North by Northwest

Sunday, May 11, 2008


There are no two ways about it, North by Northwest is a sexy film. Just take the exchanges on the train or the film's final image or even the homoerotic banter between James Mason and Martin Landau. The whole film reeks of sex.

It's quite fun watching the film back and noticing all the subtle, and not so subtle, allusions to horizontal activity. The most explicit is the conversation between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. The flirty banter is superb, as is the scene that follows it. For all intents and purposes it's a sex scene, but because Hitchcock wasn't able to get away with that at that time he had to be creative, and as a result the scene is perhaps even sexier. But perhaps flying slightly under the radar is the relationship between James Mason and Martin Landau. Sure, years later, plenty of film academics have pointed out the homoeroticism that is present, but it's fun to ponder whether the original audiences picked up on it. I mean, just listen to some of the dialogue: 'call it my woman's intuition if you will.' 'Why Leonard, I do believe you're jealous! I'm actually very flattered!' And then there's the fight they have. It's like a sex scene. There are two close ups, the money shot and then one slumps down into an armchair and the other stands there, grimacing in pain and relief. But if you want to analyse it in even more depth, there's the fact that the argument starts with a gun. Only its the girl's gun and it fires blanks. The emptiness of heterosexuality, perhaps? Probably not, but like I said, it's fun to theorise. Oh, and while I'm on this train of thought, James Mason says 'Gay surroundings' with a distinct emphasis. I wonder if he's trying to tell us something?

There's also a Freudian kink to the relationship between Thornhill and his mother. She looks the same age as him and they act like a married couple. In fact, at the start of the film, it seems as if Roger can't do anything without her. She's the one he phones when he gets arrested and she's the one that he takes on his early adventures. She's only ditched when he comes across a better prospect - Eve Kendall.

But that reminds me of one of my favourite scenes. I love Cary Grant's drunk performance in the police station. It's bloody hilarious. I love the drunken conversation with his mother ('No, they didn't give me a chaser') and the drunken conversation with the doctor ('How much did you drink?' 'This much,' Grant replies with his arms stretched wide apart). Grant's comic acting is impeccable.

Another favourite comic scene is the auction scene. Again Grant's acting is magnificent. The way that he antagonises the auctioneer is superb and the fight is hilarious. And I also love the scene where Thornhill returns to the house. No one can do dignified bemusement quite like Cary Grant.

Less convincing, however, in my opinion, is James Mason. He's certainly got the urbane charm that the character Vandamm demands but I just don't find him threatening enough. In many ways he's quite a forgettable Hitchcock villain. The only thing that makes him memorable to me is his relationship with Martin Landau.

I also find the final action scene a bit disappointing. I don't think that it quite has enough energy. Plus Mason seems nonplussed at having been caught. Yes that's his character – always cool and in control – but it does deny the audience the satisfaction of his capture. However, the film redeems itself with its final image. I can imagine Hitchcock chuckling to himself at having got away with it.

But while I'm coming up with criticisms, I also have to say that the film is a little light. Certainly it's a very amusing film with some terrific dialogue, but it doesn't live as long in the memory as, say, Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window or even The Birds. And the story, when you sit down and think about it, is completely forgettable. You remember the great scenes and the great moments, but only lip service is paid to the Cold War and the business about the microfilm. It's entirely superfluous.

However, it's easy to ignore the more forgettable elements when there is so much worth remembering. Just take the crop dusting scene, the UN murder, every moment on the train, the terrific musical score and the fantastic dialogue. It's not quite a feast but it's a damn good snack.

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by Ernest Lehman
Original Music by Bernard Herrmann
Cinematography by Robert Burks
Edited by George Tomasini

Running Time: 131 mins

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