Wednesday, February 2, 2011

North by Northwest

(Because its Groundhog Day I'm recycling an old post from two years ago. Hey its my blog and I'll do what I want)
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A few years ago I was at a party and I found myself talking to a fashion journalist about men's suits. I was saying that to my uneducated eye men's fashions hadn't changed that much over the years. With a kind of despair he agreed that most men wanted to look like Sean Connery as 007 and then, more thoughtfully, he said that the men's suit had probably peaked anyway in 1959 with Cary Grant's classic Madison Avenue Grey Flannel job in the film North By Northwest. My eyes lit up. I knew exactly what he was talking about. I had recently seen that suit on the big screen at Bryant Park in New York and in the course of two and a half hours it takes one hell of battering - surviving car wrecks, crop dusting planes, machine gun attacks and rough housing from security guards, hench men and cops. The suit and Cary Grant come through with admirable sang froid and elegance.
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North By Northwest is a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock at the height of his powers. It's a mistaken identity caper, with Cary Grant's ad man accused of a murder he did not commit at the UN and then chased across America by police officers and agents of a foreign power. There's something in it about a microfilm but Hitchcock only saw that as a McGuffin on which to hang his tale. Eva Marie Saint plays, Eve, the girl who seduces Grant on the train to Chicago and who isn't quite so innocent as she first appears. NBNW is fast, funny, light, charming, beautifully filmed (the overhead shot where he runs out of the UN building is breathtaking) and impeccably scored by Bernard Hermann. It's one of Hitchcock's very best films, pipped only slightly, I think, by Rear Window and The 39 Steps.
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I watched NBNW last month and the picture is so fresh, lively and delicious it both seems incredibly modern and also terribly dated. Every character in the film is three dimensional: Cary Grant's sardonic mother Jessie Royce Landis gives a master class in withering looks, James Mason's villain is arch and sarcastic ("you're using real bullets - how unsporting"), there's the wonderful fogeyish joint intelligence committee, and even an unseen taxi driver (who exists only as a voice) seems to live and breathe beyond the screen. (In a Hollywood film of today, the taxi driver would be played by Chris Tucker in a nauseating cameo). NBNW world's premiere took place fifty years ago this summer at the San Sebastian International Film Festival and I would be very surprised that any of the films debuting at this year festival (or any other festival) have the longevity of this Hitchcock classic. Yes the plot is bonkers and Eva Marie Saint isn't quite the goddess that Grace Kelly is in Hitchcock's films of this period, but it's got Cary Grant and James Mason and Martin Landau and a crop dusting sequence so famous it's been given homages in The Simpsons, Family Guy and dozens of other places I can't be bothered to look up. It's a great family film too with just enough innuendo (visual and spoken) to make you raise your eyebrows. What more do I need to say to convince you? If you haven't seen it yet, boy are you lucky, you're in for a real treat.
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BTW, for an interesting blog post on why the suit worked so well, check out this guy's theory. And also BTW, there's some dispute as to whether North By Northwest is an actual compass bearing. There's Nor Nor West or Northwest By North, but no North by Northwest on a 32 point compass rose, however Wikipedia claims that some ancient mariners did in fact say NBNW.