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California Literary Review

Movie Time Nostalgia, Part 2: North By Northwest Revisited


Movie Time Nostalgia, Part 2: North By Northwest Revisited

Movie Time Nostalgia

Previously on “Movie Time Nostalgia,” we went all the way back to the beginning of movie watching memory. Sleeping Beauty struck a nice chord with several readers, much to my delight. The discussion also brought another fine title to the table – Carol Reed’s The Third Man, starring Orson Welles.

The British noir classic leads nicely into this week’s topic.

– The Introduction To The Classics –

For many lovers of the screen, there is a turning point at which one develops awareness, however modest, of the craft of filmmaking. When did you you begin to compare one director with another, in hopes of finding out why some are so much more celebrated than the rest? Think of the first person who pressed a movie on your young imagination for the simple reason that “it’s a classic.”

I was lucky. At my grandmother’s insistence, I got myself a videotape of Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest at a young age, and proceeded to watch the ever-living hell out of it. I can’t recall having seen what you might call a grown-up movie before that, and a lot of dramatic films that I love now might not have held my attention then. But North by Northwest really has got it all. Of Hitchcock’s many masterpieces, it is the most action-packed, spanning about as many chases, fights, and changes of venue as your average James Bond flick.

Cary Grant runs from a killer pilot in North By Northwest's iconic chase sequence.

James Bond was never cropdusted.
Cary Grant took it like a man for Hitchcock’s camera, and became a movie icon.

The plot showcases all of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous preoccupations – mistaken identity, cloak and dagger pursuit, blondes with secrets, and soft-spoken master villains. Stir in a bristling score by Bernard Herrmann and some eye-catching Saul Bass titles, and who else could be behind it all?

A chance misunderstanding lands ordinary businessman Cary Grant in some serious intrigue. Hounded by thugs, pressed for secrets he does not have, framed and running for his life, he spends most of the film in search of somebody he can trust.

Martin Landau and James Mason's other goons never let up on Cary Grant in North by Northwest.

In grown-up movies, bad guys pin you down and force bourbon on you by the bottle. Fascinating!

When I first encountered North by Northwest, I could certainly not have understood most of the plot, with all its twists, turns, secret identities and double crosses. What I was learning, without knowing it then, was that in a true masterpiece, the appeal of a complicated plot is all in the presentation. At first, I couldn’t keep track of the dialogue, but it didn’t stop me watching the movie ceaselessly until it began making sense. Suspense is a powerful force, and even before I knew the name for it, I couldn’t get enough of it. When a man is being chased by an airplane, framed for murder in a crowded place, or driven off a cliff, it is clear without explanation that some bad and powerful people want him out of the way. A great filmmaker understands that drama must work on this fundamental level, or else all the clever plotting and witty dialogue in the world amount to a big fat zero. You should not have to understand what is being said to understand what is going on.

As North by Northwest's villain Vandamm, James Mason is a picture of smooth menace.

Smooth Criminal: Mr. James “What On Earth Is That?” Mason
is one of Hitchcock’s top villains.

An able cast helps as well. Cary Grant, master of comic exasperation, is not one half bad action star. I never cared much for Eva Marie Saint, especially compared to most of Hitchcock’s leading ladies, but she had the good fortune to be in a lot of amazing movies. On the other hand, James Mason – as the evil spy Vandamm – is one of those great villains people don’t talk much about anymore, but should. He expertly balances smooth charm and frosty menace, not unlike The Third Man’s Harry Lime or Chinatown‘s Noah Cross.

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint scamper across Mount Rushmore in North By Northwest's climax.

Scale replicas, mattes, rear-projected splendor –
Hitchcock uses all the top-notch tricks of the day to thrilling effect.

North By Northwest boasts gunshots, chases, and punch-ups galore, but it has the dramatic weight and outstanding execution to anchor it in the category of all-around great moviemaking. It was a major part of my decision to keep watching movies for the rest of my life.

So what’s it to be, folks? Sound off if you please. Was it Sunset Boulevard, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, or maybe another Hitchcock like Rear Window? Which of the movie titans rocked you first?

Dan Fields is a graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in Film. He has written for the California Literary Review since 2010. He is also co-founder and animator for Fields Point Pictures, and the frontman of Houston-based folk band Polecat Rodeo. Google+, Twitter

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