Alfred Hitchcock’s Cary Grant film North By Northwest(1959) completes 60 years and its still fresh and exciting as ever
It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin’. The first one asks, ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well,’ the other man says, ‘it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers, ‘Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!’ So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.
There is something about the year 1959 in American movie history. It produced some of the most defining pictures of great filmmakers. It also created definitive roles for the legendary movie stars. Rio Bravo, that i already covered on this blog, was John Wayne’s defining role even as it served as a definitive Howard Hawks picture.Now North By Northwest made by another great actor-director combo, Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock , has come to be regarded as their defining moment in movies.
Cary Grant is perhaps the most beautiful looking male movie icon ever.Like John Wayne, he is a pop cultural phenomenon and is extensively referenced in real life and movies. And just like the term JohnWayne , The term Carygrant is often used as an adjective . Its symbolizes a mixtureof things like sophistication,polish, romance,mystery ,adventure and fun. He is basically the Yin to John Wayne’s Yang, with regards to movie star persona. Wayne’s persona symbolized, courage, leadership and ruggedness.For Wayne, Women are ,more or less. a necessary or unnecessary distraction., His main environment consists of dusty frontier towns and desert landscapes. He is more often seen riding horses and carriages , dressed in cowboy boots, jeans ,jackets or military uniform. In short , he represented the tough primal macho man. On the other hand, Grant symbolises the ‘Modern’ man in his ultimate form. He is sensitive, romantic,vulnerable and charming. For him , to pursue and be pursued by women is the sum total of his life. his environment consists of luxury apartments, Hotel suites, Ball rooms and wine glasses . He is forever dapper in a tuxedo or a suit and uses the most modern modes of transportation.This contrast in the star personas can be seen in their respective films that were released in 1959. Northwest is as dissimilair to Rio Bravo as chalk is to cheese, even though both films possesses similar elements like Romance, humor and adventure
North by Northwest is a seminal film as far as mainstream action\adventure films go. It can be considered the film that set the template for the modern action picture . Here, the plot is rather thin and often preposterous , it mainly serves as a clothesline to hang a series of cliffhanger set pieces, which the hero has to go through, until it builds to a spectacular climax that closes the film. The film is often devoid of much depth or layering and the emphasis is on surface details like style, gloss and pace. The characterization of the lead protagonist(s) also mirrors this concept. They do not posses any deep psychology or realistic character development. The emphasis is on the style ,attitude and screen presence of the lead star\Actor.
Cary Grant plays a typical Grant character here. He is a vain, self centered man-child. A ladies man ,who is well into his middle age and twice divorced, but is still a Mama’s boy. He is a New York ‘MAD’ executive, Roger O Thornhill, who becomes the typical Hitchcock ‘wrong man’, mistaken for a government spy George Kaplan and is pursued across the country by the villains led by international criminal Van Damm(James Mason).. Grant, of course remains charming debonair and well dressed throughout the series of adventures. The gray suit, that he wears for about three quarters of the film , is a major style statement and has acquired a legendary status on its own.Its more of an armor,than just a costume, for both his body and his mind. Roger, like a gullible child, seems to be getting into trouble repeatedly ; drunken accidents,being shot at by crop dusting planes, perilous train journeys etc etc, and the suit protects him through all this.Its also kind of an emotional armor , It appears that as long as he is in it, he is more a child and less a man, who find it hard to make sense of the things that’s happening to him.. But once he is rid of it,in the last half hour or so of the film, he starts talking things into his hands and turns into the savior as opposed to the one who needs saving.
The film adopts the classical Raymond chandler style narrative device, where the films follows the protagonist, and we discover things as and when he does. We join Thornhill as he is coming out of his office in Madison Avenue, vigorously dictating notes to his secretary . then he hustles a cab to get to Plaza hotel. At plaza, he is mistaken for George Kaplan and is hurried away on gunpoint to the Long Island estate where we meet he chief antagonist VanDamm. From then on, it is a series of cliffhangers at break neck speed, as the action races from New York to Mount Rushmore. This narrative structure is broken a few times to put the the audience ahead of Roger Thornhill. Its mainly a classical Hitchcock conceit , where he sacrifices surprise to build suspense. so we get to know that George Kaplan is an non existent decoy created by the secret service wing.The mysterious blonde, Eve( played by Eva Marie Saint), who saves Roger on the train , is actually Van Damm’s mistress and is setting him up to be killed etc , etc….
No Hitchcock Film is complete without the MacGuffin . MacGuffin is usually defined as a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or another motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The MacGuffin’s importance to the plot is not the object itself, but rather its effect on the characters and their motivations.In Northwest , a microfilm containing government secrets hidden inside a pre-Columbian era statue is considered the Macguffin. But as we see ,this MacGuffin is not what motivates the protagonist or formS the trigger for the major chunks of events in the picture. Thornhill’s objective is to extricate himself from the predicament that the mistaken identity has created.What he ,and the villains, are chasing for the majority of this film is this entity called ‘George Kaplan’. So in many ways that’s what qualifies as a MacGuffin . we see in the picture that ‘George Kaplan’ does not exist ,and in that regard it is closer to Hitchcock’s definition of the term – as quoted in the beginning of this piece.
