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

Charade (1953)

  • Title:  Charade (1953)
  • Director:  Roy Kellino
  • Date:  1953
  • Studio:  Portland Picture
  • Genre:  Short Stories, Film Noir
  • Cast:  James Mason, Pamela Mason
  • Format:  Black and White, Standard
  • Format:  R1, NTSC 

“We can reconstruct the crime over dessert.”  — Max

“Because this had to end like this, and because you’re more than a little mad, that makes you my perfect love.  This is a love that will never wilt, it will survive like a pressed flower, I shall never learn that you are stupid, or shallow, or inconstant.  Jealousy and disillusion will never make you hateful or dangerous.”  — Max

Though it has the same title as the film reviewed previously (Charade – 1963), this film really has nothing to do with the other.  Rather, it’s actually three short films, no more than half an hour each (probably a bit less, I didn’t keep close track), connected with scenes between James and Pamela Mason discussing the movie project they are working on.  The film, actually, starts oddly with the two talking to each other – James Mason about his desire to be a producer, and Pamela saying he’s an actor who will never be a producer.  He mentions three scripts she’d worked on – saying they were too short to produce, she counters with the idea of doing a Trio.  Between each completely separate story, and at the end as a concluding bookend we return to the two as themselves talking.

The first story is actually quite a nice film noir piece, though the production values are extremely low.  Everything takes place in one set, which isn’t too bad, but Pamela Mason’s voice-over reminds me of  Victoria Winters from Dark Shadows.  And in one scene, James Mason’s menacing appearance at her door is totally spoiled by a boom in the shot.

However, that said, it does draw you in.  Pamela Mason is a British ex-pat, living in Paris, and trying to become a painter – and failing miserably.  Her next door neighbor is loud and annoying, especially when she plays the piano – badly, at all hours of the night.  Pamela even fantasizes about killing her annoying neighbor.  Then one night she hears the piano being played surprisingly well, followed by an argument and a suspicious thump.  She looks out her door and sees a man standing in the hall under the naked light bulb.  Being an artist, she sketches the man.  Deciding it would be more fun to keep the secret of what she saw – she tells the police she slept soundly that night and saw and heard nothing.

Suddenly, “Max” (James Mason), the man she had seen in the hall appears – he’s rented the apartment next door.  Yes, the dead girl’s apartment.  He’s aware of the room’s history, but it doesn’t bother him.  The two get to talking and before long, Pamela is painting his portrait.  As she finishes painting when he isn’t there, she writes “Portrait of a Murderer” on the painting, then covers it with a canvas.

Max arrives, and tells her he’s been attending the trial of the man who is accused of killing her neighbor.  He mentions some details from the man’s defense, and demands to have the original sketch she drew.  Looking at the sketch, they see a detail mentioned by the man which had never been mentioned before.  Pamela tries to convince “Max” she loves him and will never betray him.  He kills her anyway.  Two French policemen finding the body, also find the portrait…

and we return to James and Pamela Mason, discussing that “Max” will most certainly be caught.

The second story, Duel at Dawn based on an Alexandre Dumas story, has the former boyfriend of a countess challenging her current fiance to a duel.  The conditions of the duel sound impossible, one man is certain to die.  The Countess (Pamela Mason) is so distressed she writes a letter to her fiance telling him she’ll die as well if  he doesn’t survive – she also tells her maid to stay there out of sight and tell her who survives.  She also writes a letter of intent to her father.  The maid, sees the Countess’s ex-boyfriend leave the dueling barn.  However, unbeknownest  to her both men survived – the duel was a trick, meant to test Mason’s courage.  However, before the Countess can go all Juliet at the news her maid brings her of her fiance’s death, Mason arrives just in time.  Realising what she was about to do – he swears off dueling for life.

The third story, The Midas Touch concerns a boring captain of industry, who’s only talent is making money.  He’s so good at it he finally gets bored and takes off for England where he holds a series of low jobs before becoming a butler and falling for the Lady’s maid (Pamela Mason).  However, when the head of the household decides to take his Yacht to the US, he’s faced with a problem – he wants to marry the maid and live a quiet life.  Somehow, instead, he ends up back in New York, captain of industry again, but now married to the maid – who’s now an aspiring actress.

Overall, I liked the first piece best – Mason was quite menacing, and the use of mirrors to get tricky shots was interesting to watch.  Use of a single set is quite stagey, but at the end becomes effectively claustrophobic.  It’s a pity that single story wasn’t extended to full movie length, and the intermediate dialogue between Pamela and James Mason cut.

The second piece isn’t bad – tho’ it’s predictable, and James Mason’s character, though the “hero” for once, is quite annoying as well (he does put his “honor” over his fiancee’s life).

The third story is just plain awful… no doubt about it.

Overall, though the first story is worth watching, the rest of  Charade (1953) isn’t really worth it.  I’m glad this was only an extra feature on another film I bought (Charade 1963) rather than something I really paid for.

Recommendation:  Turn it off after the end of the first story
Rating: 2.5 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Chitty Chitty Bang Bang