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|North by Northwest
by Mel Valentin
To find the apotheosis of Alfred Hitchcock's "wrong man"/mistaken identity/double-chase formula (i.e., eluding law enforcement authorities while attempting to exonerate himself for the crime he didn't commit), look no further than "North by Northwest." Scripted by Ernest Lehman ("Sabrina," "Sweet Smell of Success," and stage-to-screen adaptations of "West Side Story," "The Sound of Music" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"), "North by Northwest" is the perfect combination of urbane comedy, romance, suspense, mystery, and thriller. Here are some sample lines of dialogue:Roger Thornhill: In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggeration.
"Sparkling entertainment from the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock."
Eve Kendall: Roger O. Thornhill. What does the O stand for?
Roger Thornhill: Nothing.
Philip Vandamm: Seems to me you fellows could stand a little less training from the F.B.I. and a little more from the Actor's Studio.
Roger Thornhill: Now you listen to me, I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself "slightly" killed.
After the preliminary scenes that introduce the protagonist, a Madison Avenue advertising executive, Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) and the setting, New York City (circa 1959), Thornhill is mistaken for an American spy by the gun-toting associates of one Lester Townsend (James Mason). Thornhill is driven to a sprawling Glen Cove, Long Island estate, ostensibly belonging to Townsend. There, despite his urbane, witty protestations to the contrary (witty in part because Thornhill is unaware of the danger he's really in),
At the estate, Townsend accuses him of being "George Kaplan" an undercover spy for an unnamed U.S. intelligence agency (revealed in a cutaway scene to the audience early in the film, but withheld from the protagonist for the first two-thirds of the film). The scene culminates in Thornhill's attempted murder by bourbon (and car wreck). Forced to drive a car along a sea- and cliff-side highway (a favorite scenario of Hitchcock, as he proved in Suspicion, an earlier film featuring Cary Grant in a similar scene, bringing to mind one of Hitchcock's oft-quoted comments, "It's not plagiarism, if you're borrowing from yourself."), Thornhill narrowly escapes, but not before literally running into a police car.
After his arrest, Thornhill is accused of driving while intoxicated and, at his hearing, of stealing a car. Out on bail, Thornhill's first attempt to uncover the truth behind the previous night's events fails (Townsend's "wife" supports the drunk driving story). The trail leads to the "real" George Kaplan's suite in the Plaza Hotel in New York City, and later to the United Nations, where he discovers that the "Townsend" he encountered the night before was, in fact, an impersonator.
Unfortunately, before Thornhill can unearth additional details about the "false" Townsend, the real Lester Townsend is murdered in a public space surrounded by diplomats as witnesses, and a nearby photographer snaps Thornhill, knife in hand. Now a wanted fugitive (per the "wrong man" formula), Thornhill's goal is simple: find George Kaplan, while eluding the police (the “double-chase” part of the formula). Conveniently informed by Townsend's impersonator of Kaplan's itinerary (next stop Chicago, final stop, Rapid City, South Dakota), Thornhill slips onto a Chicago-bound train.
On the Chicago-bound train, Thornhill meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a seductress befitting her Biblically inspired name. The dialogue between the two characters is freighted with humor and sexual suggestiveness (risqué for the time period, but nonetheless still effective for contemporary audiences). The characters fall short of describing or revealing their true intentions to each other, except through subtext and body language). The romantic subtext via dialogue between the characters, of course, was partially dictated by the then-current Hayes Production Code, but it also served an important dramatic function: dialogue heavy on subtext supports a narrative where personal identities are fluid, where play-acting and performance are central to survival, and where objective truth is perilously elusive.
The romantic subplot culminates in an extended dialogue scene in tight quarters, a sleeping compartment aboard the train. Instead of using the 360-degree camerawork he employed in Vertigo, Hitchcock instead leaves the camera unmoved, while the characters spin and turn (and embrace each other) during their romantic exchange. This scene also introduces Bernard Hermann's love theme for the two characters, a theme, with variations, that will underscore the mutual attraction and suspicion generated by the plot's developments, complications, and reversals.
The romantic subplot inexorably leads to another plot complication: the Townsend impersonator, now revealed as Philip Vandamm, an importer/exporter of government secrets, is also linked to Eve Kendall (how, I'll leave for the audience to discover). While the romantic plot simmers (and put on temporary hold), Thornhill renews his search for George Kaplan. The search leads Thornhill outside of Chicago and into a cornfield, where the film's iconic set piece, an attack via crop-duster, occurs. Meticulously scripted by Lehman and directed by Hitchcock (who, of course, storyboarded the entire sequence), Thornhill's attempted escape from the crop-duster remains an exemplar of suspenseful filmmaking.
Once Thornhill steps off a bus at the side of an empty, desolate highway, Lehman and Hitchcock use the "slow-burn" approach to suspense: the shots cut from wide-angle camera shots, forcing Thornhill into a corner of the frame, to medium shots and close-ups that reveal his increasing agitation and confusion, as his promised rendezvous with the elusive Kaplan fails to materialize. Thornhill (and the audience) first spies the crop-duster innocently skirting the horizon. As Thornhill's discomfort grows, and as the crop-duster turns in the sky and begins its slow approach toward him, Lehman and Hitchcock have the audience's rapt attention. What's going to happen next? Will the protagonist survive and, if so, how? Effective suspense sequences are constructed around such simple, straightforward questions.
