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  North by Northwest Travel Broadens The Mind
Year: 1959
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, Leo G. Carroll, Josephine Hutchinson, Philip Ober, Martin Landau, Adam Williams, Edward Platt, Robert Ellenstein, Les Tremayne, Philip Coolidge, Patrick McVey, Edward Binns, Ken Lynch
Genre: ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  9 (from 1 vote)
Review: Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) leads a busy life as a Madison Avenue advertising executive, and with two divorces behind him and a domineering mother to negotiate he barely has time to visit his gentlemen's club to have a drink with his friends. Today as he sits down with them he is distracted because he told his secretary to phone his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) when he now realises she won't be in, so when the page is calling out about a telegram Thornhill asks him over and inquires if he can take a message for him. The page can't but tells him to step this way to the desk - whereupon two burly men approach...

And so Roger Thornhill is spirited away to a land where nobody believes him when he says he is not who or what they think he is, in this, possibly the most perfect of Alfred Hitchcock's man on the run thrillers. A lot of that was down to experience: the great director had helmed so many of these by this point that North by Northwest could be viewed as a greatest hits package by an artist whose audience knew what they wanted to hear, and he was only too happy to play those familiar tunes for them like a beloved entertainer on his last tour. This was not his final film, of course, for he still had a trick or two up his sleeve with Psycho.

You could observe that psychological horror film turned out to be his most influential, yet as the years go by and not one summer or Christmas season goes by without yet more adventures with innocent men (or occasionally, women) hounded by sinister forces, it is Hitch's innovations here which seem to have truly tapped into an archetype of cinema. The sense of injustice when someone is accused of something they haven't done, in his hands, became a parable about the plastic nature of reality, where you can be plodding - or skipping, depending on your mood - along and suddenly everything you took for granted has fallen away under your feet, leaving a void of confusion.

Hitchcock, working with screenwriter Ernest Lehmann, concocted an outlandish plot that only appeared authentic because we were as much in the dark as Thornhill was, at least for the first forty minutes and then we are thrown a sop from these two so we can gain a different perspective on events. Crucially, when government man Leo G. Carroll showed up it merely made this all the more imperative that our unaware hero should see the light sooner rather than later: this had the precision of a Swiss watch when it came to building the tension and allowing it to ebb and flow as comedy and romance entered the mix. Grant was obviously a past master at those, but it was the confusion which gave him an edge.

This could be a story of one man's awakening from dull corporate life into something far more vital and world-threatening, transforming him from a nobody - a rather well-off nobody who thinks he owes society as little as he can get away with - into the sort of superspy James Bond would quickly become, another cultural icon this film would leave its influence upon. Thornhill, like Bond, travels around, fires off quips, gets into perilous situations and romances an available beauty, in this case the woman he meets on the train, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). She could be the typical Hitchcock blonde, but she contains hidden depths, fittingly for a plot where nothing should be taken at face value.

That quality of not knowing what and what not to believe is so very modern it defined the paranioa of not only countless thrillers to come, but the overriding sense of wondering what the hell is going on that many came to accept as part and parcel of living in the twenty-first century, yet somehow, no matter how disquieting it should have been, North by Northwest kept it fleet-footed, dancing around its themes by jumping from serious action setpiece to a scene heavy with innuendo or outright laughter. The sequence where Thornhill finds himself in the middle of a flat, infinite nowhere and realises that cropduster plane has it in for him as much as all the strangers he has encountered was peerless in its suspense, yet there was a sly humour to the meetings with main villain Philip Vandamm, with James Mason at his silkiest and most sinister. Through it all, from the initial kidnap to the finale at Mount Rushmore, there was Cary Grant, a funny kind of everyman if you think about it, but embodying the grace, strength and wit we would all like to think we would approach in the chaos. And Bernard Herrmann's playful, driving music was quite brilliant.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Alfred Hitchcock  (1899 - 1980)

Hugely influential British director, renowned as "The Master of Suspense" for his way with thrillers. His first recognisably Hitchcockian film was The Lodger, but it was only until Blackmail (the first British sound film) that he found his calling. His other 1930s films included a few classics: Number Seventeen, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes, Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.

Producer David O. Selznick gave Hitchcock his break in Hollywood directing Rebecca, and he never looked back. In the forties were Suspicion, thinly veiled propaganda Foreign Correspondent, the single set Lifeboat, Saboteur, Notorious, Spellbound (with the Salvador Dali dream sequence), Shadow of a Doubt (his personal favourite) and technician's nightmare Rope.

In the fifties were darkly amusing Strangers on a Train, I Confess, Dial M for Murder (in 3-D), rare comedy The Trouble with Harry, Rear Window, a remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, To Catch a Thief, the uncharacteristic in style The Wrong Man, the sickly Vertigo, and his quintessential chase movie, North By Northwest. He also had a successful television series around this time, which he introduced, making his distinctive face and voice as recognisable as his name.

The sixties started strongly with groundbreaking horror Psycho, and The Birds was just as successful, but then Hitchcock went into decline with uninspired thrillers like Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz. The seventies saw a return to form with Frenzy, but his last film Family Plot was disappointing. Still, a great career, and his mixture of romance, black comedy, thrills and elaborate set pieces will always entertain. Watch out for his cameo appearances in most of his films.

 
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