(Re) watching Alfred Hitchcock’s films makes me appreciate why so many critics and Hitch himself saw NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) as a film that expresses the essence of Hitchcock movies. Yet it was the next film he made, PSYCHO (1960) that came to define him: he’d be Alfred Hitchcock, direct of Psycho from that moment forward.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) stars Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive who through blind chance is mistaken for Kaplan, an American agent hunting enemy spy Vandamm (James Mason) and his right hand Leonard (Martin Landau). Vandamm mocks Thornhill’s denials, declaring that his performance makes the room a theater; this theatricality crops up over and over, for example when he later sneers American agents should get training from the Actor’s Studio.
The bad guys’ first attempt on Thornhill’s life fails, as does the second; however they unintentionally frame him as a murderer, forcing him to flee cops as well as crooks, traveling across country to track down Kaplan. Thornhill doesn’t know Kaplan doesn’t exist; it’s a non-existent man created by spymaster the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) to distract Vandamm from the real agent in his team. During his travels, Thornhill gets help from Eve (Eva Marie Saint), a beautiful woman who turns out to be Vandamm’s lover. Thornhill, having fallen for her, isn’t happy (“What makes a girl like you a girl like you?”), then he learns she’s the Professor’s agent on the inside. Unfortunately Leonard has figured that out too …
North by Northwest is a spectacular thriller with some great set pieces, from Grant being targeted by a crop-dusting plane to the climax on Mt. Rushmore. It carries over elements from multiple previous films including The Thirty-Nine Steps, Notorious and Saboteur. As The Hitchcock Romance says, it captures Hitch’s repeated theme that love and marriage is the happy ending for most of us. Thornhill starts out twice divorced and something of a ladies’ man (we see him dickering with his secretary about the right gift for one of his girlfriends), then he meets Eve and everything changes. Vandamm intends to kill her for betraying him; the Professor is willing to accept her death for the greater good. Thornhill loves her and he’s going to save her in spite of all of them. It’s a great film. “War is hell, Mr. Thornhill, even when it’s a cold one.”
I would really love to have seen PSYCHO (1960) at least once not knowing what was coming but a friend told me the details in high school (I wouldn’t catch it until college). In the opening, Marion (Janet Leigh), frustrated that her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) doesn’t have enough money to make a home for both of them, succumbs to a moment of temptation and drives off with $40,000 of her employer’s money. It’s a classic film noir set up that turns into an Old Dark House story when Marion ends up at the Bates Motel, where Norman (Anthony Bates) runs the largely unoccupied business and cares for his sour, bedridden mother. And then, of course, comes the infamous shower scene in which Mrs. Bates stabs Marion to death in the shower (future slasher films owe a lot to this and the later deaths). Can Sam and Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) figure out the truth?This film has a very strange structure, switching from genre to genre and protagonist to protagonist. It’s amazing visually and absorbing to watch even when I know what’s coming. That said, it’s a film that like Vertigo, I admire more than I enjoy. While in many ways it’s much more atypical of Hitch than North by Northwest, though Hitchcock Romance argues the film is a perfect example of Hitch’s tragic romances. When we catch up with Sam after the opening he’s writing to Marion to say that he’ll marry her, despite his poverty; if she’d only waited instead of acting, she’d have gotten her HEA. Like Vertigo and Rebecca, the past chokes the present. Sam’s struggling to pay off his father’s debts and support his ex-wife; Norman is dominated by his dead mother. It’s a remarkable achievement. “I’m not a fool and I’m not capable of being fooled.”