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At the MoviesMichael Wood

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Vol. 31 No. 13 · 9 July 2009
At the Movies

‘North by Northwest’

Michael Wood

North by Northwest 
directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
July 1959
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A number of New York subway trains currently have posted in them an advertisement for a suspense novel (Brad Meltzer’s Book of Lies) said to be a combination of The Da Vinci Code and North by Northwest. We know about the huge success of the former, especially in its book shape, but it’s reassuring news that a 50-year-old film is still taken to be a household, or rolling stock word. But what about the combination? Meltzer’s novel will tell us how and if it works, but we could still be left puzzling over the intended meaning of the ad, the sign value of the two titles.

The Da Vinci Code is pretty easy: murder story with roots in ancient times and entangled in religion. And North by Northwest? Witty, stylish thriller where a man can almost get killed in the middle of nowhere and later scramble about the face of Mount Rushmore? Film where the notion of real-life probability is not just abandoned but lampooned, Hitchcock’s finest attack on the very notion of cause and motive? ‘Here, you see’, he said to Truffaut, speaking about this movie, ‘the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!’ He is saying that the espionage that drives the plot does just that: it drives the plot. We don’t have to know what the spies are after or what’s at stake, even if there is a flicker of a mention of the Cold War in the movie. Do the stolen secrets matter? In the world of actual espionage that would probably be a secret too, but in Hitchcock the answer is a revelation. Of course they matter, even in the entire absence of any content for them. They are the way the film pretends it’s about something.

We can think of all this, or of as much of it as we care to, under very good conditions, since a new print of North by Northwest is showing at the BFI, and will doubtless soon appear on DVD – the old DVD is discontinued and can be found only at enterprising or out-of-the-way shops. The film starts in a way that defines its terms with extraordinary elegance, asking us to think about design and daily reality together, as if we could just fade from one to the other and back. Well, we can, can’t we? Saul Bass’s abstract credit sequence – green screen, credits running across multiple diagonal lines – dissolves into Hitchcock’s (briefly, at the start) realistic movie as the lines become the floors of a glass skyscraper full of reflections of cars on a New York street: Madison Avenue, as it happens, in those days the world headquarters of advertising, and crowded with people, including Hitchcock himself narrowly missing a bus. This busy city feeling continues as Cary Grant, playing the ad man Roger Thornhill, appears dictating notes to his secretary. They start to walk uptown, then take a taxi. He gets out at the Plaza, meets some business associates in the Oak Room.

Then everything shifts into an entirely different register, apparently for plot reasons but really because we are beginning to leave all ordinary ideas of plot behind, the pure MacGuffin kicking in. Getting up to send a telegram, Thornhill is mistaken for a man who is being paged, one George Kaplan. Thornhill is promptly kidnapped, and taken off to a palatial pad on Long Island, where after failing to reveal to his interrogators what he is supposed to know, he is filled with bourbon and dumped in a car rolling downhill. Half-asleep and fully drunk he drives the car most of the way off a cliff and back again, narrowly misses hitting several cars coming the other way on a very winding road (distinctly more like somewhere in California than anywhere on Long Island, and even more like a bit of studio superimposed on some footage of the sea), has a bad fit of double vision, and finally brakes hard in order to avoid an elderly cyclist. The police car that has been following him for a while crashes into him, and another vehicle crashes into the police car. Thornhill is taken off to the police station, miraculously unharmed but still very drunk. When he tells the story of his kidnapping, no one believes him, not even (or least of all) his mother, played by the admirable Jessie Royce Landis, almost repeating her role in To Catch a Thief. This is the kind of movie where an arrested man makes his one phone call not to his lawyer but to his mother. He tells her to bring his lawyer.

So far so random, and so mystifying. Hitchcock says that at this point in the shooting of the film even Grant didn’t know what was going on. He was Roger Thornhill. But of course various snippy questions have started to tiptoe across our minds. If you wanted to question a man you had picked up in Manhattan why would you have to take him out to Long Island? Especially if, as soon becomes clear, you had to occupy a vacant house and pretend to be its owner solely for the purpose of asking your (fruitless) questions. Is turning a man into a drunk driver the best way of killing him? It is just possible the bad guys don’t intend to kill Thornhill, only to compromise him, since he pushes one of them out of the car and takes off. Still, could anyone survive the drunken trip he takes? Did no one care in those days about how terrible the back projection was; couldn’t Hitchcock have done better than the manifest movie of a road scrolling behind Grant’s obviously studio-based head?

