“I wonder what would happen if I put coffee beans through a juicer.”
North by Northwest
I know there are better movies out there, and I’ve seen them. However, whenever I’m asked what my favourite movie of all time is, I always come back to North by Northwest.
North by Northwest is the classic Alfred Hitchcock tale starring Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill, mistaken by enemy spies (led by James Mason) for a deep cover CIA agent. Thornhill, a run-of-the-mill advertising executive, finds his safe world swept out from under him. Running for his life not only from the spies but from American authorities who think he’s a murderer, Thornhill races across America, barely able to keep his wits as he searches for the real CIA agent. He finds romance with Eve Marie Saint, a woman who might not be all that she seems.
I guess if you’re going to choose a favourite movie, you can’t do much better than something Hitchcock directed, can you? And North by Northwest is ranked up there with Psycho, Vertigo, The Birds and Rear Window, but I like North by Northwest more. Possibly because it’s less about the scare and more about the romp. While Richard Thornhill is thrown out of his depth, I enjoy seeing how quickly he learns to swim. Cary Grant adds a suave air to him that’s both comical and affirming. You don’t get the sense that Richard Thornhill is in any real danger (unlike the entire cast of Psycho or The Birds), but that in no way detracts from the fun. It’s like watching James Bond, (with the added benefit that Cary Grant is not James Bond) knowing that he’s going to win, and enjoying how he does it.
And I like the fact that North by Northwest is part travelogue, as Richard Thornhill is literally taken aboard planes, trains and automobiles, making you feel like an accidental tourist as you watch him struggle to the bottom of the mystery. The movie never settles down, giving you a diversity of set pieces along with its diversity of settings. My favourite moment comes outside Chicago where Thornhill has been told to meet the government agent at a bus stop on a rural highway. It’s a moment where the movie slows down. Hitchcock wonderfully conveys suspense through isolation as we’re left alone with Cary Grant, with the wind blowing through the cornfields, and the sound of an occasional passing car. Then someone shows up, waits by the other side of the road, and Hitchcock captures the scene, Grant on one side, road on the middle, country man on the right, the long horizon stretching in the background in a tremendous wide shot. And we wait for something to happen. That’s a magic moment. To my mind, it is the best movie visual I’ve ever seen.
It all culminates in (surely you all know this by now) a wonderful climactic scene with Grant and Saint Marie dangling from the faces of Mount Rushmore. Hitchcock directs with his usual aplomb, Grant is his usual slick self, Eve Saint Marie is sexy and James (I really do sound like God) Mason is suitably, suavely evil.
It may be a popcorn flick, but they don’t come better than this. For this reason, just as for a long while I had the ambition to write a Doctor Who story set on board a train, I have the ambition, someday, to write a young adult novel that apes Hitchcock’s style and the frantic romp that North by Northwest represents.
I have a few ideas. Something may come of it.