North by Catching a Key

Published By: William Bundy 1 month ago

Photo by Simon Fitall on Unsplash

Alfred Hitchcock is a name synonymous with suspense and well-respected as one of the great directors of all time. His face, it could be argued, forms a part of Hollywood's own Mount Rushmore, alongside the likes of John Ford, William Wyler, Cecil B. DeMille, Akira Kurosawa, David Lean, and many others who have gone on to carve a path through Hollywood's long and winding hills. These winding hills provide the perfect settings themselves for a Hitchcockian mystery, the term becoming an adjective in our language, its usage now so synonymous with certain conventions in Hollywood films and beyond.

This is no small achievement, and much like "Spielbergian" has to come to epitomize a certain kind of film - kid's on an adventure, an element of wonder, small-town suburbia - so too Hitchcock has come to represent the wrong man (or woman) caught up in a web of intrigue from which there is no apparent escape. The hapless victim who wanders into a trap set for them by malicious eyes which we can see through as the audience but which the victim is blind to, adding to the suspense. The character with an overbearing mother. The "MacGuffin" which adds no value to the plot other than to drive the momentum forward so Hitchcock can stay ahead of the audience as he ratchets up the suspense, dangling us with opportunities for the hero or heroine to find salvation.

Perhaps one of his most famous "suspense" films, and one I would argue works just as effectively as any modern blockbuster or chase thriller is "North by Northwest", starring Cary Grant, one of Hitchcock's favourite leading men. First premiering on July 1st, 1959 in Chicago Illinois, this relentless and magnificently made chase thriller features Grant as the character of Roger Thornhill aka the wrong man (one of Hitchcock's most famous plot devices) who is mistaken for a mysterious figure whom we come to realize is a spy embroiled in a much larger game. As the film races ahead, he becomes entangled in ever-deepening layers of intrigue that keep him on his toes through the narrative, leading to the spectacular climax on Mount Rushmore that to this day remains an iconic feat of blockbuster filmmaking.

That Hitchcock dared to set the climax in such a place, right at the carved mouths of the founding fathers, says something about Hitchcock's showmanship and his ability to bring the audience with him, regardless of how implausible it may seem. He even goes to the length of placing the villain's house nearby as a convenient plot point, which says something about Hitchcock's showmanship and his ability to bring the audience with him, regardless of how implausible it may all seem.

The characters exist to serve the plot in this film, and Hitchcock was a master at delivering stories timed to perfection like a Swiss watch, and one can practically feel the hour hand ticking by as the hero has to contend with whatever is thrown at him next. In this case, a literal race against time as both the police and Vandamm's men tighten the net around Thornhill, who climbs one thorny hill after another, as he finds himself in the cross-hairs of a mysterious the organization who think he is an enemy agent in a spider-web of intelligence and counter-intelligence.

What I admire about the film is how lean it is, and how Hitchcock literally plunges us right into the thick of things, barely giving us any introductory time with Thornhill and instead allowing his actions to speak for which Grant spices up with his characteristic and delicious dry wit, giving it a real kick in the process. He enjoys some beautiful dialogue scenes with Eve, so wonderfully played by Eva Marie Saint, who adds a sultry and sophisticated element to her character, who has secrets of her own unbeknownst to Thornhill. Their chemistry is terrific; the train sequences alone showing how erotic Hitchcock could make even a simple kiss, without the need for any gratuity.

Indeed there is very little violence at all in the film and Hitchcock can employ his techniques of suspense to keep us in the game and keep us watching over our shoulder as Thornhill finds himself getting deeper and deeper into trouble. There is a carefree disregard by Thornhill for anything he is involved in, bar the girl, and I admire how Grant can pull this off in only the way he could.

Together, both Grant and Hitchcock had an extraordinary working relationship when they made both this and "To Catch a Thief", which shares a similar plot element regarding mistaken identity.  Grant, who plays John Robie is a retired cat burglar whom the police believe is the culprit behind a new spree of burglaries in modern-day France. With both the police and his former associates on his tale, he has to prove his innocence and find the real culprit before its too late.