In fact, once we have begun to glimpse what Hitchcock is up to, even the mundane, pedantic suspicions represented by these questions begin to work for him, since they help to show us where we are not. Hitchcock has no interest in New York geography or practical murder or plausible criminal thinking or perfected screen illusion. It’s not that he doesn’t care about reality, just that the reality he cares about is in our minds and not in the imitable world; it’s in our fears and our fantasies. If we look again at the drunk-driving scene, we see not a riveting drama of suspense – will Thornhill get out of this alive? – but a totally persuasive picture of a man in the grip of a nightmare, our nightmare, the car and the life terminally out of control. All we see really is Grant’s face, and it’s all we need to see. He blinks, stares, frowns, squints, leans forwards, leans back, almost falls asleep. He is driving and not driving. He doesn’t know what he’s doing but he’s doing what he can.

This effect, and this narrative logic, is even clearer in the movie’s most famous scene, although the nightmare is different. Thornhill takes a bus out of Chicago to a place on a lonely, dusty road where he is supposed to meet the man he is supposed to be. We already know, although he doesn’t, that Kaplan doesn’t exist, that he is a phantom agent constructed by the CIA to throw the bad guys off the scent of their real agent. The bad guys, however, still think Thornhill is Kaplan, and are determined to kill him. And here again our dim, obvious questions get us further into Hitchcock’s world than they seem to have any promise of doing. Is this any way to get rid of a troublesome opponent? Send him on an hour and half’s bus journey and attack him from a crop-spraying plane? When you’re in Chicago? There is a whole history of far more efficient disposals there, even if things do go badly wrong in Some Like It Hot.

The scene on the road is magnificent, worth seeing again and again. Thornhill gets off the bus and waits. This is not just the middle of nowhere, it is the Platonic idea of such a place. A couple of cars pass, a truck. Then an old car trundles out of a field and deposits a man in a suit. The car turns round and vanishes. Is this Kaplan? Thornhill walks uncertainly across the road and asks him if Kaplan is his name. Succinctly combining truth and reason, the man replies: ‘Can’t say it is, ’cause it ain’t.’ Then just before the bus he’s been waiting for arrives he remarks: ‘That’s funny.’ Thornhill says: ‘What?’ The man says: ‘That plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops.’ He leaves on the bus. The plane zooms in to attack Thornhill and the rest is movie history, part of the iconography of loneliness and the risk of death in America. As Stanley Cavell says, ‘Of course the Great Plains is a region in which men are unprotected from the sky.’

It’s not just the sky, though, it’s also the empty earth. Cavell speaks of the uncanny in relation to this scene, which points us exactly where we need to go – or where Hitchcock is going. The uncanny represents the reappearance of the familiar in the shape of the alien: that’s why we always fail to be sufficiently surprised by it, as in Cavell’s ‘of course’. But we are surprised, and our ‘of course’ comes late. The whole point of repression is that it works and doesn’t work. The attacking plane is not an arbitrary bit of movie action, or rather that’s just what it is and why the scene sticks in the mind. It is as arbitrary action that it figures what has to happen in the world of our fears. From earth or sky, something has to come and get us.

Hitchcock, characteristically, adds a twist to this story, since both his heroes and villains, within the fiction, are just as interested in such extravagances as he is. The CIA makes up a phantom agent. The chief malefactor plays charades in a house on Long Island, obligingly owns a house near Mount Rushmore, and is willing to go to rococo cinematic extremes to get a man killed in the Midwest. What movie director wouldn’t be grateful, even if he hadn’t made such characters up himself? The malefactor, for good measure, is played by James Mason in his best suave, sneering manner. The movie would be worth seeing just for the pleasure of watching him and Grant face off, aided and abetted by Hitchcock’s camera and timing, and Ernest Lehman’s wonderful script.

There is a remarkable scene in the film where the characters and the script actually confess their interest in all these theatrical displays – their own commitment, so to speak, to Hitchcock’s movie and to our nightmares. Mason, with his splendid sinuous drawl, reproaches Grant both with overacting and going in for too many parts. ‘Has anyone ever told you that you overplay your various roles rather severely, Mr Kaplan?’ Mason lists the roles and concludes: ‘Seems to me you fellows could stand a little less training from the FBI and a little more from the Actors’ Studio.’ Grant, not to be left out of the metaphor or the irony, says: ‘Apparently the only performance that’s going to satisfy you is when I play dead.’ Mason replies without the least emphasis: ‘Your very next role.’ And Grant, seeming to glance at the very movie he is in, says: ‘I wonder what subtle form of manslaughter is next on the programme.’ These elaborate designs and the reference to them may seem gratuitous, but of course that appearance is precisely the point, the vivid, continuing collaboration of randomness and intricate order. As Hitchcock told Truffaut with a fine sense of double thinking: ‘Even a gratuitous scene must have some justification for being there, you know.’ The sheer ingenuity of death may be the least of our worries; but it could also be among the worst of our fears.

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