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North by Northwest: James Bond by Hitchcock

Thriller Thursdays: An advertising executive gets mistaken for an agent, is chased by assassins, runs for his life, and falls in love with a beautiful woman who just might be playing games and putting him into further danger

North by Northwest: James Bond by Hitchcock
  • Sunil Bhandari

Last Updated: 07.04 PM, Sep 22, 2022

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In our weekly column, Thriller Thursdays, we recommend specially-curated thrillers that’ll send a familiar chill down your spine.

I guess there would be several films in the rich oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock which would qualify as his ‘best’, Psycho, Rear Window and Vertigo immediately come to mind. But there would be very few (maybe To Catch a Thief) which could match the sheer glamorous charm of North by Northwest! It has an irresistible charisma and an infinitesimal quality which pulls the viewer in for repeat viewings. It has to do as much with its breath-neck pace as it has to do with its smart writing and its now-famed set pieces.

The film revels in the Hitchcockian vein of acerbic humour from the first scenes of a busy New York street. Cary Grant is running late for an appointment, looking frightfully debonair even as he dictates to his secretary in the middle of the thronging crowds. In response to one of her remarks, he responds, “In the world of advertising there is no such thing as a lie. There’s only the expedient exaggeration.” Hitchcock obviously takes this advice to heart for his world of filmmaking too!

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Cary Grant is Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive, very quickly mistaken for a government agent, with a gun pointed at his heart whilst doing an official meeting in a hotel bar. And then there ensues a car ride between two obvious no-gooders, and Thornhill realises he is being kidnapped. He is taken to a massive villa belonging to Lester Townsend, who turns out to be a watchful, inquiring, sarcastic, and a threatening James Mason — who keeps calling Thornhill, Kaplan, and asks him questions he has no idea about.

A case, obliviously, of mistaken identities! But the villains have a very tough time believing any of Thornhill's protestations. And the film hurtles towards its first set piece, with a completely sloshed Cary Grant driving a car on the edge of a perilous cliff-side road! It’s shot on Cary Grant’s terrified face as he realises he’s headed for potential death and edited with shots of a careening dangerous road; it's a humorous and fun and exciting and dangerous sequence, played, as is the whole film - for laughs and suspense!

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And that’s just the beginning of a chase, with assassins after Thornhill, and he tries to unravel the mystery of the missing Kaplan. What ensues is an iconic United Nations moment (which was legendarily shot surreptitiously by Hitchcock), a train journey with the luscious Eva Marie Saint, a gorgeously-lingering happily-unending kiss, a ripper of a dust cropper plane scene, a suspense-laden and hilarious auction sequence, and finally a denouement amidst the noses of Abe Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, and Roosevelt on the granite face of Mount Rushmore.

Only too often we have films failing in their transitions from one set piece to another, but North by Northwest completely invests in sharpening its narrative to make the proceedings continuously disruptive and surprising. Thrown into the concoction is blackmail, double-cross, romance, espionage, double-double-cross, shootings, assassination - whew, the works! It could well be James Bond in the hands of the triple-chinned director. And does it work - oh how!

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The script is punctuated with sly diversions which are integrated into the plot with a wink and a bullet. And everything is a rip-roaring adventure. Cary Grant, one can see, is having a ball. And why not, he’s got funny lines to spout and again gets to kiss (and carry on kissing) a beautiful blonde. What is not fully acknowledged in the annals of cinematic history is Hitchcock's ability to get the tender scene beautifully calibrated. His love scenes are managed with incredible finesse and escalating passion. The gentleness he evokes in his largely-interrupted love stories acts as a fine counterbalance to the suspense and villainy he engenders.

North by Northwest thus has humour, seamlessness, and a terrific subterranean level of dread which is gorgeously filmed. The last sequence, in particular, is stunning in its conception and execution. Who could ever conceive that four presidents of the USA would lend their faces to such a terrific action sequence of light, shadow, and suspense.

Cary Grant carries off this adventure with elan and Eva Saint Maire carries on her character’s ambiguity with terrific verisimilitude. And in the spirit of things, James Mason is a smooth and cool operator, who is very subtly loved by his henchman Leonard (Martin Landau) who famously spouts the line "Call it my woman's intuition". And they are lovingly written by Ernest Lehman, who balances the Hitchcockian ingredients with consummate style and ease.

This film, though made in 1959, is completely ageless. There is so much to love in this paean to the power of the moving image.

Trivia:

  1. Hitchcock has often mentioned of the idea he had conceptualized of Cary Grant hiding inside Abraham Lincoln's nose in Mount Rushmore and being found out when he sneezes. Hitchcock said that he could well have called the film The Man in Lincoln's Nose or The Man Who Sneezed in Lincoln's Nose.
  2. Fashion experts of GQ magazine polled that the grey suit worn by Cary Grant throughout the film was most influential on men's fashion and styling. It has been copied by Tom Cruise in Collateral and Ben Affleck in Paycheck, to take just two examples.
  3. The helicopter chase in From Russia with Love was largely inspired by the iconic crop-duster scene in the film.

Watch North by Northwest here.

(Views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of OTTplay)

(Written by Sunil Bhandari, a published poet and host of the podcast ‘Uncut Poetry’)

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