This month North By Northwest was showing at our local theater but my wife and I decided we would make an at home date night out of watching it while our toddler was being babysat in the other room rather than risk going out during the recent blackouts in California. Lucky for us we had already stocked up on popcorn and set up a TV in another room so that we could only be disturbed by a rambunctious nearly two year old two or three times.
In North By Northwest (1959) Cary Grant is Roger Thornhill, and maybe even George Kaplan, for a Hitchcock thriller about a man on the run. He’s an ad man in New York City whose identity is mistaken while getting up to make a phone call in a hotel lobby. He’s kidnapped, forced to drink a bottle of alcohol, and placed in a car to be driven off a cliff. He escapes a car accident but causes an accident with a police car. Oddly, he spends most of the movie on the run from the police but in this instance and later at the auction hall, his life is saved when he is arrested. He tries to clear his name on the DUI charge by looking for the man who forced him to get drunk, all the while his mother tells him to “just pay the two dollars.” I’m not sure if that’s a joke on the loose consequences for drunk driving in 1959, a joke that two dollars was worth a lot more back then, or if she’s like George H.W. Bush buying milk at the grocery store and having no concept of the cost of things. He then goes to the UN to confront the man, where he learns he had encountered an imposter the day before. The real man at the UN is killed while talking to Grant’s character when someone throws a knife into his back and Grant’s proximity and his odd behavior makes it look as though he was the killer.
Here the movie changes into a man on the run film where Grant is trying to track down “George Kaplan” and we learn that “Kaplan” is not a real person, a construct used as a decoy for another agent. The spy agency decides to let him remain as the prime suspect as “Kaplan” so that they could gain information on James Mason’s Vandamm character and his organization. Grant’s character falls in love with a beautiful woman on a train who seems a bit too eager to help a murderer on the lam until we learn that she is a spy that has infiltrated Vandamm’s organization. She sends him off to meet the fictional Kaplan in the middle of nowhere, where a crop duster plane fails to shoot him, fails to chop him up in its propeller, successfully crop dusts him, then fails to avoid crashing into a gasoline truck. Grant then disrupts an auction, pretends to get shot at the Mount Rushmore cafeteria, saves the girl, then picks George Washington’s nose before driving the train through the tunnel on his wedding night.
Alfred Hitchcock’s career started in the silent era, he made several sound films in black and white while he was in England, He moved to Hollywood and made most of his movies in color, but he would remake some of his older films from England or take aspects from them for his Hollywood movies. Young and Innocent was an early “man on the run” movie of his from 1937 about a falsely accused man evading the police in England while trying to solve his own crime while on the lam. Saboteur from 1942 was one of Hitch’s first Hollywood movies and he was unable to get the leading actors that he wanted, Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwick both passed, so it was made with what was described as a B-list cast. The main character was accused of a major crime, goes on the run and has a climactic scene at the top of an iconic monument, this time it was the Statue of liberty. This plot centered around war efforts on the home front in the US during World War II. One of Hitch’s final films in England was an espionage movie about the start of a great war that sure looked like World War II, although through the lens of history of knowing how World War I began with an assassination and the actions of nobility rather than an invasion. Spies were already on Hitchcock’s mind before the Cold War was underway.
Ian Fleming very much had spies on the brain at the same time because he was one. After the war he wrote about some of the tactics and some of the topics of interest at the time for the 1953 book, Casino Royale. The book told the story of a spy in post-war Europe navigating around the reconstruction under the Marshall Plan, an American program that pumped money into Europe for stimulus. This was the introduction to the world of James Bond, and it was an instant hit. Bond made his screen debut as an American spy named Jimmie Bond for a TV movie of Casino Royale in 1954. The rights to that first book bounced around and it was the Broccoli family that ended up adapting the rest of the Fleming books and screenplays without revisiting Casino Royale until the Daniel Craig run of films. Dr. No came out in 1962 starring Sean Connery as in the first of the “official” James Bond movies from producer Albert Broccoli.
The James Bond character might have been inspired by real spy work, but the movies had a lot of inspiration from the Hitchcock “man on the run” movies, and 1959’s North by Northwest might have been one of the biggest inspirations. Cary Grant’s character isn’t exactly a spy himself, he’s an everyman wrapped up into the spy world, in the context of Bond movie tropes, he is more like a Bond Girl to Eva Marie Saint as 007. In the Bond movies the women are both used for gaining intelligence but also enjoyed as part of the lifestyle for James. These women enjoy their time with him right up until their violent deaths either at the hands of the Bond Villain. Often these women start off siding with the Villain but James’ magical wang has been known to turn them to side with his cause. Grant escapes with his life and survives a wedding to the secret agent so there’s a bit of a double standard here.
North By Northwest has a very recognizable score from Bernard Herrmann and the Bond movies are also known for their scores that originated from that very first theme in Dr. No from John Barry. He wrote the Bond theme in that movie and scored the next eleven films to create a common thread so many years later. The Bond movies are known for their globe trotting stories set all over the world. North By Northwest is only set between New York and South Dakota with stops along the way, but that isn’t entirely out of the norm compared to Bond movies Diamonds are Forever which is set in Vegas and Live and Let Die which is set in Louisiana.
The influence of North By Northwest has not been restrained to the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Most recently, one of the Star Wars Rise of Skywalker trailers shows Rey battling a TIE Fighter in a barren wasteland much in the style Cary Grant ran from the crop duster. It isn’t even the most iconic scenes that are referenced in twenty-first century films, Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited has a scene where the brothers are about to board an airplane and discuss their next actions just as the plane’s engines kick in and obscure the sound of the dialogue entirely. In North By, the head of the spy agency discusses the plan to Cary Grant on the tarmac at an airport just as the engines kick in to leave the audience in mystery of exactly what is to come.
While Hitchcock had most of his old team together for this movie, he wasn’t able to get his costume designer Edith Head to work on this movie due to contractual obligations with another studio. It’s amazing that there were any other studios left to be in competition because three studios have their names on this blu-ray having involvement in either shooting or distributing it. MGM tried to send along some wardrobe suggestions and Hitchcock threw them out and went to a department store with Eva Marie Saint. Her performance earned her an Oscar for acting, but she might have also been getting a nod in lieu of Head’s absence. The production was more focused on building their own larger than real life Mount Rushmore for the leads to climb down in the safety of a sound stage. Saul Bass made the opening credit sequence of diagonal lines, almost denoting a direction like the title of the movie that fade into the windows of a skyscraper, as a part of a collaboration of the two between 1958 and 1960 that included Psycho and Vertigo as well.
The James Bond movies have evolved through the decades, reinvented themselves and looped back onto old storylines all while maintaining the formula of the same theme music, car chases, Bond Girls, gadgets (although those have been disappearing in the smartphone age), opening credit sequences by Maurice Binder. The Daniel Craig Bond movies have circled back around to the Casino Royale, the first Ian Fleming book, and have reinvented stories from the earliest films. These ingredients still work to make great movies. North By Northwest is still fun and charming even if the pacing of the film can seem slow at times and it works better as a story with multiple viewings.
I was able to sneak this post in before the new baby shows up so the expectation is that next month won't be quite the same kind of entry so I will be doing my Hindsight Awards for 2014 Movies in November and the movie that I want to highlight is Taika Waititi's What We Do In The Shadows. The Hindsight Awards are my look back at the movies of five and ten years ago to see if my opinions have changed over time due to the movies that have come out since then, as well as a chance to find movies I've either missed or didn't even hear of at the time. "Shadows" director Taika Waititi has a new movie, "Jojo Rabbit" coming out later this week that promises to be both controversial and entertaining.