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CLASSICS: North by Northwest (1959) ****

March 31, 2010

Written by: Ernest Lehman

Produced by: Alfred Hitchcock (unaccredited) and Herbert Coleman

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock

Rated PG

131 min.

U.S. Release Date: July 17, 1959

Our REEL CLASSICS series of reviews sheds a light on what we consider to be classic films, whether in recent or distant past.  As the second installment of this series, I have chosen to take a film by the master of suspense, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, and give North by Northwest another look.  This time, the viewing will be done in stunning high-definition on the recently released special edition Bluray.  North by Northwest is a film about espionage, confusion and paranoia.  The main character, played by Cary Grant, is mistaken for somebody else and is thrust into a cross-country chase as he dodges a mysterious group of spies looking to kill him.  There is not even a question whether Hitchcock delivers a successful movie-going experience in North by Northwest, because he always delivers, but the question is why and how does it succeed?

Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a prominent businessman on Madison Avenue in New York City.  On one average day, two men approach him that ask him to get in a car with them.  The mysterious men escort Thornhill to a country estate and a group of spies proceeds to interrogate him under the assumption that he is Mr. George Kaplan, a government agent who recently committed a murder.  Despite being drugged heavily, Thornhill manages to escape the clutches of the mysterious group of spies.  Now he must go on an investigation across the country to find Kaplan and set the record straight.

Along the way, Thornhill gains the help of a beautiful blonde named Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), but at times she gets him in quite a bit of trouble as well.  Hitchcock uses a ton of amazing set pieces to take Thornhill and Kendall through an adventure unlike anything seen on screen up to that point.  The most iconic scenes from this film involve a drunk driving car chase on an ocean-side highway, a man vs. airplane duel, and a foot-chase on top of Mount Rushmore.  Few filmmakers could have pulled off the scenes and techniques during the 50s and 60s that Hitchcock employed in North by Northwest.

From the opening credit sequence, the active use of outdoor sets stands out from the various Hollywood productions of this era.  During this period, many films used the “three walled” set pieces that look much like a live stage play.  While some of Hitchcock’s lighting schemes look very “of the times”, he is still using outdoor locations and very little painted backdrops.  This exponentially heightens the believability of the overall story, as audiences see the characters in real places where danger seems so much more imminent.

Aside from the brilliant locations displayed in this film, Hitchcock also uses jarring angles and innovative camera techniques.  Traditionally, filmmakers are expected to follow the unspoken law known as the “rule of thirds”.  If you divide the screen in three parts both ways, the eye naturally gravitates toward where these lines intersect.  By following the “rule of thirds”, filmmakers place the focal points of the frame at those intersections.  Hitchcock breaks this rule many times throughout this film, and studies show that this naturally creates tension in the viewer.  There are many occasions where characters are framed directly in the middle of the screen during tense points in the film, which subconsciously creates even more tension.  To see an example of this, watch the drunk driving chase scene in the first act of the film.

Overall, Hitchcock uses memorable locations and innovative filmmaking techniques to piece together a classic film.  The Master of Suspense does not disappoint in North by Northwest, and the cast pulls together to create extra tension, action and great comedy at times.  There is so much more to discuss in this film, from Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau’s amazing performances to Bernard Herrmann.  If you have not experienced much of Hitchcock’s work, I strongly recommend North by Northwest, in addition to Vertigo, Psycho, Lifeboat or Dial ‘M’ for Murder.  In virtually any scenario, whether it is shooting mostly outdoors or only using one set piece for a film’s duration, Hitchcock knows his way around a camera and is a master visual storyteller.  If you consider yourself a film enthusiast, knowing Hitchcock is a must, as he is a primary source of inspiration for so many filmmakers today.

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