Grant seemed to take the role much in his stride; proving to me that he could play dangerous just as much as he could play a character like Thornhill, who is slightly more gormless in some ways. I like the idea that Thornhill is an advertising executive, Hitchcock almost playing with a thematic subtext that all advertising is fake anyway and designed to reel people in, which Thornhill certainly does disastrously, and comes to take on a new identity in the process, despite his best intentions.

Hitchcock also reinforces the idea of the MacGuffin when he obscures the dialogue between Thornhill and The Professor (played wonderfully as the architect of the endeavour by Leo G. Carrel) at a critical moment as if to reinforce the notion that the specifics of the major players involved are unimportant. In this respect, one thing "To Catch a Thief" misses that "North by Northwest" has is a good villain, and James Mason proves himself yet again as one of my favourite actors with the character of Vandamm, a villain more than capable of going toe to toe with someone like Grant.

His velvety voice makes Vandamm a formidably smooth opponent who you can believe is the face of a much larger organization bearing down on Thornhill like a nightmare from above. He is more than capably helped by his right-hand man, Leonard, so wonderfully and snakily played by a young Martin Landau, who revealed he played the character as gay, which to me doesn't come across necessarily in the final film but is interesting to note as an intention nonetheless.

It's also a testament to Hitchcock that he was willing to go along with the idea, particularly at a time when homosexuality was not something readily accepted in both the media and in society, and this only adds to the opinion I have that Hitchcock was far ahead of time in many ways, both technically and artistically. I do not, however, have an informed idea as to what his real views were on that matter in general, but it is certainly interesting to ponder.

His view on the story and plot, however, is on full display in both films, with the infamous crop-dusting sequence form "North by Northwest" cementing its place as one of the great set-pieces of all time alongside the climactic scenes on Mount Rushmore. I can't help but feel in this respect, that one Steven Spielberg might have taken this on board as an example of how to construct "set pieces" that will leave a lasting impression on an audience, as Spielberg has been able to do time and time himself, to incredible effect.

"To Catch a Thief" separates itself in this regard possessing a much lighter tone and far less "epic" scope to it in comparison to "North by Northwest"; being set entirely in a region of the south of France where Grant's retired cat burglar is racing against time to prove his innocence and unmask the real culprit. As a result, there is a significant element of playful mystery to the film, which is enhanced by the beautiful chemistry between John Robie and Frances Stephens played so elegantly and playfully by Grace Kelly, who Robie investigates as he closes in on the burglar. The whole film is undoubtedly one of Hitchcock's most sumptuous, the director making full use of the exotic location to maximum effect.

It has its twist of course, but "North by Northwest" stands out far more in my mind and is the more cinematic of the two, with Hitchcock taking his common entry point of "the wrong man" to its ultimate conclusion. It also has a beautiful and iconic score by Bernard Hermann, who worked successfully as a collaborator with Hitchcock for some 40 years, and delivers a fast-paced and romantic score that both underscores the tension and the more sensual moments in equal measure is. "To Catch a Thief" featured a score by another composer and did the job well enough, but I think, much like Spielberg and Williams, Leone and Morricone, even Nolan and Zimmer, there was unique chemistry between Hermann and Hitchcock that just seemed t work, and it is in full force with "North by Northwest".

Both films display Hitchcock at his finest: a raging, cinematic master of suspense and style who knew how to work an audience; climbing his own Mount Rushmore to new heights of cinematic bravado and taking the cinema world by storm in the process. His body of work as a whole, including my favourite, "Vertigo" continues to inspire filmmakers to this day including the likes of Martin Scorsese, who, in 2007, directed this rather beautiful homage to Hitchcock entitled "Key to Reserva", which is a short film based on an existing Hitchcock script that was never made. As a piece of filmmaking, it is wonderfully well-made and is a beautiful tribute to Hitchcock that is entirely in keeping with his voice and style, some 27 years after his passing.

He was a master, and I hope that filmmakers will continue to be inspired by his films, which were themselves lain upon rock-solid foundations of scripts comprising well-thought-out stories and plots, for many years to come.  

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