The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 13 – North by Northwest (1959) – A Movie Review

North by Northwest is considered by many film critics to be the epitome of Hitchcock’s suspense movies.  It has several iconic scenes and involves several high-powered Hollywood stars being choreographed through a very intricate and confusing plot about spies and murder that has a love story embedded in the middle.  But I’ve always thought it was a bit much.  It’s almost a send-up of some of his earlier stuff.

The plot revolves around a New York advertising executive, Roger Thornhill, played by Cary Grant, being mistaken by a gang of Soviet spies for an American agent named George Kaplan who we find out later doesn’t actually exist.  Thornhill is kidnapped and brought to an estate on Long Island where he is given a choice; provide the Russian spies with information or be liquidated.  Thornhill adamantly maintains that he isn’t Kaplan and so they proceed with the murder.  They force Thornhill to drink a quart of bourbon and then put him behind the wheel of a car heading for a cliff.  But Thornhill manages to drunk-drive the car along a steep curving country road without crashing and eventually he is arrested by the local police.  After this there is a great deal of confusion as Thornhill attempts to find the men who attempted to kill him.  He next finds himself at the UN Building looking for the ringleader but instead he is somehow framed for the murder of a diplomat.

While trying to escape arrest by the NYPD, Thornhill next jumps aboard the 20th Century Limited, a luxury train that travels to Chicago where “Kaplan” has an appointment. On the train he meets Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint, and they begin a romance while she manages to hide him from the police.  But we are shown that secretly she is working with the Russian spies.  Eve pretends to get in touch with Kaplan for Thornhill and tells him to meet Kaplan at a rural Illinois bus stop that is surrounded by cornfields.  No one shows up until finally a crop-dusting biplane chases Thornhill and starts firing machine gun slugs at him.  Eventually the plane somehow crashes into a fuel tanker truck and Thornhill escapes back to Chicago in a stolen vehicle.

Now he confronts Eve with her spy friends at a fine arts auction.  He discovers that his nemesis is named Phillip Vandamm, played with his usual suave style by James Mason.  And he discovers that Vandamm is Eve’s lover.  In order to escape from Vandamm’s henchmen Thornhill comically heckles the auctioneers and is finally ejected by the police.  Thornhill tells the police that he is the wanted killer and they drive off to the local precinct.  But during the drive a radio call comes in and Thornhill is driven instead to the airport where a government agent called the “The Professor,” played by Leo G. Carroll takes custody of Thornhill and flies him to Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  The Professor explains that Eve is acting as a government agent to provide information on Vandamm’s espionage ring.  But Thornhill has endangered her cover by falling in love with her and making Vandamm suspicious of her loyalty.

Thornhill confronts Vandamm and Eve at the airport.  He tells Vandamm that he really is the American agent Kaplan and he will allow Vandamm to escape in exchange for taking Eve into custody to punish her for her duplicitous behavior toward him.  When Thornhill becomes physical with Eve, she pulls out a small hand gun from her purse and shoots him several times and then flees.

Later we see the Professor driving into the wooded countryside somewhere in South Dakota and we see that Thornhill is uninjured due to the blanks in Eve’s gun.  Eve drives to meet them at this rendezvous point and explains to Thornhill that she must now leave the country with Vandamm on his private plane to complete her mission.  When Thornhill attempts to prevent her due to his romantic feelings for her, the Professor’s law enforcement associate punches Thornhill in the face and knocks him out.  Late he escapes their custody and heads to Vandamm’s home near the summit of the Mount Rushmore monument to get Eve to abandon the plan.  Hiding outside of the home he overhears Vandamm and his henchman Leonard, played with great creepiness by Martin Landau, discussing Eve’s status.  Leonard fires Eve’s gun at Vandamm and thus proves it is loaded with blanks.  After an initial burst of anger at Leonard Vandamm agrees that he will have to dispose of Eve by throwing her from the plane into a lake.

Thornhill manages to rescue Eve right before she gets on the plane but they cannot escape the property except by climbing down the face of the monument with Vandamm and his henchmen in hot pursuit.  Eventually a sharpshooter’s bullet by the Professor’s rescue party saves Thornhill and Eve from being forced off the shear rock face by Leonard who instead falls to his death.  Now that Leonard is no longer crushing Thornhill’s handhold on the cliff he manages to finally pull Eve up from where she is dangling over the abyss.  Whereupon the scene changes to Thornhill pulling Eve up to the elevated bed in their railway suite on the 20th Century Limited getting ready to celebrate their honeymoon.

