North by Northwest Review

(2.5 STARS)

In the realm of Hitchcock, few titles are as universally revered as “North by Northwest.” My preference is Psycho, but I’m sure there are plenty of cinephiles out there who would label this film as the Master of Suspense’s greatest. But I’m not really sure why. It’s a serviceable mystery that plays out like an extended chase sequence, but it drags, and it doesn’t feature any exciting characters. It was actually quite reminiscent of a second-tier James Bond film.

Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) leads a relatively unexciting life. He’s a hot-shot ad executive with two marriages under his belt. But his life gets turned upside-down one evening when, after work, he is mistaken for a George Kaplan, abducted from a dinner meeting at gunpoint, and brought to the home of a wealthy United Nations worker. He escapes, but not after being forced to down an entire bottle of bourbon, and is subsequently arrested for drunk driving. However, the police, judge, even his mother believe him when they take him to the house and nothing is the way he described it. He traces Kaplan to a hotel, and nobody has ever seen the man, but Roger knows he must find him to clear his name after he is framed for murder.

Roger’s chase takes him from New York to Chicago and finally to Mount Rushmore. Along the way, he meets the beautiful Eve Kendall (Eva Saint Marie), who wants to bed Roger almost immediately. He also finds out the hard way that no one is who they say they are, and almost everyone involved in this plot has a hidden motive. It makes things very hard as he tries to find the truth, and it keeps us from knowing exactly where the story is going. That’s “North by Northwest’s” greatest asset. The plot never stops twisting and turning, and thankfully, the twists are necessary. They aren’t done gratuitously or for shock value, unlike many modern thrillers.

But problems abound prevent me from truly recommending the film. I didn’t find any of the characters interesting or very likeable. Roger is supposed to be an everyman in true Hitchcock-ian tradition, but I didn’t feel any connection to him at all. I’m not sure whether the blame falls at the feet of Grant or the screenplay, but compared to, say, Scottie Ferguson in “Vertigo,” Roger is flat and uninvolving. Even worse are Eva Saint Marie’s Eve Kendall and James Mason’s Vandamm. The former is icy cold, while the latter makes for a very drab villain. Hitchcock has so many memorable characters that these just can’t come close to measuring up to his high standard.

The biggest problem I had, however, was the way the film just drags. It goes from place to place without much happening. Sure, another layer of the plot is revealed along the way, but it’s just movement for movement’s sake. The film likely could have been a half hour shorter if they stayed in the general confines of New York. The intention seemed to be to get these characters to Mount Rushmore for the grand finale. It’s a marvelous set piece to be sure, but it’s not enough if the content doesn’t measure up. The Lady from Shanghai is a much better example of great set piece, great climax.

Of course, most people remember “North by Northwest” for its crop duster sequence, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I enjoyed that. Was it the most exciting scene ever? No, but it’s easily the best and most exciting in this film. Well-filmed, well-edited, and well-scored, it’s the main thing I’ll take away from watching this film.

“North by Northwest” sounded like something that would fit very nicely into my movie sweet spot. It has some intrigue, action, and mystery, and it’s by Hitchcock. How can you go wrong? Well, it does go wrong. Apparently, having a number of dull individuals travel around the country for nearly two and a half hours doesn’t make for the most exciting cinema. I don’t regret watching it, but I have to say it was quite a disappointment.

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