About 50 years ago Hitchcock followed his artistic masterpiece with two of the most important movies ever to emerge from Hollywood. Two very different pictures, each was to chart a course for an entire genre. From the first: the modern template for the espionage, man on the run film. From the second: the modern horror. No picture has been made since, in either genre, that didn’t pay some sort of homage to these iconic statements.
North by Northwest
There are other Hitchcock pictures that offer more chills or suspense, but none matches the sheer entertainment bang of North by Northwest. Not as frightening as Psycho or as powerful as Vertigo or as violent as Frenzy or as psychologically intriguing as about a dozen others, North by Northwest is, however, the most fun Hitchcock film of all and, given the sheer amount of set pieces and locale changes and plot gimmicks, it ends up, as relatively light as it is, an accumulation of Hitchcockian devices unlike any of his other films. An Everyman, a mistaken identity, a MacGuffin, inept authorities, bourbon, homosexuality, odd mother-son relationships, murder, trains, blonde dames, black humor — it’s all here, along with Cary Grant, the quintessential Hitchcock leading man.
While Hitchcock gets his cameo out of the way early — missing a bus in the opening montage of NYC bustle — he enjoyed screen time in one of his most memorable trailers in the guise of a travel director offering a cross-country trip of thrills and chills. Thing is, the entirety of the film plays much like a trailer, fast-paced and packed with highlights. Sure, it’s a picaresque Cold-War espionage false-accusation chase-film love story, but it’s really a vehicle for Hitchcock to thread cool but disparate set-piece concepts together, and all hail the great screenwriter Ernest Lehman for making it work. You can imagine Hitch’s conversation with Lehman when pitching the assignment: “A diplomat is murdered at the United Nations! A guy is nearly crop-dusted to death in an isolated cornfield! A gunfight on the faces of Mount Rushmore! Make it work!”
Lehman made it work, and he’s one of a team of craftsmen that Hitchcock assembled who turned in classic work, from Bernard Herrman’s pins-and-needles score to Saul Bass’s iconic title sequences (a pattern of crisscrossing lines melt into the window grids of a skyscraper above Madison Avenue) to one of Hitchcock’s greatest ensemble casts — Grant, James Mason, Eva Marie Saint, Martin Landau, and the great Hitchcock utility man, Leo G. Carroll. Hitchcock was famously prickly about actors, but he loved Grant, and Hitchcock put the 55-year-old actor through his paces in North by Northwest.
It’s a whirlwind performance from Grant — romantic, comic, and athletic. As Roger Thornhill, Grant is both suave and bumbling, shallow and complex, noble and contemptible. It’s also Grant at his most physical on screen, although he was just a few years from retiring from films altogether. Here we get him sprinting away from airplanes, diving from machine-gun fire, scaling building ledges, and dangling from cliffs. And in the cafeteria scene when Eve shoots Roger (with blanks), everyone talks about the little boy in the background who covers his ears just before Eve pulls the trigger — a famous goof — but how about Grant’s acrobatic up-on-the-toes Michael Jackson move once he’s shot? That’s the real moment worth treasuring.
North by Northwest is also one of Hitchcock’s funniest films, and Grant gets most of the best lines although he’s asked to perform in some pretty dippy sequences, especially the scene in which the bad guys try to murder him by pouring an entire bottle of bourbon into him and putting him in a car to make his escape along a curvy cliffside highway; it’s another inspired idea from Hitch — it would be so much easier just to shoot the guy. It’s a hoot to hear Grant’s famous clipped accent dissolve into a drunken slur in the police station, where he calls his mother for help and crawls up onto the interrogation table to pass out.
So Roger Thornhill, as a character, doesn’t carry the psychological depth of other Hitchcockian protagonists like Scottie Ferguson or Jeff Jeffries; still, his maddening confusion and simmering rage over his abduction and false murder charges carry real weight, especially once Saint’s femme fatale, Eve Kendall, gets her claws into him. Hitchcock layers the scenes between Roger and Eve with equal parts sexual tension and latent violence — embracing in the tight quarters of the trainroom, the two perform a rotating slow dance, sort of a modified arc shot, in which Roger threatens to murder Eve. Her response: “Please do”.
Later, when Roger unexpectedly returns from the attempted crop-dusting murder, Eve rushes to embrace him, relieved after genuinely falling for him, and Roger puts his hands up to her neck, not knowing whether to make love to her or throttle her to death. Similarly, in the auction scene, the villainous Phillip Vandamm (James Mason at his most charmingly malicious), admires Eve’s neck as he strokes it lightly with his fingertips, and then, as the camera closes in tight, he squeezes her neck is a possessive vice-grip. That Hitch! Master of Suspense, sure, but by 1959, he was also the master of disturbing interplays of sex and violence.
