Due to a very long story, my family spent the last few weeks in a series of short term rentals. One of them had possibly the most eclectic collection of DVDs I’ve seen in a while. No-brainers like Finding Nemo and The Hunger Games sat next to Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book (which sadly we never made it to).
So I’ll go ahead and cop to this embarrassing mistake – the original post referred to Verhoeven’s film as Little Black Book. Thanks to Nuwan Sen for the very diplomatic correction in the comments below.
But the owners had a large Hitchcock collection and thus my wife and I finally got a chance to see one of his most celebrated films: North by Northwest. Having seen a fair amount of Hitchcock, I was a little surprised to find this one pretty light hearted, albeit still impeccably made.
Little did I know that this is exactly what Hitchcock set out to do. According to an interview with screenwriter Ernest Lehman, they intended to make something exciting and suspenseful, but not nearly as dark as some of Hitchcock’s previous work. In that, they – along with an outstanding cast featuring Cary Grant, James Mason (always a better villain than hero), Eva Marie Saint, and even a young Walter Matthau – succeed handsomely.
The plot is slightly less confused than Hitchcock’s similar “wrong man” film The 39 Steps, and two decent twists involving Saint’s character propel it nicely into the third act. Hitchcock uses his considerable skill – he’d already made over 50 films by this point – in several great scenes. As Grant tries to elude the police in Grand Central Station, the camera tracks, loses, and then reacquires him in a nice oner. And Hitchcock revealed to Francois Truffaut that the iconic crop-duster sequence was purposefully “absurd,” but done because he was sick of the cliche of the “dark alley” execution. Occasionally, the script and direction come together for a few inspired and slightly subversive moments, including the scene where Grant’s recap of the plot is drowned out by background noise (Hitchcock complained to Truffaut of directors who added plot summaries to the middle of the films) and the infamous “train in the tunnel” shot at the end.
But there’s also a sense that, enjoyable as it is, North by Northwest is a bit lightweight. While confusing, The 39 Steps is a better thriller. And although Grant is charming, he’s better in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief and almost all of his earlier work. (That said, Grant’s gray suit in North by Northwest is a thing of beauty, easily edging out his ascots in To Catch a Thief.) And so, while it may not be a very deep film, there’s no denying it’s fun, and clearly its creators intended it to be so.