Not Rated. I think we're in that weird time period between movies simply being approved and the formal establishment of the MPAA. Cary Grant does sexually harass a lot of women and I had the awkward task of explaining what a train going through a tunnel meant in film. Yeah, that was the low point of my month.
DIRECTOR: Alfred Hitchcock
Context plays such a big part in watching a film. The first time we watch something, I have to believe, it is in its most pure form. There's something special. We are vulnerable to the movie-going experience. Ideally, and I talk about this idea quite a bit on this blog, we have few expectations. With a movie like North by Northwest, I knew quite a bit about this movie before I saw it. I feel like this was a cultural talking point when I was a kid. I knew about the crop dusting scene. I knew about Mt. Rushmore. I just needed the film to string these ideas together. My students knew nothing about this movie. This is going along with the theory I have that film classics are starting to disappear from our national identity. But I had watched this in class with my students. For some reason last year, I didn't review the movies that I showed students. Most of the time, I was multitasking and didn't consider them actual viewings of the movies like I would want to do. I only reviewed the movie if I hadn't seen it in a while and wasn't sure about content. But North by Northwest and the rest of the Hitchcock films I showed this year were old favorites of mine. Which makes what I'm about to say very interesting.
I was a little more bored with North by Northwest than I normally would be. I stressed that context would play a big part in this review and I think it does. I've seen North by Northwest too many times. It's one of the big Hitchcock films. Like, he could have just made North by Northwest and made a name for himself. But it's one of the ones we think of when we get past Psycho, The Birds, and maybe Vertigo. (I'm not ranking them, but I'm just putting out things that people used to associate with Hitch.) The movie is fun and it puts the Master of Suspense into using that tension not for horror necessarily, but for espionage. It's not the only time he does it, but it is the one that kind of breaks from the pattern a bit. When I have seen a movie too many times, no matter how much I like it, I start to see the cracks a bit. I don't want to see the cracks. I like my spotless movies to remain just that: spotless. But in this case, I couldn't help it. I was at work. I wasn't relaxed. My list of movie reviews was piling up. (Admittedly, my own fault, but I want oh-so-desperately to be caught up.) Watching this one was not my ideal. I wanted to just take a break from movies for a few days to catch up and then I was going to add not one, but two movies to the list? (I had just shown my AP class the film version of The Grapes of Wrath after teaching the novel.) Also, I was watching with the students wanting to like it. (They did.) It was in these moments that I realized that the movie drags a little.
Part of what makes suspense work is not knowing the answer to if the film is going to go left or right. I give Rope as the exception because the filmmaking style is so playful. But I know which way the story is going to go in North by Northwest. I had studied the magician's trick and I had seen where the false bottom was. Part of me watching the film this time was just from a cinema perspective and it took a lot of the joy out of it for me. In many ways, it was like when I prep a book for my English class. I like the book, but the fun of watching the movie the right way was gone. I still acknowledge that the movie is a masterpiece, but I knew that Roger was never in any real danger. I also noticed, and this is probably where the actual critique of the film instead of myself begins, that Cary Grant is really Cary Granting the crap out of this movie. People have Cary Grant impressions. They used to, at least. It's because he has a very noticable acting style. He was a sex symbol for the time and I think that Roger Thornhill might be just in that sweet spot that Cary Grant loves. The movie is written for Cary Grant, the public figure, sooner than it is for a method actor like Montgomery Clift. (For a fun time, read Hitchcock's thoughts on method acting and Montgomery Clift.) As such, I have a hard time separating what should be the character of Roger Thornhill and Cary Grant kind of just resting in that sweet spot. I had the same commentary on Anthony Hopkins in Westworld. Both actors are extremely entertaining to watch, but there are some real habits that both actors really enjoy reusing. There's nothing all that special when it comes to this specific performance, so the narrative has to take up a lot of the slack. Also, being woke in 2017 doesn't help my case either. Eva Marie Saint is really eye candy and the brunt of Thornhill's sexual advances. It's uncomfortable, but this movie is really James Bond before James Bond.
It's in the action and in the jokes that this movie works. My students tended to yell at the screen for the big movie mistakes that Thornhill does throughout the film. I reprimanded them, guaranteeing that they would make equally bad mistakes, if not the one that Cary Grant made on screen. They nodded, but that's why the movie works. We have a frustration and relationship to Thornhill that makes the movie engaging. Even though the movie was old hat to me by this point, I couldn't help but loving that my students were super invested in the movie. (I've put a moratorium on digital devices. It was horrifying to them at first, but I also noticed that they like the movies more now...LAUREN.) As such, Hitchcock knows when to stick in his action. It probably is what makes the non-action sequences a bit more dull than they have to be. But thinking about the crop dusting scene, it would later be emulated in the Sean Connery Bond movie, From Russia With Love. While I love love LOVE From Russia With Love, Hitchcock does the scene better. There's something amazing about the reverse tracking shot towards the camera. The plane coming closer and closer is nerve-wracking. But the thing that crushes the whole movie (and most of my school building can attest based on the fact that I've been humming the theme all week) is Bernard Herrmann's score. Herrmann is the man. Honest to Pete, when I see Hitchcock's name next to Herrmann, I know the movie is going to be great. This seems superficial, but it seems like the two creators really get each other. The movie works. As part of that, I love the entire final sequence on Mt. Rushmore. I know, I'm saying nothing new. Everyone loves these two sequences. But the end is awesome. I am often confused about the scale of the things that are being climbed, but I'm going to either shut off my brain or assume that the filmmakers knew better than I do. The scene works and me trying to overanalyze it seems like a waste of my time and yours.
I guess I'm just a little depressed. I have now seen this movie too many times. I had this problem with On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The movie will never be new to me. I miss that specialness that comes with discovering a film. But the best thing I can get is that the movie really works for new audiences. Maybe down the line, my brain will be separated enough from this film to enjoy it in the way it deserves. But right now, the I can't help but watch it from a perspective of a fan.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.