He pushed the sexual banter as far as he could — Saint even had to overdub one her lines, changing “I never make love on an empty stomach” to “I never discuss love on an empty stomach”. Why? Because Roger follows the line with, “You’ve already eaten”. Her response: “But you haven’t”. In other words, she was referring to making love on his stomach. Yow! Too bad such a snappy exchange was altered, although Hitchcock’s dirty visual pun to close the film stayed in, as did Martin Landau’s gay innuendos, another Hitchcock hallmark.
Saint’s performance is, in fact, a testament to one of Hitchcock’s most overlooked gifts — his knack for coaching his actors. Consider Saint’s role as Edie Doyle in On the Waterfront five years earlier (and did any American actress land two better roles in the ’50s? Or provide a more confusing trilogy of first names: Eva/Edie/Eve?). Edie was a plain, Catholic schoolgirl who wore no makeup and had never been kissed. But Hitchcock taught Saint how to be a vixen. His advice: Look Grant directly into his eyes, and speak in a deeper register. It worked — Saint smolders on the screen.
Elsewhere, it’s a showcase of brilliant filmic touches: Mason himself creates the sinister lighting in the room by drawing blinds, turning on lamps, and backlighting himself. A camera views the standoff at the Long Island mansion from the ceiling, then switches to a shaky handheld as the henchmen wrestle Roger to the sofa. Hitchcock steals a shot of the UN after being denied permission to film there — love the double-take of the guy who recognizes Grant as he walks up the stairs. The utter silence for several minutes that introduces the cropdusting sequence — no background music at all throughout the entire sequence, a genius move that doubles the eerie juxtapositions and dramatic ironies that makes the scene such a classic.
So Roger has to save the MacGuffin (a little statue full of microfilm, it turns out), catch the criminal masterminds, get the girl, and clear his name. But it’s the Hitchcock exuberance for taking the audience on a dizzying ride that we remember most about this film, and fifty years of James Bond and action-adventure blockbusters and quirky post-modernist plot-smithing have kept alive what Hitchcock started, although most often with diminished returns. Hitchcock emerged from darker thrillers to make North by Northwest, and he would return to them again later, but for this film, it was all right to disregard allegorical overtones in favor of the thrill of the chase and to simply celebrate the riotous creativity of a master at his most devilishly fun.
I teach Psycho almost every year in my introduction to film classes, even though it is not my favorite Hitchcock film, and, as you can read elsewhere in this series, I don’t think it’s truly characteristic of Hitchcock’s long career in the movies. I teach Psycho because it is interesting, and because it is showy! You take any two-minute sequence from this film and ask students to write a shot-by-shot breakdown of its structure, noticing things like the lighting, mise-en-scene, editing, costume, use of music, performance, and framing, and they will come up with something intriguing, new to them and often new to me. Cultural aura aside, looking at this film in detail pays off. Psycho may not be subtle, but it is deeply satisfying.
Consider, for example, the wicked perfection of the first scenes, in which a nosy camera pans around the skyline of Phoenix Arizona, and then enters a hotel bedroom window, circles the room, and settles on a half dressed couple: Sam Loomis (John Gavin) is standing next to the bed, wearing dark pants and no shirt, and Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is lying on the bed at an angle, in white bra and slip. “You never did finish your lunch,” Sam says, and the camera cuts away to a quick shot of her sandwich and drink on the bedside table. An easy continuity shot, we think, and in his long close analysis of Psycho Raymond Durgnat calls the shot “pointless” or at most “atmosphere”. And yet, when a student of mine focused on this cutaway she discovered that it has a similar formal structure as the previous shots of the couple, with a dark lean vertical figure over a white horizontal figure at an angle. The point of view perspective isn’t a perfect match, but the people and the lunch have similar framing. Why? Because these people had each other for lunch. When Marion next delivers my favorite line in the film — “These extended lunch hours give my boss excess acid” — we can hear the word “sex” twice in the phrase, hiding in “these extended” and “boss excess”. The latter phrase even employs the word as an aural palindrome! Someone clearly had a lot of fun writing this film, and a lot of fun shooting it.
