Faith in Absurdity
‘North by Northwest’ Rocks
Is it possible to write a film to death? I feel as if I could not have anything at all to add to the huge cache of text written about Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. And yet I feel obligated to do so, as if sifting through this film once more in search of some undiscovered nugget of insight were my responsibility, or even my rite of passage as another dork who writes about movies and dreams about Eva Marie Saint.
Let’s start there: Eva Marie Saint is so incorrigibly naughty as Eve Kendall in this film that your jaw drops lower and lower with each line of dialogue she delivers to the point where you have to excuse yourself from the screening room until your pulse falls within specified parameters. (Saint’s raciest line, “I never make love on an empty stomach,” was overdubbed and toned down to “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.”) Across the table from this brazen voluptuary is Cary Grant, who turns flippancy into the act of sex itself, and whose sophisticated sexual energy is prodigious enough to make biplanes crash into tanker trucks.
Mix the overtly sexual dialogue (subtext be damned!) with blatantly coital imagery (notably the film’s last scene, of a train entering a tunnel) and you’re already on your way to one of the most sexually charged films ever given a PG rating. Throw in some subtler elements, such as villain James Mason’s strange attraction to hero Grant as well as his touching relationship with his pool boy/ henchman Martin Landau (O those penetrating blue eyes) and you’ve got a film that’s practically depraved.
Then again, depraved is the perfect word to describe Hitchcock. Alfred was a fellow with some jolly good neuroses. His personal problems and episodes of voyeurism and misogyny are exactly what make his films so compelling. It’s no mistake that if you were to excise the last one and a half minutes from all of his films with “happy” endings (North by Northwest included), you’d be left with the darkest set of work in the western film canon.
Darkest, as well as weirdest. The famous crop duster scene in North by Northwest is praised so highly in all circles as the perfect combination of suspense, thrill, special effects and cinematography (not to mention sound editing, acting, set construction and irony) that few people ever stop to ask whether the darn thing actually fits in the film. The truth is, it makes almost no sense at all as part of a continuous story. One man brave enough to point this out, to Hitchcock himself no less, was FranÇois Truffaut. Truffaut’s Hitchcock, a printed set of interviews between the two filmmakers, is not only the best study of Hitchcock’s work, but one of the best books on film out there.
Truffaut proposes that the crop duster scene is the kind of scene in which only the greatest of directors could indulge, and that in truth it’s entirely absurd. Hitchcock agrees, and points out that that doesn’t fail to make it a great part of the film. “The fact is,” he says, “I practice absurdity quite religiously!”
Hitchcock’s absurd religion makes North by Northwest at once lighthearted and grave. The film absolutely sparkles. And for that reason, I suspect critics will be writing about it for generations to come.