After a few months of blathering on and on about seeing more classic films on the big screen, my first chance came earlier this week when a local theater was showing Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) rather fortuitously on my day off from work. It was the first in a list that I hope swells to 15 to 25 classic films seen on the big screen in 2012. I’m not sure that I have enough to say about it to write a proper review or even a Re-Watchterpiece Theater (since I’ve seen the movie before), but I do have several thoughts I’d like to share about it.
First and foremost, apparently Hitchcock wanted to make a film that was lacking in his famous (infamous?) symbolism when he made North by Northwest. But you’d never really know it from watching because there are at least two scenes that were ripe with sexual symbolism. The first scene arrived when Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) shares a meal with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) on a train. As the conversation took on a more sexually charged nature, Eve reached for a cigarette, Roger lit it, and she took a long, satisfying drag. I should probably use quote marks around the word cigarette because I don’t think that was really a cigarette in her mouth. The second was the film’s closing shot at the end. Roger and Eve roll into bed together just before we’re treated to a smash cut of a train shooting through a tunnel. It’s one of the most hilarious Freudian intercourse references I’ve ever seen because it doesn’t possess an ounce of subtlety. In fact, I burst out laughing in the theater because Hitchcock was such a dirty old man.
Either I had completely forgotten about or didn’t notice the humor in the movie the first time. Especially early in the movie, Thornhill fires off one snarky bit of dialogue after another. Both Thornhill’s arrest for driving under the influence and his escape from the auction were straight out of a comedy film, and it worked as well as it did because of Grant’s comedic timing and acting skill. Still, it’s a suspense/ espionage thriller first and a comedy second. Suspense is, after all, where Hitchcock made his hay. The long shot of the crop-dusting plane approaching a fleeing Thornhill was pitch-perfect. And I have no shame in admitting that I found my palms literally sweating during the famous scene atop Mt. Rushmore. The finale atop the national monument and the crop-duster scene are some of the most iconic scenes you’ll ever see in American cinema.
In so many ways, North by Northwest is the quintessential Hitchcock film. If you were piling together a list of what you expect to see from a Hitchcock film, the list would include: the “Hitchcock blonde”, present here in the form of Eve Kendall; a MacGuffin, which is the microfilm hidden inside of the art from the auction; a tense scene atop a national monument; hilarious Freudian intercourse symbolism; bumbling and inept policemen; a strong mother figure; and a lot of tension created by heights. Hitchcock didn’t put ALL of those things in ALL of his films but they did occur several times throughout his catalogue. You can check each one off in North by Northwest. What it all amounts to is an amazing movie, one of the best ever made. And now I can say that I’ve seen it in a theater. One down, fourteen more to go.