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.

The Twilight Zone – Complete Series Review – Season 5 Episode 29 – The Jeopardy Room

Martin Landau plays Major Ivan Kuchenko a Soviet defector trying to leave a neutral country bordering the Soviet Union and fly to the United States.  He is staying in a cheap hotel room waiting for his flight the next morning.  The phone in his room rings and a voice calling himself “a friend” tells him to expect a visit.

Commissar Vasiloff and his hitman Boris are occupying a room in the next building over and Boris tells Vasiloff that from the window he has a clear head shot at Kuchenko.  Vasiloff explains to Boris that the difference between them is that when it comes to assassination, Boris is a butcher and Vasiloff is an artist.  Vasiloff intends to have Kuchenko killed before the next morning but he intends to do it creatively and with finesse.

Vasiloff arrives at Kuchenko’s apartment door bearing a bottle of wine (amontillado, he states).  He tells Kuchenko that he intends to stop him from escaping but tells him that they can begin with a friendly drink.  Kuchenko refuses but Vasiloff drinks some wine to show it’s not poisoned.  Satisfied as to the safety of the wine Kuchenko drinks some of it but finds himself drugged and losing consciousness.

When he awakens, he finds Vasiloff gone but in his place a tape recorder.  When he plays the tape it’s Vasiloff’s voice explaining the present situation.  Vasiloff drugged him with a compound that he himself had become immune to.  Kuchenko is under surveillance by a gunman across the way and can be shot at any time.  Vasiloff has booby trapped something in the room.  Kuchenko must locate and disarm the trap within 3 hours.  If he finds it and disarms it within 3 hours, he will be allowed to leave the room alive.  If:

  • he doesn’t find it within 3 hours he will be shot
  • he stops looking for the bomb he will be shot
  • he tries to turn out the light he will be shot.

Boris observes Kuchenko through binoculars and informs Vasiloff of his progress.  Finally, Boris begs Vasiloff to tell him where it is.  Vasiloff tells him it’s in the phone but it’s only triggered once an incoming call rings in.  After Kuchenko has been searching fruitlessly for hours he tries to cover the window with a blanket and Boris sprays the room with bullets.  Kuchenko becomes enraged and breaks out the windows and loudly demands that Vasiloff have him killed.  As the end of the three hours is close Vasiloff calls Kuchenko’s room on the phone.  Kuchenko is about to pick up the receiver when he realizes where the bomb is.  Vasiloff calls again and this time Kuchenko makes a mad dash for the door and escapes before a hail of bullets hit the wall behind him.

Next, Boris and Vasiloff are shown in Kuchenko’s room and Boris gloats that his simple way would have been best but Vasiloff claims that there is time for him to finish off Kuchenko before he can reach America.  But suddenly the phone rings and without thinking Boris reaches to answer it.  Vasiloff begins to warn him but before he can finish Boris lifts the receiver and the bomb explodes killing them both.

In the last scene we see Kuchenko in a phone booth and we hear the operator say that the line has gone dead.  Kuchenko tells her never mind, because he has gotten through to the party he was trying to reach.  He leaves the public phone smiling.

Martin Landau was well known on tv as a part of the cast of the spy series, Mission Impossible, that was later turned into a series of movies.

This episode has a very simple plot and really is more of a spy thriller than a Twilight Zone episode.  But, it’s very entertaining, I think.  All three actors do a good job with the plot and lines they are given.  A-.

The Twilight Zone – Complete Series Review – Season 1 Episode 3 – Mr Denton on Doomsday

This is a morality play dressed up in Western trappings.  Denton is a former gun hand turned town drunk.  He turned to drink because he had to shoot a sixteen-year old kid who came gunning for his reputation as the fastest gun.  One day while Denton is lying on the ground after being humiliated by the local bully he finds a Colt pistol and picks it up.  When the bully tries to use the gun as an excuse to murder Denton in a shootout Denton accidentally fires off a few shots that each time hit a target that saves his life.  Inspired by his change of luck, he walks away from the saloon and tries to restart his life.  But his success with the gun reignites his reputation and a gunfighter challenges him to a duel.  While preparing to sneak out of town before the fight Denton runs into a travelling peddler named Henry J. Fate.  We’ve been seeing Mr. Fate in every scene where Denton had his amazing luck with the gun and so we already know he’s the source of the gun and Denton’s success.  He’s peddling a “potion” that makes anyone who takes it a dead shot for exactly ten seconds.  Denton accepts the potion and shows up to the duel.  When his opponent also drinks a potion before the gunfight it is of course not shocking that both shooters end up hitting their opponents in the gun hand.  And a conveniently present doctor informs each man that he will never be fast with a gun again.  Mr. Denton tells his young opponent that they are both blessed with being free of the gunfighter’s fate.  Denton is played by Dan Duryea who was a fairly well-known character actor of the Hollywood golden age and the town bully was played by Martin Landeau who was a well known television actor especially from the long running, Mission Impossible series.  Landau shows up in several other episodes of the Twilight Zone.  I would rate this episode as fair.  The storyline is mildly entertaining but hardly original or surprising.