Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Dial H for Hitchcock: North by Northwest at the Rafael...free to the public

When I was a little girl, the only director whose name I was familiar with was Alfred Hitchcock. Though I didn't see any of his signature films of the era in a theater - Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) - I must've seen the trailers, because I was well aware that he made exciting, colorful and glamorous movies.

Psycho (1960) was the first Hitchcock film I saw on the big screen, and it was a far cry from his elaborate VistaVision/Technicolor creations of the mid- to late 1950s. I saw Psycho second-run (I was finally old enough) at the local movie house, the Ritz Theater, with a friend who'd already seen it. Pal that she was, she nudged me just as Arbogast reached the staircase landing and a figure with a knife darted toward him...so, naturally, I shrieked long and loud ...

I was fortunate to be able to see Rear Window when it was re-released into theaters in 1984, but have seen most of Hitchcock's films on television. There's no question that his films come through powerfully on TV, but they were made to be seen on a theater screen.

This past July the Rafael Theater screened the silent version of Blackmail (1929). It was an incredible experience; the film exceeded my expectations in just about every way possible. I was surprised that it was so well-crafted and fluid and that it contained so many components that later became Hitchcock trademarks. Accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra underscored the action and added dimension. And it was thrilling to be surrounded by an appreciative SRO audience.

Six weeks later, at noon on Sunday, September 5, the Rafael presented North by Northwest free to the public as part of its quarterly "Everybody's Classics" series. At 11:40 a.m. the line was long, but good seats were still to be had. By show time Theater 1 was packed and anticipation ran high.

Then Bernard Herrmann's pulsing score began and Saul Bass's title sequence of crisscrossing lines filled the screen. North by Northwest was upon us and in just a few exhilarating moments I was whisked into the adventure.

Possibly Hitchcock's quintessential thrill-ride, North by Northwest incorporates many familiar themes and plot elements - an innocent man accused, a romance complicated by mistrust and betrayal, a double chase - the police after the innocent man and the innocent man after the true villain(s), a backdrop of international espionage...

North by Northwest has been linked to two of Hitchcock's earlier classics, The 39 Steps (1935) and Notorious (1946), but by 1959 the director, at the height of his powers, was in a position to control just about every aspect of his films, much more so than he had been 10 and 20+ years earlier.

He was able to get his favorite actor/star, Cary Grant, for the lead. And though he was unsuccessful in enticing Princess Grace back to the screen as his leading lady, he transformed Academy Award-winning method actress Eva Marie Saint into a stunning and complex femme fatale. James Mason, Martin Landau, Leo G. Carroll and Jessie Royce Landis rounded out his first-rate cast.

Bernard Herrmann, who by now had worked with Hitchcock on several films, was just completing the score for the pilot of "The Twilight Zone" when he began work on North by Northwest. Ernest Lehman wrote a sophisticated and witty script for which he earned an Oscar nomination. Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Burks, production designer Robert F. Boyle (also Oscar-nominated for this film) and others with whom Hitchcock had worked over the years joined the collaboration.

All of these ingredients plus glorious VistaVision and Technicolor added up to create one of Hitchcock's most successful films.

I've seen North by Northwest countless times. I felt like I knew the film well, but to finally see it on a movie screen was to see it with new eyes.

Cary Grant's starpower was almost overpowering - his screen persona was that commanding. What grace, what aplomb! It's not surprising that Bernard Herrmann adjusted his score to match what he described as Grant's "Astaire-like agility."

As for special effects, the crop-dusting set piece with its truck-explosion finale and the moonlit chase across the face of Mount Rushmore have long been legendary. Via the big screen I could almost feel the heat of the explosion and smell the night air of South Dakota. As I watched, I was reminded of how the crop-dusting sequence was echoed in early James Bond films...and of Steven Spielberg's homage in Close Encounters (1977) when he nearly replicated the set design of Hitchcock's night-time Black Hills.

Of course, the suspense seemed magnified, but I also noticed the film's humor seemed more overt and the seduction scenes between Grant and Saint more intimate and...erotic. The film was so precisely paced, with suspense building, then relieved with either humor or romance, then building again...

Afterward, I couldn't help wishing I'd been able to see North by Northwest back in 1959 at the Ritz. The young girl I was then would've thought she'd been on the greatest rollercoaster ride of her life!

Alfred Hitchcock has been widely acknowledged for his amazing ability to, with the artful use of various techniques, easily maneuver an audience's emotions and point of view. It's hard to maintain much distance from Hitchcock's best films. This could be why I often enjoy experiencing his films a bit more than I enjoy understanding them.

