North By Northwest


As I watched this 1959 Hitchcock film for the first time tonight, one thought kept running through my mind.

"How retro!"

Everything about the film reflects a bygone era. The cold war plot. The luxury of train travel (when was the last time Amtrak served brook trout?). The glacial pacing and 136 minute length.

The signature cropdusting scene only makes sense if the bad guys graduated from the Ernst Blofeld Academy of Criminal Arts. The lecture notes look something like this:

Dispatching a Government Agent
  • Know what the agent plans to do even before the agent does, and plant a femme fatale in his path. Graduates are encouraged to capitalize on our working relationship with the Pussy Galore Finishing School of upstate New York.
  • Femme fatale is authorized to tease, seduce, or pleasure the agent, but under no circumstances is she to kill him while she has him alone.
  • Have femme fatale lure agent to remote location. Preferably someplace scenic or offbeat. Avoid the "in" places for assassinations. Blofeld men do not follow trends, they set them.
  • Blofeld graduates are expected to show a little flair. No scheme is too elaborate. Under no circumstances should you just drive up, put a bullet in the agent's brain, and drive off. You are criminal masterminds, not common thugs.
  • Blofeld men flaunt their confidence. Do remember to gloat, divulge your master plan, and leave the agent unattended.
  • Quiz Friday. 25% of final grade. Bring sword-cane to class.

I haven't seen many Hitchcock films-- Psycho, To Catch a Thief, Rear Window, and now this-- but what I've seen has left me puzzled at the man's street cred. These films are neither all that nor a bag of chips. Is it a generational thing-- a case of them being the cat's pajamas back in the day but not holding up to a modern moviegoer? Or am I just one of the great unwashed, unable to appreciate a master's scraps if he dropped them into a bowl with my name on them?

The whole "Where's Hitchcock" cameo thing is pretty cool, though. If I were his estate, I'd totally sue those Waldo guys.


Unfortunately, if I'd seen this movie for the first time as an adult, I probably would have had a similar reaction. However, since I orignially saw it as a child with far less demanding eyes, I can say that I love this film (and Psycho and Rear Window). The fight on Mount Rushmore inspired me to put that on top of my childhood list of places to see, right below the pyramids. And the plane attack was scary at the time, because it was a faceless menace that could come seemingly attack from anywhere (like the commies, I suppose). Now it does seem a little rediculous, but it's easy to forgive if you already have a love for the film. Maybe that's why I haven't liked a James Bond movie since Roger Moore left - the movies didn't get any less stupid, I did. But film audiences in general have been slowly growing more sophisticated over time (and more annoying lately), so I'm guessing people at the time were mostly too swept up in the moment to question such obvious flaws. A film like Pi would have melted a typical 60's filmgoer's brain.

But let's not forget one thing about Hithcock - he was primarily just an ordinary genre director until the French new wavers put him in their pantheon. I still think there is a lot to most of his films that is worth celebrating, but you could probably make a claim for a lot of lesser known artists out there who are struggling away in the rigid confines of their job.

Peter, did you see this on your TV, and if so, how big was the screen? There are 2 other Hitchcock films -- Vertigo and Birds -- which I saw first on TV, and thought they were very bad films, and then I saw them again on the big screen (some Hitchcock festival IIRC) and thought they were brilliant. In both cases, I was able to suspend disbelief and get into the mood of the movie only on the big screen. In contrast, on TV, Birds just looks ridiculous and cheesy. I have only seen N by NW on TV and didnt like it either.

There are other Hitchcock films which I like even on a TV screen -- e.g. Dial M for Murder, and, Rear Window. But both of those are self-contained murder mysteries.

I watched it on my 32" television (which seemed plenty big when I bought it 10 years ago) off of Turner Classic Movies, which I love because a) it's free, b) it's commercial-free, and c) they letterbox. When I watch movies at home, it's a theater-like experience for me-- I don't have external interruptions or distractions. So it wasn't a question of not getting into the flow of the film. The film just didn't do its job. "Whoops! We're on top of the monument!" Come ON! How on Earth am I supposed to suspend disbelief that a) there's a private residence atop Mt. Rushmore from which b) one can just walk onto the faces of the monument without so much as climbing a fence? Even in 1959. That one moment jolted me right out of sync with the film just at its climax. Color me unimpressed.

1) You've got to consider the time and place for many of his films. When PSYCHO came out, it scared the bejesus out of people. Due to mainstream censorship, decency codes, McCarthyism, etc. most filmgoers were not often exposed to such a shocking, twisted story. Sure, his movies seem tame and a tad trite now, but they pushed limits in their day, just as Jaws and Night of the Living Dead broke down barriers years later.

2) Granted, North by Northwest is not his finest work. The house hovering over Mt. Rushmore is awful. I suspect it survives because of the iconic Cary Grant mystique.

3) Many of his films, however, were created with meticulous artistry. If you ever have a chance, really study how the famous Psycho shower scene is put together, you might possibly be impressed. Dozens of cuts and camera angles put together to create one effect. Or the single skeleton overlay frame in the last few seconds of the same move. 50 years later, we take this stuff for granted. Stand on the shoulders of giants, blah blah blah.

I haven't seen enough films (or Hitchcock) to know, but I surely don't deny his influence. How many movies have I seen (or seen multiple times) that I can remember information about the framing of a shot? I mean, there are movies playing on Cable right now that I've seen dozens of times, but have no compelling images (even if they have passable stories, etc). Of course, Psycho may be more remembered for the violins...

Much of TV (and movies) from the time are really quite dated. I got the complete Prisoner series (which I like) but it's sometimes still painful to watch because of the lack of absence of "B" or "C" plots. Ditto for Twilight Zone. Or SNL. People remember the good episodes, gloss over the bad. Ditto for Hitchcock. And others. Watched the original Star Wars Trilogy recently? That one is harder, because it got to us as kids...but they aren't good movies. Iconic, Fun, but not good.

Peter, I pretty much share your opinion that Hitchcock is overrated. I think most of his films contain some brilliant sequences, but as a whole, the movies aren't that entertaining (at least to me). His characters are usually unsympathetic (who the hell do you root for in Psycho?), a surprising percentage of the screen time is just actionless conversation, the dialogue is nothing special, and the plots are usually quite unbelievable. I find the whole is definitely less than the sum of the parts. Give me a Wilder or Capra flick any day.


I support Hitchcock's efforts in N by NW if only because he initially wanted to title the picture "The Man on Lincoln's Nose". I appreciate him as a film-maker much more for set pieces within the films (such as the attack by the crop duster), not necessarily for the overall plot or how it all hangs together. Rear Window is still a movie with some interesting things to say about voyeurism today, and that is a subject that is certainly much different than it was when he filmed it.

If you go back and watch the Star Wars movies and are disappointed, check to see if it is the special editions (especially the first one). In re-editing the films Lucas really broke some of the pacing and scene cuts that made the movies so much fun. Yet another case of less is more.

Oops, also wanted to make a quick comment on the train travel. It's still pretty good if you want to take the time. Maybe not quite so "luxury" but the current dining car menus include such items as Lemon Pepper Salmon, Cornish Game Hen, New York Strip Steak, etc. And they are genuinely good meals, not the same-name unidentifiable stuff you get on airplanes. They always fill tables when seating. So if you travel alone or as a couple, expect to sit with strangers.

The camera should take on human qualities and roam around playfully looking for something suspicious in a room. This allows the audience to feel like they are involved in uncovering the story. Scenes can often begin by panning a room showing close-ups of objects that explain plot elements.

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