North by Northwest

  • Title:  North by Northwest
  • Director:  Alfred Hitchcock
  • Date:  1959
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Genre:  Suspense
  • Cast:  Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Leo G. Carroll, Edward Platt, Martin Landau
  • Format:  Technicolor, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Hello? Hello, Mother? This is your son, Roger Thornhill…”  — Roger (Cary Grant)

“Apparently, the poor sucker got mistaken for George Kaplan.” — Anonymous Spy 1
“How’d he get mistaken for George Kaplan, when George Kaplan doesn’t even exist?” — Anonymous Spy 2

North by Northwest is a very fun, enjoyable, romantic (in both senses) and exciting Hitchcock film. The film’s entire plot rests on a case of mistaken identity. Grant is Roger Thornhill, an Madison Ave (NY) advertising executive, who is meeting some friends and business associates in a hotel bar, when he realizes he needs to send a telegram. He raises his hand to call over the hotel telegram boy just as the telegram boy is calling out for George Kaplan. This is observed by two foreign agents, and thus the snowball starts to roll downhill. The agents assume Thornhill is Kaplan, and kidnap him, taking him to a house in the country. There, he is questioned, and forced to drink a bottle of bourbon. They then pour Thornhill into a car, hoping he will have a nasty accident. Thornhill, however, is somewhat familiar with drunk driving, and he’s able to make his escape, though he is spotted by the police and arrested for drunk driving.

The next morning, Thornhill and his lawyer, played by Edward Platt, attempt to explain what happened. Of course, there is no evidence at the country estate that anything happened, and the hostess who answers the door puts on a performance, claiming she was worried after he’d gotten tipsy at a dinner party. Thornhill pays his $2.00 fine.

Thornhill then returns to New York, searches Kaplan’s hotel room and goes to the United Nations building to meet Townsend, the man who kidnapped him the previous night, he thinks. But the man he meets isn’t the Townsend (James Mason) who kidnapped him. Before he can get any answers, or straighten out the mess, Townsend is killed by a thrown knife. Thornhill, like an idiot, picks up the knife — and his picture is snapped as he does so. With no other choice, he goes on the lam, sneaking aboard a train bound for Chicago, because that was where Kaplan was scheduled to go.

Meanwhile, we meet “The Professor” (Leo G. Carroll) and his merry band of spies. They discuss the issue of Thornhill, and their fake agent “Kaplan”, as well as their real agent who will be in danger, if they step in and clear Thornhill. “The Professor” declares they must do nothing.

On the Chicago-bound train, Thornhill meets Eve Kendall, who hides him. Grant and Kendall immediately have a connection, trading flirty dialogue. In Chicago, Kendall arranges for Grant to meet Kaplan; but we also see her talking to Leonard (Martin Landau), Townsend’s chief henchman, on the phone. Kendall’s directions lead Thornhill to a dry, dusty, deserted road in the middle of a cornfield. He’s attacked by a crop duster.

Thornhill survives that, confronts Kendall, and Grant’s performance is excellent. He’s very icy and cold when he confronts her — subtlely seething with anger that she betrayed him. He then follows her to an auction. Townsend (Mason), his henchmen, and “The Professor” as well as Kendall are all there. When it looks like he’s going to be caught by Townend’s goons, Grant makes a scene at the auction and gets himself arrested. But he’s released and taken to the airport by Carroll. “The Professor” explains more of the plot, before taking him, by plane, to South Dakota.

There, by the Mt. Rushmore monument, the film winds down to it’s conclusion.

Hitchcock uses a lot of very high angle shots in North by Northwest, almost like a kid with a new toy, but it does work. Grant is fantastic as the confused innocent. Eva Marie Saint plays Kendall with icy maturity, even in her more romantic scenes with Grant. The supporting cast is great. Leo G. Carroll, of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. plays a very Mr. Waverly-like character as the un-named head of some un-named security organization. In fact, the entire film almost seems like a pilot for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. at times, but with a much bigger budget. Martin Landau is menacing, and quiet, as Leonard, James Mason’s henchman. And James Mason himself has a cold, sophisticated, frightening evilness about him. Edward Platt, of TV’s Get Smart, as a brief but fun role as Thornhill’s overworked lawyer. Overall, the film is great fun. The bi-wing crop duster chasing Grant in the cornfield, and the climatic chase across the face of Mt. Rushmore are famous movie scenes, that are also quite enjoyable to see intact and in context.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Notorious