As with all Hitchcock films, North by Northwest has a a thing or two going on beneath its glossy surface. But on that Labor Day weekend in San Rafael inside a darkened theater full of laughing, sighing, cheering people, I was a kid again for a while. Happily immersed in a suspenseful, clever, sexy adventure, I didn't even notice that, from the first note of Herrmann's score to the final shot of a darkened railroad tunnel, we were all being swept along as if aboard a sleek 20th Century Limited under the command of a brilliant and crafty locomotive engineer.


  1. I adore this movie. I've seen it at least 100 times.

  2. North by Northwest is such an exciting movie! Love it! You're so lucky, I wish I could see it with a crowd. Good review btw. Oh, you saw Psycho on the big screen? That must be terrifying.

  3. Eve, I loved this review! The Rafael Theater truly sounds like a place I would love to patronize. As you know, I am with you in your adoration of Cary Grant. I was intrigued by the Herrmann quote of adjusting his score because of Grant's agility. Cary had an effortless way of moving that was indescribably beautiful; it punctuated his performance.

    "North by Northwest" is a great film and you wowed me with your elegant description of a fabulous film experience. Magnificent job!

  4. One of your best, Eve. This would indeed be a great movie to experience on a big screen. I am a huge fan of Bernard Herrmann's music, and Hitchcock's films of that era were beautifully enhanced by Herrmann's scores. It seems like every time I really love a movie score, it is mostly Herrmann! Jane Eyre, Citizen Kane, Ghost and Mrs. Muir, just to name a few, and of course all of the Hitchcock films he did. The exciting music toward the end when they realize they are on top of the monument is spine-tingling. Loved your take on this film.!

  5. Eve, I agree that Cary's performance in NbyNW is effortless. He brings a light approach to some scenes that make this Hitch flick a unique mix of action, suspense, humor, and drama (those underlying themes). I especially enjoy his relationship with his mother (played by Jessie Royce Landis, whom I think was younger than Cary). She was equally delightful as a mother in TO CATCH A THIEF. I've never seen NbyNW on the big screen (which would be awesome), but did catch the theatrical re-releases of the "lost five" in the 1980s.

  6. Bob, I can understand watching NxNW 100 times or more, and how many films can we say that about? I don't even know how many times I've seen it...and Clara, yes, seeing Psycho in a theater (especially with a tricky friend sitting next to me) was terrifying. I was nervous in the shower for years...Toto, I love your observation that Cary Grant's physical grace punctuated his performances - how true (was my adoration showing again?)...and Becky, about Bernard Herrmann - a little side story. Earlier this year Stephen Sondheim turned 80 and was widely honored. I listened to an interview with him on NPR at the time and he mentioned Bernard Herrmann. Sondheim had seen Hangover Square as a teenager and been entranced by Herrmann's score. Years later he created something of an homage and when he played his creation, the score for Sweeney Todd, for his good friend Tony Perkins, Perkins looked at him and said, "Ah yes, Bernard Herrmann..."
    And Rick, about Cary (again), I think he was so effortless in the film that he (and NxNW) had significant influence on the way Ian Fleming's James Bond novels were portrayed on film. I've often read that NxNW was "the first James Bond film." As for Jessie (who is sublime in both Hitchcock films), she was either the same age or four years older than CG...sources differ. What a delightful actress. And...what were "the lost five"?
    If anyone who reads this lives in the Los Angeles area, the L.A. County Museum of Art will be screening Shadow of a Doubt on Friday, 10/29 at 7:30 pm ($10)...do not miss it - for full effect, Hitchcock must be seen on a big screen.

  7. Eve, due to issues over their rights, five Hitchcock films were pulled from circulation for over a decade: THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, ROPE, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956), REAR WINDOW, and VERTIGO. The latter three were shown on NBC's "Saturday Night at the Movies" in the 1960s and then "disappeared" in the 1970s. I don't know if HARRY or ROPE were broadcast on TV in the 1960s (I didn't see them...and my family watched all Hitch flicks). The legal stuff was cleared up in the early 1980s and all five films were released theatrically. VERTIGO, always a stunner for me, was even more incredible on the big screen--especially the closing shot of James Stewart's face.

  8. Eve, Wonderful review! I have also seen the film North by Northwest many times on TCM. I would love to see it on the "Big Screen". What an amazing experience that must have been.

  9. #1. great post, EVE...you guys are so lucky...HITCH...BIG SCREEN...& FREE!!!
    #2. my first "hitch flick" was LIFEBOAT on the small screen..i was mesmerized..been my fave since..
    #3. BLACKMAIL..what a great, stylish film..supposed there is a dubbed talkie version??
    #4. just don't mention THE LODGER!! meh!!

  10. Doc - BLACKMAIL was actually made in two versions (somewhat as THE BLUE ANGEL was, tho ANGEL was made in German and English, no silent version) - the silent version and a sound version, which was Britain's first full length "talkie." Will send you a link to the blog I posted about it just a while ago. Thanks for stopping by...always enjoy your comments...meh or no meh...