This is the fourth post in my Blindspot review series. I will be publishing one like it each month for the rest of 2015.
“Has anyone ever told you that you overplay your various roles very severely, Mr. Kaplan? First you’re the outraged Madison Avenue man who claims he’s been mistaken for someone else. Then you play the fugitive from justice who is supposedly trying to clear his name of a crime he knows he didn’t commit. Now you play the peevish lover stung by jealousy and betrayal. Seems to me you fellas can stand a little less training from the FBI and a little more from the actor’s studio” – Phillip Vandamm, North by Northwest
Every Hitchcock picture I’ve seen has moved with purpose. This one is purposeful in a different way: its narrative travels not only forward but outward, engaging the viewers’ knowledge of the spy genre and movies in general. It is playful and self-reflexive, and it all begins with the fact that Thornhill is in advertising, a profession that deals in image-making and deception – the parallels with film production, as well as Thornhill’s own predicament of mistaken identity, are unmistakable. The movie quickly picks up pace, presenting would-be conventional plot points (espionage, double-crosses, etc.) in bulk and at machine-gun speed, suggesting that Hitchcock is not interested so much in crafting a conventional thriller as creating a homage to such thrillers. At one point, a character remarks, “FBI, CIA, ONI, we’re all part of the same alphabet soup,” a possible reference to how the powers that be all look and sound the same from movie to movie: suit and tie, cryptic dialogue, no sense of humor. The citations continue, never becoming smug or pedantic as is prone to happen when movies turn self-referential. On the contrary, North by Northwest is charming, and its self-awareness has the quality of someone putting an arm around you, letting you in on a joke.
The greatest of the movie’s gags is spelled out in the quote heading this article: Thornhill, thought to be an American spy, is accused of “overplaying” (the implication being, playing to the point of cliché) various quintessential Hollywood roles in an attempt to mask his true identity. He isn’t a spy, and his apparent role-playing is simply his honest effort to survive. Go one step further, though, and you’ll remember that Thornhill himself is played by Cary Grant, a fact made especially visible to us due to Grant’s star status. Thornhill himself may have stumbled into these generic Hollywood roles by accident, but Grant did so knowingly, choosing as he did to play a character in such a story as this. Of course, all actors in all movies are to some degree intentional in their performances, but North by Northwest calls attention to this intentionality, reminding us that, even in genre films where such roles are played with earnest, they remain just that – roles. That said, Hitchcock isn’t dismissing these roles as trite so much as honoring them as beloved staples in cinema and pop culture.
Aside from the already mentioned examples, North by Northwest continues to find smart-amusing ways of breaking our immersion in its story and reminding us that we’re watching a movie. At one point, Thornhill openly calls himself a “red herring,” a term that automatically places him within a work of crime fiction rather than a self-contained reality oblivious to its status as fantasy. At another point, a bird’s eye shot appears out of nowhere, reducing Thornhill to a fleeing ant and the buildings around him to a landscape of abstract shapes – the shot isn’t a reference to another movie per se (at least none that I know of) but it jars us into remembering the movie’s constructedness. Then there’s the film’s final frame (skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers), which depicts Thornhill and Ms. Kendall getting married in so rushed and stilted a fashion that the entire plot point begs to be viewed ironically; in a film devoted to “overplaying” various genre elements to the point of (loving) parody, a send-up to the most hackneyed Hollywood ending of all is the perfect way to finish.
I would like to reemphasize that North by Northwest is not some erudite encyclopedia of movie references. It is, above everything else, entertainment – a movie lover’s diversion that never gets too serious even as it drops in several virtuoso moments from the master of suspense; the crop duster scene is the film’s most iconic, but it’s the minutes leading up to it that are the best: shots of empty fields offering no visible hiding spot for potential attackers, and yet menace lurks, and a plane buzzes lazily in the distance…In its sense of play and genre shenanigans, the film prefigures Psycho, except that film dwells more in the shadows. I liked Psycho better, but North by Northwest is still an achievement. Bookended by Vertigo and Psycho, it is the gulp of fresh air and sunlight before the plunge back into the abyss. Watching it, I felt nourished by the rollicking spirit of a director who, despite making a name for himself in darker, tenser genres, still knows how to have fun.