Okay, so this is Hitchcock at the point in his career where he has gone a little over the top.  Humor has become a major part of the feel of the movie.  I’ll give some examples.  When Cary Grant is driving down the steep curving road drunk, the scene is decidedly comical.  And later on, when he is trying to avoid his enemies in the auction hall his demeanor is what you would expect of Cary Grant in a comic role.  It’s supposed to be funny.  And near the end of the movie where he and Eve are running for their lives away from the spies, when she asks him why his two earlier wives divorced him he deadpans that they thought his life was too boring.  This is sort of a comic movie.  And that’s not all that different from other movies from this period like Rear Window where comedy is added in.  But the improbability of some of the scenes like the crop-duster chasing him through the cornfields and the escape down the faces of the Mt. Rushmore monument makes the movie a little bit like a fantasy.

But it is entertaining.  Personally, I don’t watch this movie very often.  I have to be in the right mood.  I’d prefer to see Cary Grant in Notorious.  It’s a very similar plot but it’s played straight and has a very different feel.  But preferences differ and some people probably feel oppositely.  It’s still definitely one of Hitchcock’s better films, just not one of my favorites.  Still, highly recommended.

Gunga Din – An OCF Classic Movie Review

“…

So I’ll meet ’im later on

At the place where ’e is gone—

Where it’s always double drill and no canteen.

’E’ll be squattin’ on the coals

Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,

An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!

Yes, Din! Din! Din!

You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!

Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,

By the livin’ Gawd that made you,

You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”

(Gunga Din by Rudyard Kipling)

 

Kipling’s poem celebrates the courage and loyalty of Indian water bearer Gunga Din.  The 1939 film builds on the bare sketch of the poem and adds in the British soldiers from Kipling’s Soldiers Three stories.  Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. portray Sergeants Cutter, MacChesney and Ballantine.  The three sergeants are comedic partners in crime constantly in trouble for their off-duty brawling and ridiculous escapades.  But they are also ferociously courageous and loyal to the British Army to their core.  And attached to the regiment that the sergeants serve in is the regimental bhisti (or water carrier), Gunga Din.  Gunga Din is also a minor partner in the sergeants’ syndicate.  He convinces Cutter that they can cart off a temple made of solid gold that’s just there for the taking.  Superimpose the sub-plot of Ballantine’s upcoming nuptials as a threat to the triumvirate and then top the whole thing off with a Thuggee Mutiny planning to drive the British out of India.

Sam Jaffe plays Gunga Din and along with the three co-stars they chew up the scenery and move the plot along smartly.  By the climax we find out why Gunga Din is a better man they are.  And we get to see the British Army (or the Hollywood version of it) unleashed on the Thugs.

The movie features a goodly amount of action adventure scenes but for me the stand out is the comedy.  The exchanges between Cary Grant (featuring his most over the top cockney accent) and Victor McLaglen are very funny and make me wish they had co-starred in other action comedies.

It goes without saying that the movie could never be made today.  It features language and plot elements that would be labelled, racist, sexist, colonialist and white supremacist.  And if they got around to it, I’m sure the critics could come up with an angle that made it homophobic and transphobic too.  But it is solid entertainment that creates a comedy adventure out of the reality of the British Raj.  Of course, this is a Hollywood fantasy version of the Raj.  In this version, the British Army is powerful and the generals are competent and all the good Indians are loyal subjects of the Queen-Empress and all the bad Indians are disloyal, murderous followers of Kali, the goddess of death.  In this version the non-commissioned officers are anxious to re-enlist every 11 years without fail.  But it’s got fight scenes, battle scenes, comedy, pathos, dynamite tossing and even an elephant-based jail break.  What else could anybody ask for.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 3 – Notorious – A Classic Movie Review

