Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Great Alphabet of Films—N is For

North by Northwest

      I would love to include a Coen brothers film in my Alphabet. No Country for Old Men is a tremendous contemporary film, but North by Northwest is one of the greatest films, period. Not to mention, Fargo is their best film, but Fight Club won that close contest (Sorry Coens). I also love The Natural (who doesn't love Roy Hobbs!?) and National Lampoons: Animal House (the father of the "gross-out genre") is one of the greatest comedies of all-time—my buddies and I even hosted a Toga party in honor of Blutarsky (played by the sorely missed, John Belushi). Network (the recently deceased Sidney Lumet) provides one of the most powerful scenes in the history of cinema, complements of the immortal Peter Finch, and his rousing "Mad As Hell" monologue. Lest we even forget, the 1927 film, Napoleon (Abel Gance), a landmark silent French film for its use of handheld cameras and editing. As you can clearly see, every letter presents a unique challenge. It's my job to ascertain which film deserves the highest acclaim, given my tastes and sensibilities. By simply adhering to this stipulation, my pick is North by Northwest, from legendary director Alfred Hitchcock.
      Often considered Hitchcock's last great film (not by me as he made Psycho afterwards), North by Northwest tells the story of New York advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant). Thornhill, trapped in a kind of real world nightmare, is quietly abducted by a gang of armed spies, who unwittingly believe he is CIA agent George Kaplan. After braving a series of perils, Thornhill manages to escape, but his identity-nightmare persists. He must find Kaplan in order to clear himself of a murder it is believed he committed. Following Kaplan to Chicago as a fugitive from justice, Thornhill is helped by beautiful Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). In Chicago, she delivers a message to Kaplan that almost costs Thornhill his life. In what is regarded as one of Hitchcock's greatest scenes, Thornhill is chased across a cornfield by a crop-dusting plane. He barely survives, but he's able to deduce the identity of his perplexing tormentor. He is a fellow named Philip Vandamm (James Mason), and his presence poses a troubling set of circumstances for Thornhill, as Eve is in bed with Vandamm, in every sense of the phrase—or is she? That's what I call a Hitchcockian cliffhanger. 

      Alfred Hitchock's North by Northwest is a suspenseful, charming, and purposeful tour of some of America's most picturesque landmarks. Characterized by a lightning fast romance and some unfettered intrigue, the scenic tour de force is all done complements of a sprightly, witty and refined style—matching the polish of its legendary star. The mysteries of North by Northwest are not meant to be taken too seriously. Hitchcock's sophisticated direction is defined by a tongue-in-cheek attitude and a buoyant sense of humor. Right from the outset, Grant paces along in top gear as Hitchcock and Lehman spin this somewhat improbable yarn of a once successful, handsome big city executive, who is frantically pushed into a succession of macabre situations that astound, bewilder, and antagonize our once-debonair hero.
      Cary Grant, a seasoned, prolific pupil of the Hitchcock school of directing, was tailor-made for the role of the Madison Avenue executive. The owner of salient charm, Grant deftly inhabits the resolute whimsy of Thornhill. He maneuvers the grimaces, the surprises, the delights, and the romancing with a professional aplomb and grace. With his sharp line delivery and a convivial glint in his eye, Grant calls to memory, the Golden Age appeal rarely seen anymore. His effortless grace, dashing looks, and impeccable wardrobe helped make North by Northwest the most stylish film of all-time (according to GQ Magazine). The sharp grey suit has become a staple of a Hollywood that is dependent upon ephemeral looks, eternal flare, and exceptional style. Still, Grant's timeless charisma would dominate, even today's fickle celebrity times.
       In casting Eva Marie Saint as his romantic counterpart, Mr. Hitchcock has plumbed some newfound talents from the elegant actress. She is duplicitous, but sympathetic. Although, she is seemingly a callous, designing type, she also emerges as a luscious heroine and a glamorous charmer. Martin Landau, Jessie Royce Landis, James Mason, and Leo G. Carroll (among others) all contribute to the dynamic ensemble, providing genuinely funny moments, sinister elements, and harmonious appeal.
      The complications facing Thornhill are introduced with about the same swift alacrity as the ever-changing scenery, whose vastness is mesmerizing in appearance. Mr. Hitchcock paints travel as a diverting and breathtaking adventure, quickly shifting from such locales as the Plaza Hotel and the United Nations Headquarters, to the swanky Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago, to a vast, barren Midwest cornfield, and finally to the stately Mount Rushmore. 
      The burgeoning romance between Thornhill and Eve is embellished by the sounds of smooth, romantic dialogue. The train scene, for instance, elevates their romantic interlude to an intemperate height. Their infectious chemistry is a fitting tribute to the outstanding talent of Hitchcock and company. Part of Hitchcock's genius is his snap ability to frame great shots, coordinate marvelous set pieces, stage thrilling action sequences, and sprinkle ballsy innuendos. Consequently, North by Northwest is a startling, cinematic accomplishment, benefiting from magnificent acting, a rarefied script, unrivaled direction, and an exhilarating score. 
      Ernest Lehman's script is defined by an artful narrative structure and quick-witted dialogue. Bernard Herman's orchestral score enhances the mood, proving to be as dazzling with musical tones as Hitchcock is with his camerawork. Quite simply, North by Northwest is a match made in cinematic heaven. With a premise that is often imitated, but never matched, Hitchcock's film surpasses today's standards, not because of its classical concernment, but because its one of the finest examples of a film, where everything hits the right visceral note.  

