Yes, once again I’ve amassed enough new DVDs for a Sunday morning Film Season that can last three months. And yes, my selection of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic North by Northwest is directly influenced by my friend Garth Groombridge’s recent study of the film. What can I say about this film that Garth has not already said?
To begin with, I can add a personal note. Back in 1966, I started in the First Year at Burnage Grammar School, directing my parents’ efforts at moving upmarket to Burnage itself. We had barely moved in, with Xmas just a fortnight away, and one Monday morning, lessons were suspended, the whole school gathered and marched, in form order, out of the back gate and down to the Burnage Odeon, one of the once panoply of suburban cinemas that took the latest movies once the big City Centre cinemas had done with them. I didn’t know that the School did this and it was an exciting thing, though the moment Burnage reverted to being a High School under the Comprehensive System, the following Academic Year, the tradition (if tradition it had been and not just some one-off I was lucky to catch) was abolished.
It was my first ever visit to the local Odeon, of many (it’s now a supermarket) and the film they had lined up for me and all the rest of us was North by Northwest. I was completely ignorant, being just a month past my eleventh birthday at that time, having only seen adult films on TV, on Sunday afternoons. I didn’t even know that Cary Grant was the male lead: I mean, with a name like Cary, that had to be a girl, right?
In the more than half a century that’s followed, I grew familiar with a couple of scenes: the crop-duster attack, and the final moments on Mount Rushmore. But I suspected, and rewatching the film today has confirmed that suspicion, that that morning in December 1966 was until now the only time I had seen North by Northwest. I have come to it almost as completely fresh as I will do to most of the other films for this season, which I have never seen.
So how do I react to this film made when I was only two or three? Of course I enjoyed it. It’s a fun thriller, a virtual template for the James Bond series, or at any rate the earlier, mostly-sane ones. I enjoyed the speed with which the plot set itself up: we are introduced to Roger O. Thornhill, advertising executive, busily dictating notes to his secretary on a walk-and-talk that sums him up completely. Yes, he’s Cary Grant, and we know Cary Grant, with his fast-talking ways, which is a very handy shorthand, but Thornhill’s manners and quick talk, pre-dating Mad Men and surely an influence on it, tells us all we need to know about him, and the film has barely got going when he makes the fatal, unlucky accident that draws unwabnted attention to him.
It’s simple and neat, a perfectly plausible coincidence. A Page pages George Kaplan. Thornhill needs a page at that moment and summons the same young man. It looks for all the world as if he’s replying to the Page’s call. He is taken to be George Kaplan, whoever and whatever he is. Roger’s misfortune is to be picked up by men who are not constituionally believing, and who are looking for a man who they expect to lie to them.
All of this passed me by back then: I spent much of the movie in a state of confusion, no doubt enjoying the individual scenes but having failed to grasp the underlying point to Thornhill’s adventures, I had no idea why this wss all happening.
The set-up is quite simple, beautifully so when you piece it all together from the various staged revelations that Hitchcock sets up. Philip Vandamme (James Mason at his urbane, self-satisfied and slimy best) is an enemy of the United States, passing secrets to the Other Side – never named but this is clearly the Cold War – and George Kaplan is a US Government Agent, out to interfere with his plans. Which is why Vandamme wants to get his hands on Kaplan and then kill him.
But, as we are alerted about a third of the way in, by the medium of Leo G. Carroll, pre-figuring Mr Waverley as ‘The Professor’, head of an Intelligence Unit, George Kaplan doesn’t exist. He’s a variation on The Man Who Never Was, the genuine War-time distraction, a dead man carrying fictional plans that deflected the Germans from the real plans. Kaplan moves around, from Hotel to Hotel, in some kind of crazy pattern, leaving a trail Vandamme is trying to monitor, all the time keeping him from suspecting the real agent, hidden in his bosom. With Cold War logic, the Professor dictates that they will do nothing to relieve Mr Thornhill of his inadvertent complications, lest it compromise their plot.
Because Roger is in trouble. He’s had a bottle of bourbon poured into him and he’s been set behind the wheel of a Mercedes sports car, on a coastal road with no crash barriers on the sea side (very poor road safety conditions, seriously). But here Vandamme has made his first mistake, by not believing Roger is Roger, and a Madison Avenue advertising executive: it takes more than a bottle of bourbon to make someone like that completely incapable behind the wheel.
So Roger escapes death, only to be arrested and charged with drunk-driving and a few other associated matters, and nobody except his own Lawyer believes his story about people being out to kill him, especially not his mother, one of those who has typecast her son as irretrievably irresponsible and juvenile: well, he is an advertising executive, isn’t he? Incidentally, she’s played by Jesse Royce Landis, who was only was only eight years older than Cary Grant and, quite frankly, he doesn’t look at all believable ss her son.
From there, it escalates. Thornhill wants to prove his innocence, which means finding Kaplan. This leads him to the United Nations (where filming had to be carried out illicitly and secretly as the UN had refused permission to use their land) and to a Lester Townsend who is definitely not James Mason and who is promptly killed. It’s a big and unworthy cliche. I have never had the experience of having a man collapse into my arms only to discover that the cause of his sudden manoeuvre was a dagger buried between his shoulderblades, but I am pretty confident that the very first thing I would not do is grab the dagger and pull it out, with my fingerprints all over it, even if that’s only because I’ve seen that happen far too often on film and TV. But Roger Thornhill, does, and must do so, for how else is he to be framed for murder and set on the run?
