Monday, May 14, 2012

North by Northwest - 1959

“North by Northwest” (1959), a forerunner of James Bond-type spy action flicks, a witty who-done-it-and-where-is-he, is also, at times, a comedy with style, elegance, sexual innuendo, and trains, sometimes all at once.

It’s the train we’re going to discuss today, now that I’m in withdrawal from my favorite holiday - National Train Day.

And we’ll also talk about the sex. Never have the two been so closely linked.

Today’s post is our contribution to the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III. This year, the intrepid host trio of Farran Smith Nehme of Self-Styled Siren, Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films, and Roderick Heath of This Island Rod are raising funds for the National Film Preservation Foundation's project, The White Shadow, directed by Graham Cutts -- which was “written, assistant-directed, and just generally meddled with in a number of different ways by the one and only Alfred Hitchcock”.

Please visit the three blogs of our hosts for lists of other blogathon participants and contribute if you can to the National Film Preservation Foundation.

In “North by Northwest”, Cary Grant is an advertising executive caught in a web of cold war intrigue and murder when he is mistaken for somebody else. His wit and his charm make for easy transitions to the moments of the film that are by turns elegant, mysterious, and even quite funny. Director Hitchcock and writer Ernest Lehman skillfully blend all these elements in a delightful way.

There is of course another element, one of suspense, of danger if not outright terror to Grant’s character, who through the course of the film is kidnapped, nearly killed several times, chased by the police as a suspected murderer himself, and dance partner to a homicidal crop duster.

The terror, I think, would be stronger if someone like James Stewart were in the role. Mr. Stewart had the ability, greater than Grant’s, I believe, to convey panic and psychological torment. If Stewart had been the man on the run, we’d worry more about him. Cary Grant, however, has that panache, that confidence in himself that makes us have confidence in him. We somehow know all along he’ll be fine.

He is, however, more fitting for the erotic train sequence than Mr. Stewart, whose vulnerability was part of his own particular charm. Grant shuttles us into the sexy 1960s.  He's more swinger than victim.

In “North by Northwest” the train, though often a place of mystery and even terror in Hitchcock films, instead becomes a safe haven, a place of romance, and at the end of the film is revisited for a happy ending.

Mr. Grant, on the run, and on his way to Chicago, slips aboard the 20th Century Limited in New York. Have a look at our previous trip aboard this famous train in “Twentieth Century” (1934).

The stowaway bumps into Eva Marie Saint in a corridor, where she smoothly diverts the cops who are chasing him. We might wonder why, since they are strangers and she seems not to care that he is wanted by the police. We soon learn she is not all she seems to be. For now, her mystery, like a delicate perfume, fills the train car and that is enough. We are in no great hurry, and neither is she.

Grant encounters her again in the dining car, where their ordering of brook trout invariably invokes for me the scene of Claude Rains’ petulant ordering of brook trout in “Deception” (1946) discussed here.

When you’re in a train dining car today, you still get the tablecloth, the bud vase with the flowers, but if you want a chance encounter with someone like Cary Grant, you’ll have to arrange that beforehand.

Which, it seems, is what Eva Marie Saint and her cohorts did.

Thorough planning is the sure way to a more pleasurable trip.

Though Cary Grant’s patented suaveness leads us to expect a tryst with the lady, it is really Miss Saint who controls the scene with such leisurely, and serene, seduction.

“It’s going to be a long night…and I don’t particularly like the book I’ve started…You know what I mean?”

“Tell me, what do you do besides lure men to their doom on the 20th Century Limited?”

She cups his hand when he lights her cigarette, drawing his fingers close to her lips so she can blow out the match.

We cut to her compartment where he is stuffed into the closed upper berth, hiding while the cops inspect her room. They spend the night together, without us. She will hide him a third time the next morning when she disguises him as a redcap carrying her luggage.

We are always aware of the threat against Grant, racing from the cops, racing against time, but the mystery and the threat is diminished on the train because we are distracted -- by Eva Marie Saint, and by the scenery, some of it quite lovely, passing outside the train. The looming Hudson River following us, the industrial backyards of steel and soot, and the blinding red sunset into which we are flying. Rather than leaving behind the outside world, it comes along for the ride.

Other locations in the movie, the mansion, the hotel rooms, the United Nations Building, even the Mt. Rushmore National Memorial are interesting and evocative -- but they are all mostly sets, and rear screen, and stagy looking. The train, with its controlled closed environment and rear screen scenery, is oddly natural looking, the only part of the film where we find dependable reality. However, here the familiar and ordinary is made exotic with the introduction of sex.

So powerful is the train in this movie that later in the film, when Grant and Saint are clinging to the rocky cliffs in South Dakota, about to plunge to their deaths, he says, “If we ever get out of this alive, let’s go back to New York on the train together…”

“Is that a proposition?” she replies.

Oh, yeah. Trains and romance. It’s the best kind of proposition.

