North by Northwest Written by Ernest Lehman
North by Northwest is perhaps the most interesting of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, because it was made to intentionally have no themes or “messages”. To say Hitchcock is popular for being the first director to combine art and entertainment, which had until such a time been separate of each other, North by Northwest could be considered the definitive Hitchcock work in that it’s a Hitchcock film without any of the elements that made them so iconic. And it was all considered. Nothing in a film is coincidental or happen-stance, everything’s been scrutinised even to a degree to which actual people wouldn’t.
At least consciously. It was Hitchcock’s theory that audiences would notice the meaning in shots even if they didn’t realise, and on that basis, it’s important for people such as costume designers to think about their characters’ outfits to a degree by-which that character doesn’t, in order to make it realistic. And those things are important, nevertheless; without them, the world wouldn’t seem real. Thornhill’s suit design wouldn’t match the character perfectly if the designers hadn’t considered Thornhill’s sub-conscious fashion sense.
And as North by Northwest takes us across the United States, we meet a variety of people and go to a variety of places, which have all had the same amount of consideration put into their design. It’s called world-building – Hitchcock didn’t take us across the United States, but a specific, idealised version of it, that, combining various locations, and excluding others, builds its own world accustomed to the tone of the story. Which is why it’s such a shame that there was never anything other than surface put into it. In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock said that he wanted make a film
generally free of the symbolism permeating his other movies
And that’s where North by Northwest ceases to be interesting. Because once the artistry is stripped-back, we see Hitchcock without the cherry-topping. There’s been a tonne of academic criticism written about Hitchcock’s other films, but there’s nothing else to say about North by Northwest. And it’s only in this context that I realise how pretentious that sounds.
I don’t watch films for a deep, meaningful significance, but I’ll consider any subtext if that’s how I read that particular film. Every shot has meaning. It would be impossible for them not to. Even if it’s down to whatever a character’s doing in the shot – that’s the meaning of it; that they’re doing that thing, right?
And that’s the difference between “meaning” and “message”. Did Hitchcock put “messages” in his films? That’s irrelevant, because this is only about one of them. But what gives Hitchcock his status as a film-maker is that he wanted to make films which were genuinely entertaining while also being objectively good pieces of art.
Until he began making films, motion pictures had been either “popcorn flicks” or “art films”. Hitchcock thought, “is it too much to ask for both?” That’s why so many contemporary film-makers owe it to Hitchcock for making it easier for such films to be made – he did it so well. Had he tried to combine symbolism with thrills, and totally failed to do so, that could have been the end of it.
I’d rather not consider what modern cinema might resemble had that been the case. Which is why North by Northwest is such a disappointment – it’s an artistic thriller director making what he planned as being simply a thriller. His signature style isn’t present, apart from the totally unbelievable romance and poor characterisation from Kendall. Even in his other films, females were only ever femme fatales.
Once the “Hitchcock”-yness is stripped back, it’s just pulp. Grant was a saving grace for this film, because he’s still the most charismatic actor in the business. And he carries the film with him throughout, making it more believable than it is. I don’t care about realism in films, but I do care about consistency.
Is it trying to be realistic? Does it know it’s pulp? What kind of a film is this? Is it a thriller, or is it a film where the plot is ground to a halt every five minutes so the characters can explain what we just saw?
And then the ending – it’s both a cop-out and a drag. It’s got to be that bit more epic, that bit more exciting, it’s got to push itself a bit further. And it really undermines everything that had come before. Like the crop-spraying scene – one of the most iconic scenes of all cinema. That’s one thing I do agree with.
It is a masterpiece. And a lot of that’s because I don’t really know why. It’s just one of those things that simply “is”. The precision, the control, everything about it is perfect.
And it’s Hitchcock doing what he does best – combining thrills with excitement and fear. It’s just a mystery why he didn’t care so much about the rest. North by Northwest has its moments, and they’re all because of Cary Grant. But it’s difficult to respond to it in any tangible way.