Thornhill's narrow escape leads to suspicion and doubt as to Eve's motives, and a confrontation at an art auction with Eve and Vandamm that's played both for suspense and humor, as Thornhill finds himself surrounded by Vandamm's henchmen with no viable escape route, except one: his verbal wit. As befits Hitchcock's "wrong man" formula, the protagonist rarely uses violence to escape a dangerous situation. Instead, he uses his verbal skills to hinder the villain's plans, play for time, and finally escape via a well-timed punch. Here, Thornhill's escape isn't without a trace of desperation, as he comically upends the auction's careful rules of procedure and decorum, much to the displeasure of the auctioneer and high-society patrons attending the event. Their on-camera displeasure, however, is just one of a multitude of pleasures experienced by viewers firmly engaged in the narrative and its reversals and complications.
The auction scene provides the second act with its climax: a senior intelligence official, the "Professor" (Leo G. Carroll, giving a typically wry, understated performance) introduced briefly in the earlier cutaway scene, soon reveals George Kaplan’s “real” identity to Thornhill. Thornhill's actions at the auction, however, lead to the third act, with the resolution of the preliminary questions initially propelling the narrative, the new question driving the narrative seamlessly combines both the main plotline and the romantic subplot: Thornhill is no longer interested in just saving and exonerating himself, but in saving someone he's inadvertently placed at risk. That, in a nutshell, is the character arc for the main character: from ego-centrism to selflessness, from self-interest to altruism (with altruism leading to monogamous romantic attachment).
The third act leads to a carefully orchestrated confrontation between Thornhill, Vandamm, and Eve at the Mount Rushmore information center and itself culminates in an extended, bravura set piece, with Thornhill first discovering the villain's plans via (convenient) eavesdropping at their mountain hideaway, and an attempted night-time escape with Eve above, across, and beneath Mount Rushmore with the villain and his henchmen in close pursuit. The third action sequence in North by Northwest is a blend of location work, matte paintings, and sound stage, with Hitchcock's camerawork and visual compositions, the rhythmic editing that tightens the sequence and length of shots, and, of course, the musical score by Bernard Hermann, helping to underscore the increasing danger experienced by the main character and the female lead asNorth by Northwest cuts to a brief denouement and consummation (and, of course, the train speeding through the tunnel, one of Hitchcock's better jokes played at the expense of the censorship code).
No review or analysis of North by Northwest, however, is complete without a discussion of the film's underlying themes of play-acting, performance, and double and secret identities necessary to survive in a duplicitous world steeped in Cold War (and utilitarian) calculations about the ultimate good. In the first scene that introduces our protagonist, we're invited into a world where, as he himself says, "In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggeration." These memorable lines serve to introduce the audience into the world of shifting, mutable identities, and to amplify the film's opening credits, a grid of horizontal and vertical lines (by graphic designer-turned-title-designer Saul Bass) that dissolve to reveal the facade of a glass and steel New York City skyscraper. The audience can't see the interior of the building (hidden from view by the treated glass and the reflection of the late afternoon sun), but the building's windows reflect back the bustling multitudes. Surface and appearance, and the hidden depths and meanings underlying the narrative, are thus subtly introduced through graphic representation as part of the credit sequence.
Thornhill's introduction, as an advertising executive who essentially lies and exaggerates for a living, serves to verbalize and further visualize the film's themes, but they also serve to assist the audience in suspending disbelief: his verbal dexterity, exemplified by his financial success and social status, will immediately come into play as he attempts to talk himself out of the increasingly complex and dangerous situations engineered by hostile forces. But as the narrative unfolds, Thornhill's identity as an advertising man proves insufficient to overcome the plot's obstacles. In fact, despite his initial protestations, he gradually begins to assume the identity of the elusive George Kaplan. Humor is teased from the confusion in identities at various points, as secondary characters Thornhill encounters begin to identify him as George Kaplan.
In an early scene, both the hotel maid and valet both confuse him for Kaplan, not because his appearance matches Kaplan, but because they've never seen Kaplan and presume the man in his hotel room must, in fact, be Kaplan himself (a kind of tortured logic reminiscent of the witch-burning scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail). The scene concludes with the villain's henchmen calling Kaplan's room on the hotel's telephone. Thornhill, of course, objects to being called Kaplan, but as one of the villain's henchmen cheerfully points out to him, he's answering Kaplan's phone.
Duplicity and multiple identities run deeply throughout the plot: besides Thornhill's (forced) impersonation of Kaplan, Vandamm is first introduced impersonating a UN official, Lester Townsend (with Vandamm's sister impersonating his wife). Eve Kendall may or may not be what she seems (her identity plays a key role in driving the plot's complications). Even the Professor's appearance is deceiving: bespectacled and middle-aged, his appearance belies an utter ruthlessness (one character accuses him of callousness) that lies just beneath his avuncular appearance. The theme of duplicity can be taken even further, as Vandamm's personal secretary, Leonard (Martin Landau), is coded as a closeted gay character. He refers, at one point, to his woman's intuition; at another, Vandamm points out his jealousy over Vandamm's relationship with Eve.
On the level of dialogue, Lehman reinforced these themes through references to performance and play-acting peppered unobtrusively throughout the screenplay. For example, in Vandamm's first appearance, Lehman has Vandamm close the curtains, darkening the room, focusing the audience's attention (a gesture best read as a theatrical reference, as the conflict over real and assumed identities begins in earnest). Vandamm dialogue connects action to subtext: "With such expert play-acting, you make this room a very theatre." Later in the film, Vandamm chides Thornhill for overplaying his various roles, including the "peevish lover, stung by jealousy and betrayal."This nuanced treatment of the film's layered themes then is just one more reason among many, including plot construction, dialogue, performance, cinematography by Robert Burks, editing by George Tomasini, and, of course, Bernard Hermann's unique musical score, to reaffirm "North by Northwest's" reputation as one of Hitchcock's most entertaining films. Highly recommended, without reservation.
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originally posted: 05/25/05 01:09:32