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.

Roger Thornhill believes he can change the world by thinking about it. He tells himself "think thin," hoping to lose weight. He works in advertising.

The film properly starts when the tables are turned on him. He gets mixed up in a confusion between fantasy and reality and suddenly finds himself dealing with hard, uncompromising matter. He encounters icons - the wide cornfields of America's heartland and later Mount Rushmore - but the social import of these images is rendered irrelevant. Because of what Thornhill needs, they're treated as physical objects. In the cornfields, he gets down among the dry leaves and dirt; on Mount Rushmore, he struggles with contours in the rocks.

His material struggles were engineered by politicians and high-end criminals. We see they live in the world he used to live in: the world of mansions, comfortable hotels, and good suits. Eventually Thornhill finds himself in an auction house, back among the people who occupy this world; his escape is to break the rules.

Do I think the film is particularly incisive? Not really, but I like how things are exposed as really being nothing more than dirt and rocks, its recognition of material necessity under the symbolic world of high society. And I like its depiction of romance: cinematically, Thornhill and Eve Kendall's relationship is primarily one of mutual trust, a reprieve from the deception and privation that makes up the rest of the movie. It's a different kind of security than that which opulence promises.

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 partly 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 privation.

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