So there Thornhill is, heading for Chicago, where Kaplan is next to be found. He gets onto the train easily enough but is at risk of being found when he is helped unexpectedly by a beautiful, cool, Hitchcock blonde, who sends the Police the wrong way, twice and in between bribes the dining car attendant to seat Thornhill at her table where she, explaining herself to be 26 and unmarried, actually invites him to spend the night in her sleeping car, with not so much undertones of sexual congress as a graven invitation. This from a 1958 film, made under the provisions of the still extant Hays Code. I was shocked.
And as this was the film’s co-star and female lead, Eva Marie Saint, as Eve Kendall, only appearing for the first time 45 minutes into the picture, I wouldn’t have waited to eat my Brooks Trout, it’d have been down that train corridor right now and spot weld that Do Not Disturb sign to the outside doorknob.
To be serious though, it’s this part of the film that I have my greatest concerns about. Here is Thornhill, on the run, a supposed murderer, everyone about him a threat. And this woman starts helping him, in full knowledge of who he is and what he’s ‘done’, with no discernible reason for doing so, yet he doesn’t display a scintilla of caution or, more probasblre, paranoia. When they are all out to get you, why do you trust a perfect stranger, even if she looks like an ice cool blonde waiting to be melted to passion? Only if Thornhill genuinely believes that he is so much a magnet for women that a complete stranger, and yes, a bit of a self-professed non-virgin, would help him escape justice as a murderer because she simply wants to thrw herself at him for the night? If Thornhill really was that kind of smug, empty-headed, God’s Gift To Women that he’d have to be, we would have had to see signs of that before now to accept it.
Nor does he suspect anything when, several semi-dark, short, closed-mouth smooches later, she tells him he’s sleeping on the floor.
So the audience isn’t one bit surprised when Miss Kendall turns out to be working for Mr Vandamme (actually, she’s his mistress), but Roger is. Not that he finds out until much later, long after she’s lured him into the famous crop-duster plane attack sequence, which is every bit as good as everyone says it is. I’m sure my younger self thoroughly enjoyed it, even with having lost the plot completely: why is all this happening? I dunno, but this bit’s exciting.
As it happened, long before we even got to the relevation that Eve was playing a dirty game, I’d worked out the real situation. Partly because it was the obvious twist at that point, but also because I remembered the ending from 1966, but I sussed out that not only was Eve setting up Roger for Vandamme, but that she was the Professor’s inside agent. It all fit too neatly for any other explanation to be plausible.
Let’s move forward. Roger has started to have suspicions and ends up confronting Vandamme, and Eve in particular, at a swanky auction. It’s obvious by now that the two have fallen in love with each other, and Roger is hurt at being betrayed, as much as Eve is by his not-unjustified but nevertheless hateful reaction that she can’t counter with the truth. Typically, it’s immediately followed by a wonderfully funny escape as Thornhill decides that the only way he’ll get past Vandamme’s thugs is to make a complete nuisance of himself until he’s arrested.
That’s the t urning point. He’s raised doubts in Vandamme’s mindabout lovely Eve and The Professor has to step into the open, explain about Kaplan, and persudae Roger to maintain the deception for a couple of days yet. This he does by pointing out that if ‘Kaplan’ can’t create a dissociation, Eve will be killed.
By now we’re at Mount Rushmore, one of the three American sights I would most want to visit. A plot is hatched offscreen to set up a conflict with Eve in which she shoots ‘Kaplan’ at close range, herself becoming a murderess, who needs to get out of the country with Vandamme, who is holding a statuette bought at the auction, containing microfilm (our much-belatedly presented McGuffin). The gun, fortuinately, only shhots blanks. Fortunately, that is, for now.
What the Professor has not told Thornhill, indeed had egregiously concealed, is that they want Vsandamme to be able to leave the country, and Miss Kendall with him, to continue her intelligence activities. Thornhill is determined to rescue her, and his wild solo approach to Vsndamme’s home puts him in a position to discover that she is going to be killed by being thrown out of the plane, over the ocean.
The background to this is the one that could not be made explicit, in no way. I’ve not until now mentioned Vandamme’s secretary and right arm, Lennard, played by Martin Landau. Lennard is quite clearly – to the adult eye – homosexual. Eve is Vandamme’s mistress, and indeed he’s besotted with her, like Roger. But, though Mason was wholly uncomfortable with the idea his character was himself homosexual, his smoothness, his oiliness, is a pretty clear signal that Vandamme is bisexual. But, in a typical for the era slice of ‘faggot bitchiness’, Lennard has always suspected Eve – jealousy gets you everywhere – and he has purloined her gun and demonstrates that it shoots blanks.
So Thornhill, still on his own, has to get her out of there. At first it seems that Eve is going to put her role first, go with Vandamme on the plane, but it’s a ruse to enable her to snatch the McGuffin and run with Roger, scrambling down over the President’s faces (isn’t that some sort of republican lese-majestie? Well, Hitchcock was English). This leads to the classic, climactic fight, and that beautifully taught, high speed ending, analysed so brilliantly by William Goldman in Which Lie Did I Tell? in which the whole story, down to and including Roger and Eve’s wedding and about to be legally consummated in a train sleeping car, in a matter of not much more than thirty seconds.
No, I didn’t remember a single thing from the film that I hadn’t seen, more than once, as a clip in some kind of film review programme, which says more about me at age 11 than it does the film. It’s good fun, a classic entertainment. It’s somewhat loose, being structured as a chase-thriller in episodic form, none of the episodes having any real connection other than our Roger, and there’s one or two places where Ernest Lehman’s script brushes things under the carpet, hoping we won’t notice that exactly how something has been set up hasn’t been explained, but I’m more than happy to make the acquaintance of a film that’s at least only the second I remember going to see in a cinema, and understanding it properly this time.