North By Northwest
Here is the ne plus ultra of the romantic chase thriller, and probably Hitchcock’s most appealing movie. I mean, what’s not to like? Cary Grant is an entirely innocent man snared up totally by accident in a government scheme with Leo G. Carroll and his nameless organization on one side and an urbanely sinister James Mason and really scary Martin Landau—in only his second movie role—on the other. We like Cary as Roger Thornhill, unlike Jimmy Stewart in the creepy Vertigo and the slightly less creepy but obsessive Rear Window. We really root for him, handsome and witty, quick with his brains and his feet, getting away from one disaster after another. This is the quintessential Hitchcock “innocent man,” moving from one unlikely peril to another in his famous—and apparently indestructible—gray flannel suit. (I know nothing about men’s attire, but it seems that suit has been voted the best suit of all time! It has to have something to do with who’s wearing it, wouldn’t you say? Nobody looked better in a suit than Cary Grant.)
The only thing I think is a little dated here is some of the dialogue between Cary and Eva Marie Saint. It was the time when innuendo was all, and couples could kiss all the wanted to, but never move beyond heavy petting. So some of it is sort of cringewothy. And yet Hitchcock always did everything he could to subvert that. Eva Marie says Cary will have to sleep on the floor of the train compartment, but she never sounds very serious about it, and continues to kiss him passionately. You really think she then tossed him onto the cold, hard floor? Dream on. We sure never see it. Later, when they discuss that night on the train, it seemed clear to me they did the deed, probably more than once.
I love scenes on trains, and so did Hitch. Notice in the love scene in the compartment, how one wall magically vanishes. Her back is against it, his hands behind her, and then we cut to a reverse angle. Where’s the damn wall? Replaced by glass, apparently.
There is, of course, the wonderful finale crawling all over Mount Rushmore at night—actually a series of large pieces of the monument built in the studio. There are the scenes at the United Nations—again, re-created, since no one was ever allowed to shoot there. (They actually sneaked a shot with a concealed camera when Cary arrives and gets out of a taxi, because the UN wouldn’t even allow filming on the sidewalks. Everything else you see is a set or a special effect.) There is the famous shooting at the visitor center below Mount Rushmore, where a little boy can be seen covering his ears before the gun fires. But the one that blows even all that wonderful stuff away is the deadly crop duster out on the totally flat prairie, with nowhere to hide. (It was actually filmed in California’s Central Valley.) It is constructed so carefully, so slowly, so masterfully with every shot … I am amazed every time I see it. This scene has in fact been voted the top movie scene of all time by several film organizations, and in the top ten by many others, and I wouldn’t argue a bit. Who could shoot a scene like that today? Who could interrupt the frantic flow demanded of action movies these days to build a scene like that? No one, that’s who. And just stop for a moment and think. Does this scene make any sense at all? Why send a man out into the boonies to be murdered by a crop duster, when a bullet in the head will suffice, and be so much easier? Where did they get a crop duster with machine guns mounted on it at short notice? Not gonna happen, is what. And you know, it doesn’t matter the least little bit, because it is fun, it is jaw-dropping, it is so audacious that no one but Hitch could have pulled it off.