This sense of crafted, meaningful, dense cinematic representation, in which puns live up to their implications and images reveal and obscure at the same time, continues throughout the first part of the film. Sam and Marion can’t afford to marry, and Marion is tired of meeting in hotel rooms, longing for a sit-down dinner and respectability instead. She returns to her office only to be confronted by the luxuries of other people’s lives: “I’m buying this house for my baby’s wedding present,” the rich client in the cowboy hat tells her. “Forty thousand dollars, cash! Now, that’s not buying happiness. That’s just buying off unhappiness.” Provoked by his flirty arrogance, Marion goes home with a headache, promising to drop off the cash at the bank on her way. But… she packs a suitcase instead and drives off to Fairvale California, to find Sam and restart their life.
The scenes of Marion driving through the day and night are strangely alive despite their minimalism, a showoff display of what makes a character and a performance tick. She spends the first night on the side of the road, is awakened by an iconically startling policeman in dark sunglasses, and decides to trade her car for one with California license plates. She drives on into pouring rain and, finally exhausted, decides to stop somewhere safe for the night, becoming the first and last person in film history to think the “Bates Motel” a safe haven. And here we are introduced to another instance of how lives intersect. Norman Bates (in a magnificent and subtle performance by Anthony Perkins) is a shy young man, adorable in his eagerness to please and clearly oppressed by his domineering mother and meager opportunities. He shows her a room, makes her a sandwich, discusses his hobby of taxidermy, and reminds her that sometimes people are entrapped by their circumstances.
It is such a bitter irony that Marion is killed brutally in the shower of her room just after she has decided to turn around and head back to Phoenix, return the money and get out of the trap she stepped in. We only see the outline of the murderer, a woman’s outline that we identify implicitly from Norman’s subsequent cries of “Mother! Oh God, Mother! Blood! Blood!” Norman cleans up the bathroom, wraps Marion’s nude body in the shower curtain, places her, the suitcase, and the money in the trunk of her car, and sinks the car in a tar pit. There goes our star, our character, and our story. Now what?
Hitchcock used to say that audiences often don’t remember much of the second part of the film, and this bears out in my experience teaching it. The details of Marion’s story are imprinted in viewers’ minds, partly because they are designed to be memorable. They are intended to be mined for clues. After her murder the film becomes looser, less dense, the language less pun-infested, the cinematography less pointed. Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles), and private detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) arrive at Fairvale, and join forces with Sam to find out what happened to Marion. Arbogast questions Norman and tries to question Mother, but is brutally killed by her in an unexpectedly intense scene on the staircase of the Bates house. The relationship between the Victorian house and the rambling motel building becomes intensified, as now each structure holds different promises of danger. Norman grows much more ominous as time goes by, while Lila and Sam still think they are solving a mystery.
The final sections of the film include not one or two but three resolutions: Lila searches the Bates house while Sam detains Norman, and finds that Mother is a mummified corpse hidden in the cellar. Norman rushes in to kill Lila dressed in Mother’s old-fashioned housedress and an ill-fitting wig. So it was Norman who killed Marion and Arbogast after all. But wait, the police psychiatrist explains: it was Mother inside Norman, the identity he absorbed in order to animate the corpse that would not relate to him any more. In a calm authoritative voice that contemporary audiences sometimes find funny or campy, the psychiatrist describes the split in Norman’s psyche, and we get a direct glimpse of Norman in the holding cell. He sits still as the Mother’s voice describes what she has done, how she has explained everything to the police, exonerating herself and blaming Norman for the murders. In the last shot of the film Norman and Mother appear to be co-present on his face, as a faint skull looks at us through his ominous dark eyes.
The film was based on a novel by Robert Bloch, inspired by the true gruesome story of serial killer Ed Gein. In addition to being one of the most iconic, most famous films ever made, Psycho was an incredible success for Hitchcock, who shot it quickly, in black and white, and using his TV crew. The confidence of the actual film is palpable, the result of honed textual and narrative practices of a seasoned director and a professional cast and crew. We may be in the proverbial dark about what is going on for most of the movie, but the film is fine-tuned, sure-footed, assertive in the effects it wants to create, its timing, and the kinds of densities required of both mystery and horror generic structures. If the film heralds the success of horror films, B movies, slasher films, and teen flicks that traffic in unnamed dread, its pedigree is in the classic Hollywood studio picture, in film noir, the detective film, and the classic melodrama. Hitchcock pays close attention to characterization, motivation, and sequence, even as he eagerly replaces these solid pleasures for what seems to be a wild and strange ride into the unknown. Not subtle, but really fun.