Reviews

North by Northwest

This is thrilling, sexy, funny, fresh, inventive, exhilarating, and ultimately, a first-class illustration of the "they don't make them like they used to" adage.


North by Northwest

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau
Distributor: Warner Home Video
Studio: MGM
UK Release Date: 2009-11-03
US Release Date: 2009-11-03

If only his mother wasn't playing bridge. If only Roger O. Thornhill ("My own personal motto - R.O.T.," he snidely explains), twice-divorced New York ad man hadn't forgotten that important facet of his parent's social calendar. He wouldn't have rushed to his important meeting with some important clients.

He wouldn't have called on the Western Union boy to send a telegram (explaining to his secretary the locational faux pas). And he wouldn't have incurred the curiosity of a pair of thugs, hitmen working for a foreign spy desperate to learn the identity of infamous secret agent George Kaplan.

That afternoon card game eventually cost Thornhill his security, his safety, and his sanity as he becomes part of a major international conspiracy involving missing microfilm, double agents, and a conspiracy ever moving across the United States.

Scripted by dependable collaborator Ernest Lehman (who set out to create the ultimate version of the Master of Suspense's style) and featuring film's singular leading man, Cary Grant (replacing intended star Jimmy Stewart), Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest remains the seminal example of the fabled director's artistic proficiency. It's thrilling, sexy, funny, fresh, inventive, exhilarating, and ultimately, a first-class illustration of the "they don't make them like they used to" adage.

Sure, some can argue over the legendary director's constant shifts in locational perspective (in studio one shot, on location the next) and the highly formal manner in which he handles action, but Alfred Hitchcock is a legend for one obvious reason: he is a true cinematic visionary, someone who literally defined - and then proceeded to destroy - the limits of the motion picture artform.

By mistakenly drawing the attention of two hired goons, Thornhill comes face to face with crafty Cold warrior Phillip Vandamm and his henchman Leonard. Believing he is CIA operative George Kaplan, the duo threatens his life unless he converts to their cause. Of course, our oblivious businessman has no idea what they are talking about.

Narrowly avoided an attempt on his life, Thornhill is soon framed for the murder of a United Nations contractor, forcing him on the run and desperate to seek out the real Kaplan. Learning that he might be in Chicago, our hero hops a freight, only to come face to face with sophisticated industrial designer Eve Kendall.

She wants to help him. He winds up in ever deeper trouble. Soon, the government gets involved, letting Thornhill know that if he plays along with the Kaplan ruse, his name will be cleared. But there are complications, including how Eve fits into all of this.

Along with Vertigo and Psycho, North by Northwest is indeed the seminal suspense experience. It makes brilliant use of the everyman lost in a world of intrigue and danger ideal, and then amplifies the prospect by making Grant's Thornhill more adept at these spy games than the villains.

True, it takes a lot to show up James Mason and Martin Landau (getting a lot of mileage out of underplaying their roles), but this is Archibald Alexander Leach we're talking about, the dashing, debonair superstar who more or less gave birth to the mainstream man crush. Grant agreeably gives his greatest performance here, at times both cosmopolitan and comically clueless.

Just watch the scene where a completely inebriated and barely coherent Thornhill is trying to tell the police what happened to him. It's a master class in bridging the gap between post-modern believability and studio system shtick.

So are his entendre-laced clashes with Eva Marie Saint. No slouch as the femme fatale with a couple of troubling secrets up her designer sleeves, she is a flawless foil to Grant's well-groomed wolf. There is absolutely no doubt about what's on their mind when they meet, and later, when it looks like they will consummate their newfound friendship, the dialogue is just delicious.

In the commentary track to the new blu-ray release (which looks amazing, one must say), writer Lehman lets us know about how careful he had to be with the words and phrases he chose to champion. Censors were already nervous about a middle-aged man and a 20-something sharing a train compartment. Several lines were snipped or trimmed when studio moralists believed they were too suggestive.

In the end, Lehman actually got his way, if inadvertently. The scene between Grant and Saint in her darkened quarters remains one of the steamiest non-explicit moment between two people ever - all because of the oblique nature of the exchanges and Hitchcock's handling of same.

But the real North by Northwest showstoppers are the various edge of your seat sequences used to intensify the terror. Grant's near accident while intoxicated is indeed harrowing, and the classic crop duster attack remains a singular cinematic moment.

The best is saved for last, of course, as Grant, Saint, and Landau traverse the various cliff-like edifices of Mount Rushmore. That's right - Hitchcock had always wanted to conduct a chase across the façade of the fabled American monument, and thanks to some tricky F/X work (massive photos of the landmark were created, and then dimensionalized on a equally huge Hollywood set), he pulls it off magnificently.

Indeed, watching Grant and Saint juxtaposed against this backdrop renews your faith in the power of filmmaking. While it may seem logistically impossible - or worse, highly improbable - Hitchcock makes it wholly believable. Like all of North by Northwest, his craftsmanship overcomes any shortcomings in "realism".

As the introductory entry of the Master onto the new digital format, Warners works wonders with the North by Northwest blu-ray. The picture presentation is immaculate - clean, sharp, and loaded with detail. Indeed, there is no arguing with the 1080p transfer. The sound has also been remastered, giving Bernard Herrmann's memorable score a whole new level of epic urgency.

There are also some fascinating added features here, including the Lehman commentary, an hour long documentary on the making of the film, as well as a look at Cary Grant's career and Alfred Hitchcock mythos. But it's the chance to see North By Northwest as it was initially conceived - original aspect ratio and as close to theatrical quality as the home video domain can deliver - that really makes this masterpiece a must-own. One can only imagine the kind of optical bliss awaiting blu-ray remasters of Rear Window, or even better, Vertigo.

In a career that spans a stint in British silent movies and as part of television's grandiose growing pains, it was his stint in Hollywood (and the stunning films he created during that tenure) that took Englishman Alfred Hitchcock from trivial to titan -- and North by Northwest is an example of the genius at the height of his professional powers. Indeed, it's hard to watch a post-modern take on the genre and not see this Cary Grant title as an obvious inspiration.

Sure, it's oddly out of place 'domineering mother' subplot makes the Thornhill seem slightly less than macho and we never really find out what Vandamm and his men are after (the classic Hitchcock 'MacGuffin'). Still, if it wasn't for that blasted card game, none of this would have happened - and that really would have been a shame. That's because, as cinematic classics go, North by Northwest is one of the greatest of all time.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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