Writer Ernest Lehman was originally hired by Hitchcock to adapt The wreck of the Mary Deare. But they soon abandoned the idea. Then Lehman went to work on this script, which he refereed to as writing a Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock Films. By Which he meant a very sophisticated, glossy thriller with a lot of location changes and edge of the seat moments. He designed the film around a few ideas that Hitchcock had like, a murder the take place in the United Nations during a conference, image of a man caught inside Lincoln’s nose in Mount Rushmore etc etc. He literally packed the film with one grand set piece after another.The longest (and the most popular )sequence in the film, apart from the climactic Mount Rushmore sequence, is the crop duster plane sequence which lasts for about 12 minutes. A near wordless sequence that shows the genius of Hitchcock as a visual artist. Lehman claims that Hitchcock shot it exactly the way he had written it and he was very disappointed after the release of the film , when all the credit for its success went to Hitchcock.
This film was the fourth collaboration between Cary and Hitch.Looks like their three earlier films – Suspicion, Notorious and To Catch a thief – was mainly laying groundwork for this film. Cary is present in almost every frame of the film and Its impossible to imagine any other actor in this role. He is in full flow here, with his comic timing, dead pan one liners , his athleticism and of course his charm.He was 55 , when he made this film , but still manages to get a great romantic chemistry going with Eva Marie Saint, who is 2 decades younger, which includes some risque banter in true Hitchcock style. Cary’s character extensively references his former roles in Hitchcock pictures. The plot itself is a gender reverse version of Notorious. In that film Cary played the government agent who forces Ingrid Bergman to go under cover to infiltrate the spy ring of Claude Rains . Here Eve is both the secret agent as well as the mistress of the chief villain, while Cary is the gullible one, played like a puppet. The character is also an update on John Robie in To catch a thief, where Cary sets out to catch the real thief and clear his name.Hitchcock also references a lot of his own earlier films. there is a train journey reminiscent of The lady Vanishes, A climax sequence set on a national landmark as in Saboteur and obviously the ‘wrong man’ concept used in a lot of films like The man who knew too much. This film was made at the height of Hitch’s golden period – approximately from Strangers on the train in 1951 to Marnie in 1964 -. He would make one masterpiece after another during this period. His previous film to this was Vertigo and he would follow this with Psycho.
What Hitchcock would create here (as well as in To catch a thief) through Cary will soon be formulated as a template for ages in mainstream commercial cinema. Just three years later, The first James Bond film Dr. No will arrive following this formula of ; a cool, dashing, debonair hero surrounded by beautiful women and battling international criminals in a glossy thrill a minute adventure .The second Bond film ,From Russia with love ,would reference or lift two major set pieces from the film; the train sequencend and the plane attack sequence. The template will continued through further bond films and its imitation for the next 2 decades. In 1981, the new wiz kids, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas , both ardent Hitchcock devotees and fans of this kind of cinema will make the ultimate tribute with Raiders of the lost ark. Raiders jettisons all pretensions of character development, realism or logic to create the ultimate ‘thrill a minute ride ‘ experience complete with the MacGuffin – The Ark- which finds pride of place in the title itself
North by Northwest also marked the final collaboration between Cary and Hitch. Cary has been threatening to retire since the early fifties , but the success of To catch and thief and subsequent films kept him going.Cary would retire from films in 1966 at the age of 62. But before quitting , he would play one more time, the classical Grant-Hitch hero, in Stanley Donen’s Charade(1963), which can be called one of the best Hitchcock films not made by Hitch.Hitch would pursue a more darker ,more personal film making style after this film . He would try to return to this sort of film with Torn Curtain, but without much success. Its obvious from watching this film ,why this turned out be their last team up. this was the ultimate that Grant and Hitch could do together and there is no further to go. But we are forever grateful for this final gems from these two masters of their craft . Hitchcock created one bloody, grand, thrill ride of a lifetime and thankfully Cary hitched himself on it.
2 thoughts on “North By Northwest : Cary ‘Hitch’es one Bloody ‘Grant’ Ride”
Excellent observations. Grant indeed was the new male template: suave, but also reasonably gruff for masculinity’s sake. Also, it would be difficult to find a better single director’s three film spurt than Hitchcock’s Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho. Hope to read more from you.
Thank You Manas. Yes Hitchcock’s hot streak in the fifties is without parallel. He followed Psycho with Birds – a creature feature and Marnie – A romantic psycho sexual drama, very different from Psycho’s sexual horror film