Of all the films made by Alfred Hitchcock, the one that most closely aligns with the feel of Hollywood’s Golden Era is Notorious.  The action of the characters and the look and feel of the scenes adheres to the conventions and formulas of that period’s filmmaking.  And I mean this in a positive sense.  The production values are excellent.  The actors are the finest.  The dialog and plot are very well done.  A good case can be made that this is the best movie made in Hitchcock’s long and successful career as a filmmaker.  The movie takes place in 1946.  World War II had just ended and Nazis were still topical.  Ingrid Bergman’s character, Alicia Huberman, is the daughter of a German spy recently convicted of espionage in the United States.  She is a loyal American and agrees to help the U.S. government in the person of T. R. “Dev” Devlin played in his typically winning way by Cary Grant.  Naturally they fall in love but the problem is the government wants Alicia to become romantically entangled with a German industrialist living in Rio de Janeiro named Alex Sebastian (played by the inimitable Claude Rains in his remarkably idiosyncratic way).  She is supposed to find out what dastardly plots these escaped Nazis are planning.  This of course leads to jealousy and spite in Devlin and pain and anger in Alicia.  When circumstances force her to marry Sebastian to maintain the espionage this further poisons the relationship between our two star crossed lovers (are there any other kind?).  The plot has twists and turns and uranium salts (which got Hitchcock in trouble with the real US Government) but throughout we root for the love story and hiss at the bad guys (in this case Nazis and the US Secret Service).  The remarkable thing in this movie is that although Claude Rains is the evil Nazi you kind of sympathize with his character at certain turns.  He is the unfortunate man in a house with two women, his new wife and his domineering mother.  And he is haunted by the ubiquitous Cary Grant popping up everywhere and presumably a rival for his wife’s affections.  Who wouldn’t want an atom bomb available under those difficult circumstances?

Hitchcock’s cinematic work began well before Hollywood’s Golden Era and in England.  He continued to create popular and original thrillers well into the 1960s, long after the studio system had disappeared.  Thus, Hitchcock is not defined by or limited to the Golden Era sensibilities.  But Notorious without a doubt possesses the “classic” look of that era and definitely deserves its reputation as a masterpiece.  Anyone interested in Hitchcock or the movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s should consider viewing this film.

Now put all that aside.  Notorious is a great story.  Hitchcock provides all kinds of suspense and intrigue.  Everyone on both sides is hiding something from everyone, including themselves.  So much deception even starts to trip up the deceivers and eventually it all starts to crumble.  The ending is a collapse all around and a fitting finale.  I highly recommend this movie and hope you’ll enjoy the performances not only by the three main characters but also from all those bit part Nazis doing their best to be wonderfully evil.

Topper – An OCF Classic Movie Review

The pre-Oscar TCM movie festival continues so I decided to re-watch Topper.  This is without a doubt one of the goofiest screwball comedies of the 1930s.  Cary Grant and Constance Bennett are George and Marion Kirby, a young married couple.  They’re rich and they live a wild life.  They stay up all night dancing and drinking and driving around in a crazy fin-backed whale of a roadster.  Their banker is a middle-aged mouse of a man named Cosmo Topper.  Topper has a proper wife who wants Topper to get up at 8am and go to bed by 11pm and have lamb on Sunday and steak on Tuesday and boiled vegetables on Wednesday.  She expects him to be the respectable banker so she can be part of high society.

When George and Marion show up at Topper’s bank one morning for a business meeting you can tell that all three of them think that Topper’s life is not much fun compared to the Kirbys.  Driving back from the meeting George is characteristically driving like a madman around some hairpin turns when he gets something in his eye and crashes them.  Staggering out of the wreck George and Marion gather their senses and realize that they have died in the crash and are now ghosts.  Taking stock of the situation they realize they don’t have any good deeds on their records to allow them to expect admission through the pearly gates.  The scene dissolves with the ghosts themselves dissolving into invisibility.

In the next scene Topper is at home with the missus.  We witness the boredom of his respectable existence.  At this point a mechanic shows up with the Kirby’s repaired sports car.  Both the mechanic and Mrs. Kirby remark on how mismatched this car would be for Topper.  His pride is stung and he takes off with the car.  The car gets the better of him and he crashes it at the same spot that the Kirbys crashed.  The Kirbys make their presence known and Topper eventually gets over his fright.  The rest of the film is the tale of the Kirbys trying to humanize Topper and make his life happier.  This is the good deed that they hope will get them into heaven.

With a plot this frothy everything depends on the characterizations of the stars.  Cary Grant and Constance Bennett are at their witty best bantering together while teaching Topper to be a man and not a mouse.  Roland Young brings his characteristic upper-class Englishman’s mumbling confused manner to his portrayal of Cosmo Topper and Billie Burke as Mrs. Topper is the outraged prim and proper wife who needs to learn that a husband still needs to be a man.  An uncredited part has Hoagy Carmichael playing the piano and singing for the happy couple.  All in all, I’d say this is a goofy comedy that from my point of view provides good entertainment.  The story sails along and even the minor characters are well done and add to the fun of the story.

I give this movie 4 out of 5 stars.