Network

  • Title:  Network
  • Director:  Sidney Lumet
  • Date:  1976
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Cast:  Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Ned Beatty
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • Format:  R1, NTSC

“The American people are turning sour, they’ve been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, the inflation, the depression. They’ve turned off, shot up, and they’ve f…ed themselves limp and nothing helps.” — Diana

“I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everyone’s out of work or scared of losing their job. A dollar buys a nickel’s worth. Banks are going bust … We know the air is unfit to breathe. And our food is unfit to eat.”  — Howard Beale

“I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now, and go to the window.  Open it, and stick your head out and yell:  I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”  — Howard Beale

Network, in a way, is bizarre and weird sort of film. On the one hand, it’s a “typical” 1970s heavy-hitting issue-oriented drama, warning of the dangers of corporate takeovers of television news, especially when news is asked to serve a corporate balance sheet rather than take seriously it’s duty to inform the public. But whereas other 70s dramas, such as Norma Rae, Silkwood, and The China Syndrome all feel somewhat dated now – Network, if  anything feels somewhat precognitive. Large sections of Network remind me of the television series, Max  Headroom:  20 Minutes into the Future (made in England, but aired as first run in the US in 1987). Network has some very funny moments, but it also has some very sardonic moments. In a sense, the characters aren’t really people you root for or against, rather the film manipulates its audience to understand the point of view of the character speaking at the moment, only to reject that character’s argument a moment later and agree with the opposite viewpoint.

Network does have a lot of speeches, but they are often great. Not just Howard Beale’s speeches, which are memorable, but Ned Beatty as the chairman of CCA has a marvelous, scary, chilling speech about not just the world consisting of corporations instead of countries — but of money instead of idealogies. He sees a world of systems, not a world of people. A de-humanizing viewpoint, that seems all the closer now  than in the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, Beale calls for people to protest – not to march in the streets, but to yell out, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” When people do, he gets his own show which becomes a sideshow circus masquerading as News; but this actually shows “the masses” as just so many sheep, doing what they are told, believing what they are told, dressing as they are told, buying the things they are told to buy, etc. Beale blames all of this conformity on television, and even has speeches against it; yet, I think that message of “manipulating the masses” cannot be laid solely at television’s doorstep. There are two reasons for this. One — similar messages come from other places: magazine ads, newspapers, even movies and pop fiction books; it’s not a message that solely comes from a single medium, though that medium is so prevalent that it can be easy to notice and point to. And, the second reason, is historic. Great social leaders of the past (even those on the “wrong side”) often had a way of articulating the feel in the air of the masses and manipulating that into action. So, Beale is, in essence, a fictional modern-day version of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution, or even the American Revolution. The difference with Beale is we, as an audience, expect him to be stopped. And he is. Though by the end of the film, there is no feeling of  “something terrible has happened to a great man who could have changed things”, rather his viewpoint, and his message are changed by the president of CCA to his philosophy – and that message is so unpopular with viewers, and lowers the ratings so much (and thus profits, since ratings determine the cost-per-minute of advertising) that Diana, the programming manager, and her cadre resort to desperate measures to get rid of Beale. The other aspect is, other than the shouting, and the rise and fall of Beale’s show’s ratings/popularity, no actual social movement ever develops. Beale even says, in various ways, “I don’t know what the solution is – I don’t know what to do to change things.” So, other than two distinct instances, his audience doesn’t know either, and no solutions, or social change is ever made.

The story of Network, is that of a fourth-place television network, that is going through major changes because they are losing so much money. On the one hand, a corporation called CCA has bought the network and in order to save money, moves the formerly independent News Division to programming. The news division itself  is also gutted. People are fired, whole entire foreign news correspondence desks are closed, and then, making it almost impossible for the reporters and producers to actually report the news accurately and without bias — it’s moved to Programming. Programming is the entertainment department of the network. Diana is a bright young thing, desperately trying to show her stuff, to be hard hitting (in a male-dominated environment, she’s the only woman and cannot ever afford to show her femininity), and desperately trying to pull the network out of it’s financial hole by trying anything. It’s very much the idea of – well, things cannot possibly get worse, we’re already in last place, we’re in the red, let’s try this. Only “this” is the craziest stuff you can imagine.  (Her other idea is a dramatic series featuring the weekly real crimes of a counter-culture-terrorist-criminal-“Marxist” organization.) Howard Beale has spent his entire life in network television news. Because his ratings are low, and he’s perceived as “old and stodgy” he’s given the news at the very beginning of the film that he’s to be fired, and he only has two weeks left on his show. He goes out with an old friend, the two get really drunk, and Howard says he’ll kill himself. His friend, not taking him seriously, says, “well, if you’re going to do it — do it on camera, I’m sure it will raise the ratings,” or words to those effect. The next day, during his regular broadcast, Howard threatens suicide, live, on the air.

