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This Week at the Movies: North by Northwest

By Eric Reimund
On November 30, 2011

Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 masterpiece North by Northwest is a picture that has most every facet of film making executed brilliantly and to this day continues to be a pillar of filmmaking excellence. The story follows Roger Thornhill, portrayed by Cary Grant, on a take of intrigue, adventure, mistaken identity, Cold War-era espionage and romance as he becomes caught in a situation which has nothing to do with him.

            Thornhill is a handsome, successful, well-to-do advertising executive on New York's Madison Avenue who, while having lunch with a few colleagues, is mistaken for a Mr. George Kaplan and is subsequently kidnapped by two armed men and brought to a Long Island mansion, belonging to one Lester Townsend. There, while meeting with the supposed Mr. Townsend, he proclaims his innocence and ignorance to the dealings of George Kaplan. Townsend doesn't believe a word of it and orders Leonard, his right hand man, to arrange his death. Leonard then proceeds to force "Mr. Kaplan" to drink an entire bottle of bourbon whiskey. One furiously drunk car chase later and the film takes off and the viewer is whisked away on a journey which takes them from New York City to the affluent Glen Cove community in Long Island to Rapid City, South Dakota and multifarious locales in between. The narrative of the film is, in its own right, extraordinary, yet it does not even rank among the films strongest assets.

            The screenplay, written by Hollywood legend Ernest Lehman, was described by the writer himself as an attempt to write "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures" and it wouldn't be the slightest bit bold to proclaim his success in the endeavor. The narrative clearly follows all the trappings of traditional Hitchcock thrillers, but where Lehman's writing stands out most is in the interactions and dialogue between characters. Every bit of dialogue is tight, focused and brilliant and Lehman displayed his consummate ability to write a script which ranges from high romance to spot-on subtle comedy to wicked suspense.

            Hitchcock is clearly at his finest in the direction of the picture as well. Almost every scene and actor is brought to its potential. He stirs in Eve Marie Saint, Grant's love interest in the film, a performance that up to that point in her career had hadn't even approached. He brings an artistic approach to the visuals of the film, making it appear like a painting, and it is considered to be one of the visually iconic films of all time.

            All in all, North by Northwest must be considered as not only one of Alfred Hitchcock's finest pictures, but as a clear member of the pantheon of the greatest films of all time. It embodies everything that film can be as an art. It is visually superb, with directorial flourishes that will continue to be studied and dissected by consumers of film forever. Its story, one of the most entertaining ever projected on a screen. Its writing, hilarious, beautiful, romantic, fascinating etc. etc. etc. It stands as an almost flawless representation of what film should be.

Contact Eric Reimund at

ereimund@colgate.edu.


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