North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)

17May11

Cary Grant (Roger O. Thornhill), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall). Screenplay by Ernest Lehman. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Rating: PG. Running time: 131 minutes.

North by Northwest is absolutely outrageous. It’s cinema at its largest, most marvellous, most emphatic. It’s barely over 2 hours long but feels like it goes on for 4, and you want it to last 8. It’s a wild, sprawling adventure taking us from New York to Chicago to Mount Rushmore, and with Cary Grant at the helm it’s the most joyful and outright hilarious journey we could wish to witness. Nothing I write will convey the extent of its magic. Only by seeing it will you truly grasp that what I say is in no way hyperbole. I was fortunate enough to watch this on the big screen, but don’t worry that you can’t see it similarly. Just turn the volume right up on your TV and dim the lights; let Hitchcock completely immerse you in his vision. It’s an experience no other director, let alone no other art form, could conjure. Scene after scene plays out so ambitiously and totally fresh in its approach to filmmaking, yet not once does it fail to also be first-class entertainment. It’s impossible to believe this was made in ’59. I can’t begin to imagine how liberating it must have been for moviegoers to finally see their stars openly engage in innuendo when that is exactly what they wanted to see. In fact, Hitch gives us everything we want. There is really nothing more we could ask for from North by Northwest. When he thought a scene would work simply as a piece of pure cinema, he stuck it in, and it did work. When we want the thrill of a chase or a race against the clock, he dishes it out perfectly with the help of that grandiose theme tune. Then he lavishly scatters a dose of romance across the masterpiece for good measure, before drowning it in a bucket of rich humour. You name what you want a film to do to you, and North by Northwest does it. If you wish, it will even make you cry. Cry at its magnificence, that is. I didn’t quite manage that, but I settled for the inescapable goosebumps instead. If you don’t shiver at the sight of the skill with which Hitchcock carves this one out, his energy pumping through its veins, then you’re simply not watching properly. Naming your favourite film is a contentious thing to do, but tell me yours is North by Northwest and I wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

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