Monday, June 27, 2016

North by Northwest (1959)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Ernest Lehman
DP: Robert Burks
Editor: George Tomasini
Score: Bernard Hermann
Producer: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau
Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Length: 2 hrs. 16 min.

North by Northwest is not about anything, in the sense that Rear Window is about voyeurism or Psycho about guilt. In a different sense, it's about the expression on Cary Grant's face when Thornhill's mother laughs along with the film's villains. It's about Mount Rushmore seen close-up, just a bunch of rocks. It's about the edits in the scene of Eve and Thornhill's first meeting and the scene in which Leonard exposes the truth to Vandamm.

Perpendicular green and purple lines cross each other and become the facade of an office building whose glass windows bear a warped reflection of the world below, like the world's biggest funhouse mirror. Shots of mass movements of people characterize the city, with cuts underlining the flourishes of the music. Then an individual emerges from the crowd, walking directly at us.

It doesn't matter who Thornhill is before the film's plot takes off, it just matters that he's one man in a chaotic landscape, and that he has a basically comprehensible personality. And he does: he talks quickly, has apparently infinite supply of witty comebacks ready, has no qualms about lying his way into a taxi cab, and never seems afraid so much as annoyed and moved to action. He's not a moral paragon, nor does he represent anything special; all that matters is that he has charisma.

This is because his background doesn't matter to what happens throughout the film. The plot consists of his efforts to survive after being mistaken for someone else. He scrapes by with three things: his personality, which occasionally lets him pull one over on people; the material details of his surroundings that occasionally offer him hiding places or lines of flight; and the fact that there's one person he can trust.

The film passes through American icons: sophisticated elements of metropolitan life, the wide cornfields of America's heartland, and Mount Rushmore, where the old presidents insist on their own importance. But there's no room for these to act as mystical images: because of what Thornhill needs, they're treated as physical objects. In the city, Thornhill bumps into and nudges people because it's too crowded; in the cornfields, he gets down among the dry leaves and dirt; on Mount Rushmore, he struggles with contours in the rocks.

For us, these things bring some texture and gravitas, but that's it. They offer no depths to dig into. What matters in this film is only what matters to the main characters. Thornhill's improvised hyper-competence works as counterpoint to Hitchcock's famous manipulation: camera movement reworks our understanding of Thornhill's circumstances in a way that identifies with him, but he's so confident and quick to act that we have to wonder just what about his brain functions differently from ours - especially given his bizarre but very funny behavior regarding his mother.

Do I think the film is particularly incisive? Not really, but I like how there's nothing comforting about Americana, and the unexpected things it pulls into the fold of what matters to it. Take Eve Kendall: it takes a while, perhaps too long, before we understand that she's basically the same kind of character as Thornhill, a highly competent person faced with extraordinary challenges. At first she's an accessory to Thornhill's charisma (though the editing and lighting afford her a deeper status than accessory as early as their first meeting). That's undercut when she's revealed as femme fatale; our final impression of her undercuts that. We could probably attribute our shifting sense of her to Hitchcock and his infamously disconcerting treatment of women characters, but North by Northwest diverges from some of his other films, at least, by clearly revealing her goals to have no connection to any psychosexual conflict between her and some male character. And because of where she ends up, and exactly what the film romanticizes with visual cues, her relationship with Thornhill goes deeper than mutual attraction; rather, it's an instance of mutual trust, a rare thing indeed in North by Northwest's elaborate and constantly growing network of deceptions.

But their relationship isn't the only one: there's also that between Vandamm and Leonard. Though they may be the antagonists, they're still charismatic, and all the film's characters have a certain amorality about them; even Thornhill couldn't be called noble. Vandamm and Leonard's relationship is the only other trust relationship in the film, and near the end, in a moment when one completely lays out the truth to the other, the film employs similar editing tricks to those which had been used earlier to create intimacy between Eve and Thornhill during their first meeting, cutting away from Thornhill's perspective as he watches them to alternating close-ups that eliminate any distance between them. It's the closest Hitchcock ever got to homoeroticism after Rope (which is largely Martin Landau's doing, since that's what he was going for), and it treats this relationship, like that between Eve and Thornhill, as an island of mutual trust in an ocean of falsity.

At one point in the film, a character reviews the events of the plot and says: "So horribly sad. Why do I feel like laughing?" North by Northwest may not be very weighty, but it's not unaware of itself; we feel like laughing because the movie is funny, even if the events depicted aren't. Maybe that's cavalier, and maybe any number of other things in the movie are too. But it seems to me that it has other goals in mind as well, or at least that some of its manipulations end up serving us fairly well.

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