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Best left to memory?

February 23, 2010

Sometimes a movie achieves widespread renown due to a single image or sequence. I’d wager that many folks have seen this shot of Cary Grant running from a strafing biplane in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” (1959). It is the signature shot of the movie. For those of us who watched the movie years ago when we were younger and perhaps more impressionable, that shot evokes the memory of a dangerous game of cat and mouse presented by the master. A recent eyeballing of “NbyNW” suggests that sometimes it may be better to rely on your warped memories of a film than revisit a well-regarded old flick.  There’s a sinking feeling when you realize the effort is hopelessly outdated and doesn’t deserve the three-room Waldorf Astoria suite you’ve reserved for it in your memory. “NbyNW” is more of a twin bed at the EconoLodge.

The biplane attack on Grant is a great sequence visually. As an example of a tough-nosed thriller, it’s poppycock. The bad guys (James Mason and a young Martin Landau channeling his inner Vincent Price) decide they are going to kill Grant with  a crop duster? Really? Grant is standing alone on  a stretch of Indiana highway (the scene was actually shot in California fields). Any bad dude worth his screen time could drive right up to Grant and gun him down, but instead Mason and Landau hit on the  more cinematic device of a biplane banking and diving at Grant, with a few pistol shots thrown in to add something close to danger. (After all, as menacing as a ground-scraping plane might be, unless the pilot is a kamikaze who’s finally getting his screen test, a plane doesn’t make a great weapon.) The point is not that the biplane chasing Mr. Debonair through the dust is a poor choice for an arresting visual. It’s the opposite. That sequence was so good it has become iconographic not just for this one movie but for all of Hitchcock’s work. However, this sequence puts the lie to my memory of “NbyNW” as a taut thriller.

Don’t even get me started on the house that James Mason’s character has built right on top of the Mt. Rushmore monument, or the goofy chase down the presidential faces. The special effects are so bad by today’s standards, it’s hard not to chuckle at the glass-matte, sound-stage fakery of it all.

Hitchcock was more likely sending up the whole spy movie genre but many of us were too thick to catch it. The last shot of the movie should be a clue that Hitchcock was just hacking around with some actors and cameras and lights and collecting his paycheck. Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are heading back east after the bad guys have been dispatched. They are in a railroad sleeper car making out on a berth in prelude to doing the deed. The last shot is of the train entering a tunnel. This is the kind of silly wink-wink shot that the Bond films would later do to death. Hard to believe the master wasn’t signaling to us that the entire movie was just a pleasant way to spend time with Cary, James and Eva while keeping Alfred in smoking jackets and Rolls Royces.


From → culture

  1. Martin Queeney permalink

    Wish I could think of something pithy to say, but you’re the one with the wit. Spent some very entertaining time reading your blog. I’d love to meet this Portobello guy.

  2. Portobello is a character – literally. I think you’d like him. What he lacks in humility he makes up for in pomposity. Still, the guy has pulled off one of the most important document finds in history. Once people realize the value of this George in London document, Portobello will be national news. He’ll be on all the shows — you know, Good Morning Akron, the WSWL Caribou, Maine, afternoon show and Radio Havana Libre.

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