Alfred Hitchcock’s tale of mistaken identity and Cold War spying has gone down as one of the most highly regarded films in history. It was nominated for three Academy Awards, is ranked at 55 in the AFI’s 100 Years 100 Movies ranking and holds an 8.6/10 on IMDb. Carey Grant plays Roger Thornhill, an Ad Man who is abducted by James Mason’s ‘Townsend’ character under the suspicion that he is the spy George Kaplan. Thornhill is chased across
America from New York to South Dakota
the Police and Townsend, meeting the seductive Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint)
along the way. In this next sentence I’m going to say something that will
probably draw a lot of negative comments along the lines of “You don’t know
what you’re talking about” or “You mustn’t have been watching it right” but not
only do I not think North by Northwest is
a great film but I personally believe it is the worst Alfred Hitchcock film I’ve
seen so far. The film undoubtedly features some great stand out moments but as
far as suspense and thrills go, this one left me cold. Chicago
At the very beginning I was excited by the premise and the first half an hour or so had me gripped and occasionally laughing at the likes of Hitchcock’s cameo and Grant’s drunk driving and subsequent arrest. The film started unravelling for me with the appearance of Thornhill’s mother (Jessie Royce Landis) in a role that felt completely pointless. Not only was her role not particularly funny as I believe it was intended but she looked the same age as Cary Grant (and was in fact only seven years older). I felt that her participation in the hotel scene was unnecessary apart from giving Grant someone to bounce ideas off. The problem was that the character was underwritten and poorly written.
From then on, although I enjoyed the visuals, set pieces and acting, I never had any sense of danger or intrigue. I was unfortunately able to second guess both of Eva Marie Saint’s twists and didn’t for one moment believe that Grant’s Thornhill would ever fail to get away. For a Hitchcock film that is really poor. His films over recent months have never stopped surprising and shocking me but North by Northwest lacked the suspense of Rope or shock of Psycho. Nothing ever jumped out of the blue at me and there were no twists that left me stunned. It may be that I had my hopes too high but I was honestly disappointed. I understand that this is a very different film from those two but it didn't even entertain me as much as they did.
Despite my reservations I don’t want to give the impression that I thought this was a bad film because it certainly isn’t. The set design, rear projection and locations were all stunning with the
Rushmore set looking especially realistic. The film is much more
action orientated than the few Hitchcock films I’ve seen previously and with
the sharp suits, sharper dialogue, travel and action it reminded me of an early
Bond film. Although I was watching the film for the first time today I must
have seen the crop-duster scene twenty times in clip shows, videos, montages
and parodies. Even though I’d seen it, it was still an excellent sequence to
behold and that was one of the few scenes where I wondered how Thornhill would
escape. The climax at Mount Rushmore was also exhilarating
and assisted enormously by Bernard Herrmann’s incredible score. His distinctive
music woks wonderfully in this final scene but is also brilliant throughout the
rest of the film too.
With regards to the acting I thought that the principle cast were all very good. Carey Grant is very good as the dashing Madison Avenue man and excellent in some of the more low key scenes but didn’t think he was quite as convincing during the fast paced action scenes. Overall though his demeanour, style and grace were some of the highlights of the film. Eva Marie Saint was also good in a role that was surprisingly bold and raunchy for its time. She carried off her deception well and also conveyed the emotional intensity of her role very well. James Mason made for an excellent villain, once again reminding me of Bond.
Overall I thought North by Northwest was an extremely well made film but it bored me. Most of the problems for me come from the writing but perhaps I was expecting something different. For a mystery thriller I was rarely thrilled or filled with mystery and I certainly don’t believe it is as good as I’d been lead to believe it was and don’t feel so bad for waiting so long to watch it. My shock at not enjoying the film as much as I expected drew me to reading its entire IMDb and Wikipedia entries thinking that I must have missed something but in the end I came to the conclusion that I just didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected I would. Now you can tell me what an idiot I am…