Eating my Vegetables #1: North by Northwest

North by Northwest

One filmmaker that is pretty well universally admired and loved by many but whose films have never particularly had resonance with me is Alfred Hitchcock. While pretty much everyone who has ever talked about Vertigo or Rear Window loves them, they never really stuck with me beyond the final frame. This is probably why another of his much loved films, North by Northwest, belongs on this list.

The first thing that struck me was the clear disclaimer at the end of the title sequences stating that the story is fiction and any similarity to anyone or any agency is purely coincidental. This seemed clearly to be a hedge against any pushback by the US government due to the portrayal of the agency in the picture that’s clearly a stand-in for the CIA. This agency is shown to have pretty callous disregard for the Cary Grant character as he gets caught up in a convoluted case of mistaken identity by a nasty and murderous international spy ring that is funneling US state secrets to the Communists.

I think what I took away most from this picture was the way the film addressed the clearly sexual relationship between Grant’s character and Eve Marie Saint’s femme fatale. The references to casual sex were quite open, a far cry from the more veiled innuendo that was necessary from Hollywood fare made during the height of the production code. Moreover, Grant’s character is really shown to be a pretty slimy sort of anti-hero character, at least from the moral perspective of the average American film viewer of 1959. Not only is he a calculating, manipulative and selfish ad-man who isn’t beyond crafting lies to avoid waiting for a taxi, but he is also a twice divoriced bachelor who has no problem propositioning strange women he meets on an overnight train while on the lam. This is the sort of hero of ambiguous moral character that would be seen more in the 60s and 70s.

I was pretty impressed with the tight and twisty storyline, though in the first act as Grant begins to investigate more into the identity of the mysterious “Kaplan” that the spy-gang mistakes him for I was hoping that perhaps Grant would end up being gaslighted. While most of the twists were pretty clever, perhaps it’s just my hindsight and knowledge of common tropes of the thriller genre that I immediately knew that Eva Marie Saint’s character was a sort of double agent working for the CIA-like agency.

Anyhow, I don’t have too many deep thoughts about the film though I did find it pretty enjoyable for a film of it’s time. I find that I have a natural aversion to quite a number of the Hollywood films made between the 40s and the mid-60s due to the very standard, static camera (the great exception to this is the wonderful and rightly iconic scene of Grant in his suit running towards the leading camera through the fallow Indiana field away from the bi-plane bearing down on him.) My modern eyes have perhaps become spoiled by the effective and dynamic camera work of films like Irreversible. And I have to remind myself that it was the same year as this film that Godard released A Bout de Souffle and introduced that now standard editing technique of the jump-cut to the world.

Up next: Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows.

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4 Comments on “Eating my Vegetables #1: North by Northwest”

  1. Jeff Says:

    PS – Final nit pick – Eva Marie Saint was born in 1926, making her 32 when this film was made. Her character is supposed to be 26. Doesn’t work for me – the freshness has gone from her face I’m afraid…

  2. Maura Says:

    I saw NORTH BY NORTHWEST in high school with some equally nerdy friends who were experiencing a similar vegetable-eating phase. and I loved it! the only thing I really remember, though, was how conflicted we felt by this paradox:
    1. cary grant is the hottest man ever.
    2. cary grant’s pants are hitched up just under his armpits like a total weirdo.

    I still don’t know if I could ever resolve it – his pants were totally stealing his mojo BUT HE HAD SO MUCH. it confused us, as kids.

  3. Maura Says:

    Also – Eva Marie Saint was born in 1926, ok, but Archibald Alexander Leach (aka CARY GRANT) was born in 1904. And his 22 years younger (COMFORTABLY young enough to be his daughter) co-star looks too old for the role opposite him?!? Barf, Jeff.

  4. Jeff Says:

    I did not say that she looked too old to be his love interest, I said she didn’t look believably 26 years old. Yeah, Grant was clearly looking at least mid-40s but the older man with the young woman thing just has no shock value to it.

    Also, I’m confident that this whole “low waist” fad is goanna pass soon and we’ll all be back to hiding our navels under our elastic waistbands soon enough, just like the old days!

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