I watched Hitchcock’s North by Northwest again the other night. I don’t think I’d actually seen most of it since it was first shown; some of it I caught up with on television a few years ago, but obviously not all of it as there were many scenes that I’d forgotten.
It’s the sort of Hitchcock movie where the plot is irrelevant; the set-pieces are what make it: the climax on the Mt Rushmore faces (very little of which was actually shot there); the wonderful sequence where the crop-dusting plane attacks Cary Grant in the middle of nowhere; the nonsense Grant makes of a very dignified auction. The film was virtually written around these sequences – it’s one of the few Hitchcock movies that isn’t based on a book. (Not that he ever stuck to the books: in most cases he took a few key ideas and made his own film.)
North by Northwest epitomises Hitchcock’s style. The suspense, you say. Well, yes, up to a point, but once you know what’s going to happen, the suspense goes out the window. No, I meant Hitchcock’s humour. Very few of his movies lack some aspect of humour (except perhaps I Confess, The Wrong Man and Psycho – and even Psycho has a few humorous moments early in the piece).
For instance, it was a nice surprise to find that in one of his earlier movies (Young and Strange, I think it was) there isn’t just the suspense, but some wonderful moments of humour – much of involving children, who often play a humorous role in his movies. Both the American and English movies have some glorious humorous sequences – North by Northwest is full of them (with Grant at his ironic best), but Stage Fright, which I caught up with again recently too, has some great moments, particularly those featuring Alistair Sim, whom apparently Hitchcock didn’t take to and objected to his ‘mugging’ – in spite of that, there’s a great deal of Sim in the movie, along with a marvellous scene he shares with the inimitable Joyce Grenfell. I still remember how delighted I was to find her in a Hitchcock movie when I first saw Stage Fright years ago.
Back to NBN. The cast is great. Eva Marie Saint – who never appeared in another Hitchcock movie – is wonderful: elusive, persuasive, romantic; a quiet surface hinting at considerable passion beneath. Why he chose to use Tippi Hendren, for instance, in later blonde roles remains a mystery, when Saint was available. James Mason does a subtle villain, and Jessie Royce Landis (only a couple of years Cary Grant’s senior) plays his mother with considerable aplomb. Cary Grant (who mugs almost as well as Alistair Sim at times) thoroughly enjoys his role, even though he was far too old for the part – but Hitchcock delighted in using him, in spite of that.
And the crop-dusting scene remains a triumph of crafty filmmaking: Grant is actually more in the studio than out of it during the sequence, even when he’s being chased by the plane; and an analysis of the scene, shot by shot, would reveal just how well planned the whole thing is – and how economically.