What follows is the slow break-up of  a man. He continues to break-up, on camera, delivering these wonderful, crazy speeches. His friend, Max, is appalled and wants him committed, perceiving that Howard is truly losing it and having a breakdown. Diana, however, now running the programming department, discovers that Beale’s rants are having a positive effect on the ratings (again, ratings determine the profitability of the network by determining the cost-per-minute of advertising fees for selling ad-time). She manages to first get Beale a regular “Commentary” block on the news. As Beale’s ratings soar, and Diana’s influence grows, she eventually turns the news broadcast into a circus. Besides Beale’s rants, which are the centerpiece of the new “Howard Beale Show”, there’s “Sybil the Soothsayer” who predicts the next week’s news; Jim Webbing and his “It’s-Emmes-Truth” Department; and Vox Populi. This isn’t news — it’s a game show, a circus, but instead of being a disaster — it’s very popular, and again the ratings soar. Eventually, Beale starts attacking television itself, telling people to “turn off the tube”. You’d think this would be the moment where the ratings drop – but it isn’t. Then Beale discovers that CCA is being bought out by foreign nationals, specifically the Arabs, whom Beale had been blaming for weeks for the Oil Crisis (in the 1970s), and the resulting depression, and inflation (also in the 70s). He urges people to send telegrams to the White House to stop the deal.  The telegrams are sent by the bushel load. Eventually millions of telegrams arrive.

This one piece of actual social action, stopping a foreign power from controlling the news, actually works. However, the chairman of the board of CCA is angry. He knows the deal is important. He sees Arab investment in American holdings such as shipping, GM, CCA, etc. as a necessary way to put money back into the system. He basically forces Beale to change his tactics and his speeches and his rants, and speak “his truth”, “his philosophy”. Beale does, but in such a way that he depresses people and they tune the show out, and stop watching. The ratings drop drastically.

Diana is then thrown into a tizzy. She tries to find a replacement for Beale, to no avail. She tries to convince her bosses to cancel or fire Beale, and that doesn’t work. She then finally resorts to desperate measures.

Network also has a quasi-documentary feel because of the use of a narrator all the way through to report on exactly what’s going on, and to at times explain the plot. The narrator also gets some very sardonic lines, lines that almost make you laugh and then you realise that what you are laughing at is in no way funny. That device works extremely well in the film.

I highly recommend Network. Many of  the concepts of the film, such as foreign investment and control of the networks and the news have actually happened  (ABC for example is owned by Sony, a Japanese company). Even the idea of corporations and systems and that fight with people and individuals is very modern. And, as the quotes above show, certainly the true state of affairs, such as the frequent mentions of the depression and inflation of the 1970s, which are historic facts, should feel familiar to today’s audiences. The language of the film is a bit rough – there’s a lot of  swearing, and there’s also a affair between Beale’s friend Max and Diana. However, those scenes outside the network, such as the scenes between Max and Diana, tend to be slow, until he actually finally breaks up with her because he sees her as very artificial. Beale, also is not a sympathetic character because he is just a tiny bit too nuts. But his speeches are certainly great. And the nature of the masses is also commented on in a political sense rather than in any sort of real sense. But still a film that deserves to be seen. It’s one of  those films that could probably spark endless debate.

