From Vertigo to The Birds there was a run of four films that became classics, still regarded as arguably some of the best films ever made and, while I’ve looked at most of them here before, this was my first time watching North By Northwest in a long time, so I thought it was time to remedy that.
I have I admit that when I’d seen the film in the past I hadn’t got it and found it hard to follow – watching it again now I think I know why.
While, like most of Hitchcock’s oeuvre it is a step away from reality and firmly based within the trappings of genre, it’s the generic notions that had me baffled – in many ways this makes it a little like its predecessor Vertigo.
The film begins following Cary Grant’s apparently high-flying advertising executive Roger Thornhill and a case of mistaken identity that sees him embroiled in what feels like a twist of film noir, just with Grant’s Thornhill rather than a Sam Spade like private detective.
Besides that it has all the hallmarks of noir, a suave but brutal villain (James Mason), a scary henchman (a young and terrifying Martin Landau) and a ‘Hitchcock Blonde’ femme fatale (Eva Marie Saint) all encountered as Grant tries to clear his name.
At about the half way stage though something changes and the film becomes something almost totally different as we are thrown into the midst of a kind of Cold War spy thriller, albeit one seen through the filter of ‘the master of suspense’.
Throughout all of this Grant remains brilliantly unflappable, save for a few choice moments, anchoring the preposterousness of the whole affair so well that it’s very easily overlooked and you just roll with it, like with Hitchcock’s other best works.
As with many of his works Hitchcock takes the words of Hal Roach as gospel and ‘cuts to the chase’ pretty early on and it never really lets up, also helping sweep the audience along with everything, as he treats us to possibly his two most elaborate and ridiculous set pieces.
The first is an absolute masterpiece as, largely without speech, we see Grant arrive at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere only to be attacked by a biplane. The whole sequence is logically inexplicable but handled so deftly both in performance, cinematography and overall direction that it becomes faultless.
The second is the film’s conclusion as Grant and Saint attempt to escape the clutches of Mason and Landau on the face(s) of Mount Rushmore.
Again preposterous in almost every way it is spectacle on a grand scale that even holds up today and I couldn’t help but think made it feel like a direct forerunner to the current Mission: Impossible series with its star seen to be hanging from an inescapable edifice (though I doubt Grant did it for real like Tom Cruise apparently does).
This all comes together to create a film that is at once pure escapist fantasy while also throwing in a good dose of the director’s usual twisted view of society as the apparently successful Thornhill is shown the shallowness of his life through the medium of ordeal, but comes out of it bettered (or at least that’s one reading) and is up there with Rear Window or The Birds as almost Hitchcock’s best – though for me Vertigo and Psycho just pip it.