Madeleine Haslam revisits North by Northwest, recently shown at BFI Southbank.
“The Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures” is how screenwriter Ernest Lehman envisioned North by Northwest. He saw a film that would act as a self aware anthology of the beloved parts of the great Alfred Hitchcock films: a blend of wit, style, sophistication, and action. The collaboration between Lehman and Hitchcock began with a planned adaptation of the novel The Wreck of the Mary Deare, but this was quickly discarded by the pair as “too static”. What ultimately resulted from this change of plan is a film in which movement is fundamental – from the first use of kinetic typography in the opening titles to the grand frantic chase across America in cars, planes, trains, and buses, through train stations and deserted landscapes and over national monuments. It is a film that is anything but static.
In a simple but easy-to-miss case of mistaken identity, advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is confused with elusive secret agent George Kaplan. Kidnapped by prototypical Bond villain Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), then accused of murder, he is pursued across the country with both the help and hindrance of the deceptive Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). North by Northwest is a frantically absurd yet captivating thriller now hailed as one of Hitchcock’s best, if not one of the best films ever made.
It is a film full of iconic scenes, recognisable even to those who haven’t seen it before. The frankly gratuitous crop duster sequence has been referenced in everything from Family Guy to From Russia With Love, and thus the image of Grant fleeing the crop-dusting plane has entered the collective cultural memory. This does not diminish the effect of watching the scene, but enhances it in anticipation. The staging of the crop-duster scene is more broadly interesting: it subverts expectations as Thornhill waits to meet Kaplan, the mysterious agent he has been mistaken for. The genius of the sequence lies, as Hitchcock noted in his 1962 interview with Francois Truffaut, in its antithetical approach to how such a scene normally looks; “a dark night at a narrow intersection of the city…the waiting victim standing in a pool of light under the street lamp…a shot of a window, with a furtive face pulling back the curtain to look out…”. But Thornhill is alone, in the middle of nowhere, bathed in bright light and surrounded by 360 degrees of ominously empty land, where any threat should be clearly visible. More importantly, the audience notices that, surrounded by nothing, Thornhill has nowhere to hide – he is an exposed target. Tension and paranoia builds as the audience waits for something to happen. Cars approach only to go by without stopping. A stranger appears, and swiftly leaves, but not before making the troubling observation that the plane in the distance is dusting crops where there are none.
As Hitchcock notes in the same interview, “absurdity is the nature of this film”, and this scene proves it. A man being chased by a crop-dusting aeroplane is ridiculous, but this acts nonetheless as one of the more dangerous moments within the film, as emphasised by the lack of music and absence of the usually-playful dialogue. Bookended by the darkly serious Vertigo the previous year and the shocking Psycho the year after, it is easy to see how different in nature North by Northwest is. It allowed Hitchcock to create a light-hearted, highly saturated adventure, devoid of the detailed symbolism that permeates his other movies. This direct contrast is emphasised by watching Alexandre Philippe’s new documentary 78/52, a captivating and extensive analysis of the iconic shower scene in Psycho, which makes apparent the strikingly different approaches taken by Hitchcock in directing these two films, with only a year between them. Both films can be seen in the cinema this week, but beware of analysing North by Northwest in such detail. Screenwriter Lehman had words for critics who try to search for deeper, existential meanings in the film. He labelled their musings “pretentious crap”.
North by Northwest is showing as part of the BFI’s ‘Who Can You Trust?’ season of classic thrillers until the 2nd of November. 78/52 is showing at the BFI until November 9th.