Finally, this is a very, very, intelligent film. That is not meant to suggest “boring”. The language itself, and the dialogue, is notable for it’s complexity and intelligence. Often television people are dismissed as idiots; in this film that is far from the case. One reason that all the opposing speeches seem so very convincing is that they are spoken by intelligent people who have reasons for their own viewpoints. The things Diana says, the things the chairman of  CCA says, the things Max says (representing the old guard), even Beale’s speeches give the audience something to think about, something to explore, something to further argue for or against or in the middle or even to suggest, “Well, how about this”. Network never talks down to its’ audience, even when explaining necessary plot points such as the Ratings system and its’ ties to revenue. Even the narration, which could have been very much a “talking down” voice, is rather a very sardonic one, used solely to add explanation to the plot, even dates. This is so refreshing compared to what is so common now where often television and film executives seem to not trust their audience, and to assume the audience (that is, the masses) is stupid. I love that about Network.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 out of  5
Next Film:  North by Northwest

Moulin Rouge

  • Title:  Moulin Rouge
  • Director:  Baz Luhrmann
  • Date:  2001
  • Studio:  20th Century Fox
  • Genre:  Musical, Romance
  • Cast:  Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham (Cameo)
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and to be loved in return.”

“You expect me to believe that scantily clad, in the arms of another man, in the middle of the night, inside of an elephant, you were rehearsing?”  — The Duke

“Hurt him to save him.  There is no other way.  The show must go on, Satine.  We are creatures of the underworld, we can’t afford to love.”  — Zidler

Moulin Rouge is an incredible, incredible film.  The color, music and dancing all reflect a surreal, hyper-reality feel.  Yet the story is a simple story about love — an impossible love.  Christian is a young naive Englishman who makes his way to Paris, to the heart of the Bohemian Revolution to become a writer and experience love.  He quickly falls in with a group of Bohemian artists, and is chosen to write their new show.  Needing backers, they go to the Moulin Rouge and Howard Zidler, and his head courtesan, Satine.

Through a misunderstanding, Christian meets Satine, and they fall in love.  However, Zidler needs money to convert his nightclub and bordello to a real theatre.  He promises Satine to the Duke.  The Duke even gets Zidler to sign over the deeds on the Moulin Rouge to him.

Satine is shocked to discover the man she’s really falling in love with isn’t a rich Duke after all, but a penniless Bohemian writer.  The plot revolves around their love triangle — Christian and Satine and Satine and the Duke.  And the question is:  Will Satine, a Courtesan, choose true love with Christian or go for the money she can get from the Duke (which Zidler also encourages, since he’ll lose the Moulin Rouge if she doesn’t).  The love triangle is even built into the show that Christian is writing to debut on the new stage of the Moulin Rouge.  It may seem like a simple and traditional plot — but what pulls Moulin Rouge out of the commonplace is it’s style and look.  A style that’s surreal, hyper-reality, more real than real.  And Ewan McGregor as Christian and Nicole Kidman as Satine really do give the performances of their lives.  And my gosh can they both sing!

The majority of the music in Moulin Rouge is modern music.  Rather than keeping to a historical look and feel to the film — Baz Luhrmann goes completely in the opposite direction — accentuating the way it would feel to someone in 1899-1900 to be in such a remarkable place.  The opening dance number is a whirl of lights, color, movement and loud music.  One knows this won’t be your typical musical when the can can girls and the men in white ties and black tails are singing and dancing to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

Satine’s song that she performs as a courtesan is a medley of  “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Material Girl”, though the song she sings when she’s on her own is, “I’ll Fly Away”, because her ambition is to be a real actress – or at least to get out of the Moulin Rouge.  Christian first courts her with Elton John’s “Your Song”, but he’s most impressive with the song he writes for her, and the only original song in the film, “Come What May”.  (Though “The Pitch/ Spectacular Spectacular” could be argued as original – only the lyrics are, the music is The Can Can.)

But it’s surprising and even amusing to hear the modern music in the film, though the mood always fits.  “Elephant Love Melody”, for example, is an argument between Christian and Satine where they throw lines from romantic pop songs at each other.  Zidler gets to sing “Like a Virgin” to the Duke, when he’s trying to come up with an excuse as to why Satine has missed a date.  There’s also a very impressive Latin Tango done to “Roxanne”.  And many others.  It’s also common for lines of dialogue in the film to be quotes from famous music (Christian even gets his writing job by quoting “The Sound of  Music”).  Yet, somehow, it fits, it’s like when you and your friends quote lines from movies you’ve seen or books you’ve read.  Christian, Satine, and even Zidler quote lines from music.

There are also some remarkable special effect sequences in the film – and as showy as they are, it merely emphases the point at the time.

But the most remarkable aspect of  this musical is the end – it really is astounding and surprising.  I’ve seen this film now several times and I always enjoy it and appreciate it more with every viewing.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating 5 of  5 Stars
Next Film:  Network