Even today, there’s still something to be said for the experience of seeing a movie in a theater.
I know that more or less goes without saying, but every so often I repeat said experience and remember why it matters, without entirely knowing how to articulate it. Times like that, it’s better just to let the movie speak for itself.
Which is pretty easy when we’re talking about my favorite movie.
Last Tuesday, Texas Public Radio (led by the indispensable Nathan Cone) hosted a special screening of Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s classic North by Northwest. Out of that handful of films I call my favorite of all time, this one’s at the top of my list. And until last Tuesday, it was one of the few of those films that I’d never seen on the big screen. So of course I had to be there.
The plot of the film, while not simplistic, is described easily enough. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a mostly carefree ad executive who quickly finds himself stuck in the worst week of his life. In short order, he’s mistaken for a man he’s never met, kidnapped, framed for drunk driving, framed again for murder, and forced to run for his life and freedom, in a cross-country odyssey that takes him from New York to a certain landmark in South Dakota. Along the way, he contends with a rather sinister gang of villains (led by the incomparable James Mason and Martin Landau), meets up with the obligatory Mysterious Woman (Eva Marie Saint, a quintessential Hitchcock blonde), and has a memorable stopover in an isolated cornfield…
That’s pretty much it. And when you put it that way it doesn’t sound like much. But Hitchcock, aided by Ernest Lehman‘s fantastic screenplay and a brilliant cast, takes that slight story (one he’d already made his own by 1959, the year of its release) and builds it into a near-perfect comic and romantic adventure, the prototype for the modern thriller.
The set pieces of North by Northwest are justifiably the stuff of legend. Even if you haven’t seen the film (and why haven’t you?), when I say “Mount Rushmore” and “crop duster”, you”ll likely know what I’m talking about. The crop duster scene, in particular, is a perfect illustration of why Hitchcock was known as The Master of Suspense; its thrills are earned by minutes of near-unbearable tension.
But even with those set pieces, it’s the characters and dialogue (which I’ll not spoil here, though I’d really love to quote that auction scene) that bring the film to life. Roger Thornhill is the perfect vehicle for Cary Grant’s classic charm, and Grant makes the most of it. Mason and Landau (in one of his very first screen performances) bring the full force of their presence to bear on their characters, making them both menacing and entirely compelling. Saint is alluring, ambiguous, and oddly sympathetic throughout. And the wonderful supporting cast includes the likes of Jessie Royce Landis, Adam Williams (whose Valerian is a forerunner to the great Bond henchmen of the 60s, like Oddjob and Red Grant), Ed Platt, and Leo G. Carroll (making this, to the best of my memory, the only film to feature members of CONTROL, U.N.C.L.E., and the Impossible Missions Force).
And as if that weren’t enough, the film also gives us the late, great, Bernard Herrmann, whose score is essential listening for anyone who loves music. It gives us one more example of why Saul Bass might be the greatest title designer of all time. And it gives us Hitchcock’s funniest director cameo.
I could go on. I’d like to go on. But all I really need to say is that you must see North by Northwest. And while it’s readily available on DVD and Blu-Ray, you owe it to yourself to find the nearest screening and be there, to experience it as it was meant to be experienced.
With that, I’ll let you begin your search. Thanks to Nathan and TPR for hosting another fantastic event, thanks to everyone who attended for their support of classic film, and thanks to you for reading.
I hope our paths will cross at another screening. Until then, “be seeing you…”