Thornhill is kidnapped and taken to a drawing room at an estate on Long Island, where he’s interrogated by spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and his right-hand man Leonard (a very young Martin Landau). The acting in this scene just wonderful. Mason plays cold as ice, Grant exudes cool grace under obvious pressure and stress, and Landau delivers some terrifically creepy looks with his amazingly expressive eyes. The camera angles here are so interesting. There’s a great moment when Vandamm and Thornhill circle each other in the drawing room, anti-clockwise, like imposing (though elegant) animals, sussing each other out in the wild. The way the camera cuts from one man to the other heightens the emotion. As each moving man remains in the middle of his shot, the surrounding drawing room background appears as if to move around him. There’s also a powerful moment where the conversation is shot from above, with Thornhill standing and Vandamm (opposite him) seated. Leonard is standing (arms folded) near Vandamm. Landau’s natural height adds to his extremely imposing (though lean) figure, and the overall tableau is a perfect representation of the balance of power in the room.
2. ROGER AND EVE IN THE DINING CAR
Our leading Lady in North by Northwest is Eva Marie Saint, who five years earlier won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her feature film debut in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), opposite Marlon Brando. There’s an important scene in North by Northwest where, after a brief encounter in the hallway between train compartments a few minutes earlier, Saint (as Eve Kendall) meets Thornhill in the train’s dining car (the Kendall character had been absent from the first forty-five minutes of the film, but plays a pivotal role from this point onwards). The sexual tension between Thornhill and Kendal in this scene is palpable. There’s a lot of risqué and suggestive dialogue, and it’s actually surprising that most of it got through the censors at the time. If you do look carefully, however, you can see where the censors won: where Saint’s mouth movements don’t match the dialogue you hear in one line. Saint was filmed saying ‘I never make love on a empty stomach’, but was later required to re-dub the line as ‘I never discuss love on an empty stomach’. The innuendo in the scene builds as each character says something cheekily forward, the other takes the bait, and gradually it gets more and more suggestive. You get a sense that Thornhill can’t believe his luck: as though even it’s assumed that he’s a smooth operator, he usually doesn’t meet women as sexually confident as Kendall. Kendall is one of Hitchcock’s classic cool blondes, and I don’t think it’s any co-incidence that Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman agreed upon ‘Eve’ as Kendall’s first name, given that we later find out that she is on assignment, and under instruction to lure Thornhill into her confidences. It’s as if, like the biblical character of Eve, Hitchcock’s Kendall is offering Thornhill the poison apple.
3. THE CROP DUSTER SCENE
North by Northwest‘s most iconic scene is the magnificent ‘crop dusting scene’, where Thornhill is basically terrorised by crop dusting biplane, piloted by someone commissioned to kill him. This nearly ten minute film has very little dialogue, and is utterly riveting from start to finish. For the first few minutes, Thornhill is standing on a highway in the middle of nowhere, waiting to keep a meeting that Kendall has allegedly set up for him. Finally, a man is dropped off in a car, and Thornhill eventually approaches him. But this man is just a red herring – a lovely Hitchcock touch. So after this man catches an approaching bus, Thornhill is again left alone. The tension is mounting, as we know something is going to happen, and that Thornhill must be in some sort of danger – but we don’t know what or how. Suddenly a biplane from the distance flies closer, and before we know it, we the audience (and Thornhill) are taken by surprise. There’s this fantastic moment when, with the plane approaching, Roger suddenly realizes the plane is coming for him. There is this split-second look of realisation on his face, and he instantly acts on impulse and drops to the ground – as the place flies right over him. And now it’s on! It’s cat-and-mouse, as the plane comes back for a second try, as he jumps into a trench-like rocky ditch. Still resplendent in his beautifully tailored (though worse-for-wear) suit, he rises again and tries to flag down a car, which unfortunately pass him by. On the plane’s third attempt to get him, there’s the glorious famous moment when Thornhill runs towards the camera, with the plane chasing him down. Though Thornhill had clearly been in danger for most of the film, this is the moment when he’s most vulnerable. As he runs away, while looking back at the fast-approaching plane, the audience’s adrenalin rises with his. Throughout this scene, the sound of the plane’s propeller is the main noise we can hear, until the honking and screeching of an approaching oil truck that Thornhill tries to stop in its tracks. Then there’s a clever shift in the sound in the scene. After the biplane hits the truck and explodes, Bernard Herrmann’s stunning orchestrations set in. It’s a great touch, and a lovely contrast to the earlier bulk of the scene, which was without underscoring.
4. AT THE AUCTION HOUSE
The auction house scene in North by Northwest is another favourite, with its inclusion of some light and witty moments. When Thornhill, in the middle of a capacity auction room, realises he can’t escape because Vandamm and his henchmen cover every exit, he has to act quickly. In a comic moment, he just about sits on the lap of a woman in an aisle seat, and she grumpily moves along. Then he creates chaos by making ridiculous bids and subverting the whole auction process, in an ingenious attempt to get arrested, so he can be taken away by the police. There’s this terrific moment where Thornhill facetiously claims an auction item is fake, and a woman turns to him and says ‘… You're no fake, you're a genuine idiot’, to which Thornhill replies, (simultaneously deadpan and gracious) ‘Thank you’. The delivery of this line is just so exquisite, and I can’t imagine anyone but Cary Grant pulling it off so expertly.
5. ON MOUNT RUSHMORE
The Mount Rushmore scene in North by Northwest is another of its most iconic, as Thornhill and Kendall run and climb for their lives, amongst the enormous granite sculptures of U.S. past Presidents. There’s a beautiful contrast within the scene between close up shots of the monument (where large details of the Presidents’ noses, ears, and eyes dominate, and the actors are like insects climbing them), and close ups of the actors, where the monument loses its detail, and just looks like an amorphous concrete mass. Here Herrmann’s score is at its most powerful, adding to the wonderfully tense situation. In the last few minutes of the film, there’s a moment where Kendall is hanging by her fingers on a rock face, reminiscent of another Hitchcock masterpiece from the year before: Vertigo (1958), where James Stewart’s Scotty is handing off a building ledge. [SIDE NOTE: For more on our previous Five Star Films pick Vertigo, see here. There’s a clever moment at the very end, where Thornhill’s life-saving pull Kendall’s arm at Mount Rushmore cuts to her being pulled up to their marital bed in their train carriage. And what follows that is arguably the most blatant phallic symbolism within any mainstream film up to that date.
Lisa Malouf - follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf