North by Northwest is a film spilling over with memorable scenes. This is no back-handed compliment to Sir Alfred Hitchcock, who was at the peak of his powers when he made this breezy, perfectly mounted 1959 film starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Indeed, the Great Hitchcock Debate long has centered around whether he was a true auteur with artistic depth or just an amazing technician -- perhaps the best that ever was. (I fall somewhere in between but definitely toward the latter.) Instead of debating, it's best to appreciate the images that highlight NXNW, which screens this Friday at the Saenger.
For a generation that has been quickly weaned from the repertory moviehouse to countless re-viewings of classics on cable, this is certainly a golden opportunity. There's the back-projected, drunken-driving car-chase scene and Grant's ensuing interrogation by the authorities. (Grant should've gotten an Oscar solely for the response to the question of how much he'd had to drink: he pulls his hands about a yard apart as if to measure something else of a certain size.) Or the stabbing scene at the United Nations (the darling of many a film-editing class, I guarantee you). Or, blissfully, the seduction scene on the train (paging Dr. Freud) between Grant and the heretofore virginal and aptly named Saint, filling in for Grace Kelly (recently married to the Prince of Monaco).
Then there is the bigness of NXNW, best shown in two scenes that will make this screening pure movie-going heaven: the crop-dusting scene and the finale atop Mount Rushmore. My favorite is the crop-dusting scene, not so much because it's more suspenseful (it might not be), but more for the way it means everything and nothing to the movie all at once.
Hitchcock has been accused of many things, and as Francois Truffaut pointed out to him in their 1967 interview book, gratuity was one of them. Rarely is this more evident than in the crop-dusting scene, a long, drawn-out affair with Grant's Roger Thornhill hoping to meet with the non-existent government agent George Kaplan to clear up what must of have been Hitch's 1,254th "wrong man" scenario. Thornhill finds himself stranded at a bus depot in the flats outside Chicago, and before he knows it, a crop-dusting plane is trying to spray him with more than just pesticide. Of course Thornhill, fortunately played by Grant, escapes the jam with barely a patch of dust on his steel-blue suit. (One of the movie's many Cary Grant jokes is how long it finally takes him to actually need the suit cleaned off a bit.)
The scene stops an otherwise briskly paced film dead in its tracks, so to speak -- it's a consciously absurd piece, as Truffaut told Hitchcock, who replied, "The fact is I practice absurdity quite religiously!" (The movie was moving so briskly, in fact, that Grant complained during shooting, "It's a terrible script. We've already done a third of the picture and I still can't make head or tail of it." Which, Hitchcock assured, was the point.)
Hitchock claimed he came up with the idea when he was mulling over a way to mount an assassination attempt on Thornhill. (For first-time viewers, Thornhill is mistaken for Kaplan, a fictional CIA agent created by the government to help track a ring of communist bad guys led by the peerless James Mason and his assistant, the feline Martin Landau -- with Saint a double-agent caught in between.) Hitchcock knew he wanted to avoid the cliched scene of a nighttime intersection in a big city, a street lamp providing the perfect lighting for the hit. So he went in the exact opposite direction, exposing Thornhill in the naked light of day, with only a cornfield and his wits to protect him.
On its premise, there's nothing much to the scene. Grant gets a ride out to the spot, he watches a few cars go by, chats briefly with a wary local, sees the plane, then starts running for cover until he somehow -- one might say preposterously -- leads the plane into the side of a gas-hauling truck before making his escape. That's about it. The beauty is in how Hitchcock used editing and point-of-view camera angles to stretch time and accentuate Thornhill's peril, respectively.
"You have to break the rule of the point of view," Hitchcock explained to Truffaut. "You deliberately abandon the subjective angle and go to an objective viewpoint," which he did in NXNW "so as to prepare the public for the threat of the plane dive. ... There are moments when you have to stop time, to stretch it out."
It was a brilliant change of gear from a director who sure knew his way around a clutch.
- Planes, trains and automobiles: Cary Grant's Roger Thornhill runs for cover during the famous crop- dusting scene in Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 classic, North by Northwest.