*North by Northwest Trailer


  1. Haven't seen all the films you mention here, but I share your love of "No Country for Old Men". But there is something about those old films. Cary Grant looks impeccable whatever he does (or did!). I can't make up my mind whether Psycho or The Birds was better.

  2. I have seen most if not all the films you suggested, although you left out "Oh, Brother Where art thou?", which I love.
    I love N X NW. We had BW tv, so that is what I will always think as its format. That train scene, where seduction is heavy in the air! I know how small those cabins are, and Hitchcock made sure we were aware of the confines for the romance, by the way the two stars moved around in the cabin. Great post.

  3. I love North By Northwest. It's been awhile since I've seen it, though. Eva Marie Saint was such a wonderful actress and you so rarely hear her mentioned anymore. I loved her best when paired with Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.

    I LOVE the Coen Brothers and I'd have a tough time trying to pick between Fargo and No Country for Old Men. I always assumed they'd never top the greatness of Fargo ...but I loved No Country. It's one of the best films of the decade.

  4. Excellent choice. A great movie.

    My opersonal choice for a Coen Brithers film would be The Big Lebowski, by a mile. You do still have T to go...

  5. Truly a great movie, and you describe it so well; although the Mount Rushmore scenes are almost unbelievable with all that climbing around the faces. Thanks for reminding me again of one of the greatest movies ever made.

  6. A first class film all the way - and although I agree with you not Hitch's last great film - certainly Psycho, and also I think The Birds and even Frenzy have to be thrown in to that ring to battle it out. The airplane scene - so iconic James Bond was borrowing from it just four years later - the shooting in the hotel lobby - the climax, involving a President's proboscis...(you know what the original title almost was, right?)I wish Hitchcock could have been regenerated as a young filmmaker around the time he left us (1980) as he was pulling off shots and sequences miles ahead of the technology eventually invented to get shots like he was using - imagine what he could have done with Steadicam...Wescam...CGI...
    I love the cast - Martin Landau was so damned sinister when he was young and super skinny! Cary Grant could read the newspaper to himself in the next room from the camera with the door closed and I'd still watch...I've always found Eva Marie Saint a tiny bit too cold and aloof to be one of my faves - but her casting is spot on in this role accordingly. Wonderful post - well chosen once again! Thanks for letting us share! Cheers!

  7. this is what I'm talking about! Cary Grant is the best. my all time fave.
    happy n day =)

  8. n is for... Nicolas Cage arrested :( Oh no...

  9. This film truly remains as one of the greatest pieces of filmmaking created by one of the industries true patrons of the arts.

  10. *added it to my 'to see' list!*

    Thanks! :-)

  11. Agreed. Good movie. Love the film theme!

  12. excellent movie choices! (adding some of them to my netflix list)

  13. @ Lauracea

    Thanks! I prefer Psycho, but The Birds is fantastic too. Old films capture the magic of storytelling in a more honest manner than a lot of today's cinema. But there's still a lot of great filmmakers today who are working hard to keep our imaginations roaming wild.

    @ Susan

    Thanks! Yeah, the Coens are wholly original and they espouse their own unique, off-beat sensibility, which i greatly admire.

    And the train scene is just a wonderful way to illustrate the rapid intensity of their brisk romance. Great point!

    @ Laura

    No Country is definitely one of the best of the decade. It really channels that old school tension and suspense. It's just a marvelous work of visual art.

    And Saint is remarkable in this film and On The Waterfront, which is another amazing film!

  14. @ mooderino

    Haha, I do still have "T" to go. The Big Lebowski is quite possibly my favorite comedy of all-time. It's hilarious, incredibly quotable, and truly original. Thanks for reminding me about that one!

