North By Northwest (USA 1959)

nbnwestIf anyone has doubts about the power of mistaken identity and its place in fiction, look no further than here. The many takes on it through the years have diminished its real power as a storytelling device. As a comedy trick, it is cheap and dull. But as a dramatic trick… there is real force behind it. Everyone dreads being alone in a time of crisis, not having anyone believe them and feeling like they are sinking further into a pit that’s growing ever deeper.

A good filmmaker can use the idea of mistaken identity in a tense situation to tackle these fears. And Hitchcock most certainly is a few steps above a good filmmaker. In fact, he is at his best here. Vertigo may be his best shot film from an artistic point of view. Rear Window  is his most interestingly shot movie perspective-wise. But this is Hitchcock showing his truest colours. All the tropes of his directorial style are on full display and are in fine shape.

To give a one-sentence synopsis: An advertising executive, Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) is mistaken for a secret agent from the authorities and must go on the run. What follows is a wild yet deft 136 minutes of what I believe to be Hitchcock’s most obviously entertaining film. Pulses pound as the characters move like chess pieces around a well-written, twisting and turning storyline that causes many iconic scenes. The most famous when Thornhill runs from a crop duster craft. It is everything an action scene should be, and the isolation kicks every element up a few notches. Its very contrived and artificial too!

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Every element is well-executed. The dialogue is interesting, as it is in many Hitchcock movies. In fact, one of Hitchcock’s most underrated talents is writing-dialogue. He wasn’t the best but he knew that dialogue is the key to making interesting characters that are more than just pieces in a puzzle. He may have believed that actors are cattle, but one can tell from watching his films that he knows the importance of characters. His dialogue is natural yet profound, and while depicting catch phrases and fads from that era would make the movies seem dated, the intelligent, understated way he talks about the issues of his time here and there make the movies seem like they are proudly representing their time.

The difference is between decay and grandeur, between the many ephemeral leaders of Rome and the never-fading Roman culture. The acting is more than fine. Cary Grant puts on a believable and thorough performance. In some of the quieter scenes, it is what makes the film work. Eva Marie Saint adds spice and edge to a role that would have been ordinary had it been performed by a less actress. Hitchcock is known as the Mater of Suspense and this film shows you why; it takes all sorts of twists and turns. One of the trademarks of Hitchcock films is their ability to appear like they’re one type of film before seamlessly yet starkly transitioning to another.  I have seen no other director that can pull off this trick so well.

The score represents Hitchcock’s best on that front. This score is big and booming and dynamic. The fifties were riddled with over the top scores but Hitchcock knows how to use it in a way that cuts through the inherent cheesiness of the idea and turn it into an impressive tool to underscore the many important moments of the film. Give the soundtrack a listen; it is perhaps even more impressive on its own. If I was given one word to describe this movie, I would choose iconic. This is the sort of movie that deserves to be watched, to be passed down from generation to generation and held up as one of the hallmarks of great cinema.

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Comments

  1. Actually it is my uncle, ernest Lehman, who wrote the screenplay for North By Northwest.

    Liked by 2 people

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