July 3, 2009

THE MAN WHO INVENTED LUDLUM:

At the Movies (Michael Wood, 7/09/09, London Review of Books)

North by Northwest? Witty, stylish thriller where a man can almost get killed in the middle of nowhere and later scramble about the face of Mount Rushmore? Film where the notion of real-life probability is not just abandoned but lampooned, Hitchcock’s finest attack on the very notion of cause and motive? ‘Here, you see’, he said to Truffaut, speaking about this movie, ‘the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!’ He is saying that the espionage that drives the plot does just that: it drives the plot. We don’t have to know what the spies are after or what’s at stake, even if there is a flicker of a mention of the Cold War in the movie. Do the stolen secrets matter? In the world of actual espionage that would probably be a secret too, but in Hitchcock the answer is a revelation. Of course they matter, even in the entire absence of any content for them. They are the way the film pretends it’s about something.

We can think of all this, or of as much of it as we care to, under very good conditions, since a new print of North by Northwest is showing at the BFI, and will doubtless soon appear on DVD – the old DVD is discontinued and can be found only at enterprising or out-of-the-way shops. The film starts in a way that defines its terms with extraordinary elegance, asking us to think about design and daily reality together, as if we could just fade from one to the other and back. Well, we can, can’t we? Saul Bass’s abstract credit sequence – green screen, credits running across multiple diagonal lines – dissolves into Hitchcock’s (briefly, at the start) realistic movie as the lines become the floors of a glass skyscraper full of reflections of cars on a New York street: Madison Avenue, as it happens, in those days the world headquarters of advertising, and crowded with people, including Hitchcock himself narrowly missing a bus. This busy city feeling continues as Cary Grant, playing the ad man Roger Thornhill, appears dictating notes to his secretary. They start to walk uptown, then take a taxi. He gets out at the Plaza, meets some business associates in the Oak Room.

Then everything shifts into an entirely different register, apparently for plot reasons but really because we are beginning to leave all ordinary ideas of plot behind, the pure MacGuffin kicking in. Getting up to send a telegram, Thornhill is mistaken for a man who is being paged, one George Kaplan. Thornhill is promptly kidnapped, and taken off to a palatial pad on Long Island, where after failing to reveal to his interrogators what he is supposed to know, he is filled with bourbon and dumped in a car rolling downhill. Half-asleep and fully drunk he drives the car most of the way off a cliff and back again, narrowly misses hitting several cars coming the other way on a very winding road (distinctly more like somewhere in California than anywhere on Long Island, and even more like a bit of studio superimposed on some footage of the sea), has a bad fit of double vision, and finally brakes hard in order to avoid an elderly cyclist. The police car that has been following him for a while crashes into him, and another vehicle crashes into the police car. Thornhill is taken off to the police station, miraculously unharmed but still very drunk. When he tells the story of his kidnapping, no one believes him, not even (or least of all) his mother, played by the admirable Jessie Royce Landis, almost repeating her role in To Catch a Thief. This is the kind of movie where an arrested man makes his one phone call not to his lawyer but to his mother. He tells her to bring his lawyer.

So far so random, and so mystifying. Hitchcock says that at this point in the shooting of the film even Grant didn’t know what was going on. He was Roger Thornhill.



Posted by Orrin Judd at July 3, 2009 8:02 AM
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