    @ Clipped Wings

    Thank you! And I just love Hitchcock's keen visual eye for landscapes and big spectacles. The Man of Suspense is also a man of tremendous visual bravado. He takes us on our own little tour of the country!

  15. @ Craig

    Thanks! And your observations are all spot-on. Hitchcock's genius would be well suited for today's technical advancements. I would love to see how he would incorporate steadicam and CGI into his innovative camerawork. I know it would transcend our minds.

    Something along the lines of The Man on Lincoln's Nose, lol. I think there were a few working titles.

    Landau is a grossly underrated actor. I love his work, almost always! And Saint can be hit or miss, but she was remarkable here. Hitchcock really knows how to get the most from his actors.

    @ Tara

    Thanks! Cary is probably the greatest American Male Movie Star Ever. Certainly, top 3! Along with Bogart and whoever else you want to throw in there.

    @ Niki

    Haha! Really? I'm gonna google that.

    @ Jaccstev

    I couldn't say it better myself. You are too right, my friend!

    @ K.C.

    You're welcome. Be prepared to be awed!

    @ L.G. Smith

    Thanks! The film theme was an easy idea for me since my content is pretty much, film-centric.

    @ Karen

    Awesome! And if that's the case, then my work here is done, lol. Hopefully, I can convince a few to see it or re-watch it, in many cases!

    @ baygirl

    Nice! Netflix is too awesome! Glad to serve your Blockbuster needs.

    And thank you!

  16. Hitchcock went horror after this movie. The 60s changed him... PSYCHO, BIRDS, FRENZY

  17. What a cool twist on the A to Z challenge - you are the first blog I've come across dedicated to films and its been a blast looking through your site. Thanks for popping into Tiptoe-Kisses - sorry you caught me on a cheating blogging day:)

  18. Carey Grant certainly was one of a kind. He is perhaps one of my all time favorite actors. His performance here in North By Northwest was pitch perfect. And Eva Marie Saint, she was stellar. Hitchcock did love his sophisticated blondes, though. I can't think of one of his main females who wasn't except maybe Julie Andrews in Torn Curtain. Then again her hair was rather dark blonde.

    NBNW is one of my favorite Hitchcock films, but Psycho still tips it for me. Perkins rules as Norman Bates.

  19. @ MOMM

    You are so true. And perhaps, it was a conscious change resulting from the brutalities of the 60's (and I'm not trying to generalize that era because the 60's were also a period of enormous growth, economically, individually, and civically).

    All great films!

    @ Lindsay

    Thank you! I'm trying to do my best.

    And you are so welcome! Hope your weekend vacation was a blast!

    @ Melissa

    Cary Grant is a Movie Star in every sense of the word. and his grand stature will never diminish with time. And Hitchcock deserves his own Library of Congress size tribute, documenting the brilliance of his work.

    Psycho is amazing! And yes, Perkins performance was incredible. He masterfully captured the nuances of his character, both in term of his dark metamorphosis and his gentle nature.

    Every Hitchcock film is a riveting Classic!

  20. I haven't seen this one or have I? No, I don't think so...but it is on my list! I love Hitchcock films. Thanks this is a fun post to read~

  21. You're welcome. I'd wager a guess and say you haven't seen it. If you did, you'd certainly remember. Once you do, I guarantee you will enjoy it!

  22. No worries, the Coens are used to being also-rans (except, ironically, with No Country). But excellent choice, and one of my favorite of Hitchcock's.

    By the way, if you ever get the chance to see his 39 Steps as a stage production, check it out. I just caught it last night, and in my mind, it's the best Hitchcockian farce ever. Of course, it doesn't really have much competition in that category, but yes -- they turned it into a farce.

  23. I love North by Northwest.
    I am not big on No Country for Old Men basically because of the way it ended.

  24. @ Nate

    Yeah, the Coens tend to fall just short on winning first place during the Awards Season. They still have an incredible resume of films: The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Barton Fink, and No Country for Old Men all come to mind immediately.

    I did see 39 Steps (the original film) a long time ago, so perhaps I should revisit it before checking out the Broadway "farce." I've heard it is terrific from other people as well. Thanks for the endorsement.

    @ Ruth

    Glad to meet another NBN fan! The movie is pitch-perfect suspense and entertainment. I actually found the ending of No Country refreshing, but that's just me.

    Thanks for the comment!

  25. one of my favorites. you can't go wrong with Cary Grant in anything.

  26. Indeed. Cary Grant remains one of our greatest Movie Stars! He's on the Rushmore of Actors.