Our final scene, he pulls her up to their awaiting upper berth, once more in the safety, but irresistible intrigue of the train.

“This is silly,” she says.

“I know. I’m sentimental.”

The last shot has the train entering a tunnel. Yes…well. Obvious and sophomoric perhaps, but at least symbolic and not graphic. Hitchcock may lead us around by the nose, but he still expects us to have an imagination.

Have a look at the other blogs participating in this worthy event, and please make your donation below to the National Film Preservation Foundation.


Marilyn said...

Terrific post, Jacqueline! As suave and sophisticated as its subject matter. I have thought about Grant vs. Stewart and think Hitch preferred the former when he was joining for a straight-up thriller. He wasn't looking for the psychological depth that Stewart brings to his roles.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Marilyn. So pleased the blogathon seems to have a huge number of participants this year. Congratulations.

Davelandweb said...

This movie is absolute perfection; I can't think of an extraneous moment or one where my interest ever lulls. Eva Marie Saint puts all the other "cool blondes" to shame in this one!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Davelandweb. I agree, Eva Marie Saint is superb in this movie.

Laura said...

Lovely! The train scenes in this film are probably my favorite things in a wonderful film. Thanks for focusing on them!

Best wishes,

Moira Finnie said...

Excellent analysis of an endlessly entertaining Hitchcock film, especially your comments about the powerful imagery evoked by the train and the contrast between Grant and Stewart. Two moments stand out for me:

1.) The self-loathing sarcasm that creeps into James Mason's voice when he says "Rapid City" as though he was surprised and a bit appalled to hear those words emerging from his mouth--much less going there.

2.) Cary Grant on the dash passing through a room (not his own) but occupied by a pneumatic babe in bed. She screams initially but when she realizes "Holy Moley, this guy looks like Cary freakin' Grant" she purrs. Grant, who has bigger fish to fry, simply wags his finger at her and conveys an "uh-huh, you naughty girl" to her.

BTW, I've taken what is left of the train from New York to Chicago that Cary and Eva found themselves on. It really does curve around the banks of the Hudson River up to Albany. Unfortunately, no one bearing any resemblance to Cary with the initials R.O.T. was seated at my table in the club car!

Your writing is better than ever.


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Laura. I admit I have a preference for the train scenes, too. No surprise there.

Moira, how lovely to hear from you again. I love those two other moments you mention, and the lady in the hospital bed probably gets the biggest laugh out of me for the entire film.

Ooh, love that you've taken the train along that route. No Cary Grant? I've never noticed him either on any of my trips. Strange. I'm thinking of writing a letter of complaint to Amtrak.

Thanks so much.

Grand Old Movies said...

Interesting notion, of substituting James Stewart for Cary Grant in this film. Had Stewart been used, it would not have had the light humor which I think Hitch had wanted for it; but have felt more serious throughout. On the other hand, I can't imagine Stewart carrying off the seduction scene in the dining car with the same aplomb as Grant. Wonder what Rear Window or Vertigo might have been like if made with Grant instead of Stewart?

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

GOM, I can't imagine "Rear Window" or "Vertigo" without James Stewart. I suppose Hitchcock used both men effectively in their different roles.

Tinky said...

Well put! I was aware that the train sequence was the one I remembered best from the film--but I assumed that was because it involved food! You make a compelling argument. And a fun one.

Caftan Woman said...

"North by Northwest" bored me as a youngster. It's all that sex and stuff. Now, it's a box of chocolates - every one with my favourite orange cream filling.

I really enjoyed your look at Hitch's fun masterpiece (as opposed to his gloomy, obsessive masterpiece).

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Tinky, thanks, and I have to admit, I like food scenes, too. Almost as good as seduction scenes.

CW, you crack me up. All that boring sex and stuff is now chocolates with orange cream filling. Oh, my, yes.

I think I had to grow into his gloomy, obsessive masterpiece, too. I think I hooked onto "Shadow of a Doubt" and "Dial M" earliest as a youngster, though I'm sure some stuff went over my head. "North by Northwest" is definitely for grownups.

KimWilson said...

You have really opened my eyes to the train scenes in North By Northwest. When I think of the film I always think about the Mt. Rushmore scenes and the showdown between Grant and Mason in Mason's sleek house. Also, you are right about the difference between Grant and Stewart--I never really believe anything bad will ever happen to Grant, whereas Stewart's characters often look like they are one step from the nuthouse or an untimely demise.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Yes, Kim, I think that about hits the nail on the head - "...Stewart's characters often look like they are one step from the nuthouse or an untimely demise."

Lovely actor, but Hitchcock knew how to use actors like chess pieces. He invariably made interesting choices.

Joe Thompson said...

Jacqueline: What a nice evocation of the joys of riding on a train. People speak highly of the rocking motion on older trains, too. Did you see last year's edition of "Classic Trains" on trains in movies? Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Joe. I don't recall seeing "Classic Trains" on trains in movies. Too bad, maybe I can catch up with it sometime.

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