This Is a Blog: Kris and Adam Discuss AFI’s Top 100: North by Northwest

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Kris and Adam Discuss AFI’s Top 100: North by Northwest

Kris Jenson, with whom I've had the best discussions of my life, is an old friend of mine from Boston. We had been talking about the American Film Institute's Top 100 when he got a job at  Dig Boston, writing about just that. Instead of letting the conversation end just because he's a big, fancy writer now, I'm going to write responses to his articles. I can't keep up with his movie watching, so I'm only responding to the ones I've seen.

To me, this movie is perfect. While it's by far my favorite Hitchcock, it's not one of my favorites. There is, however, not single bad thing I can say about it. Every part of it works perfectly, and so much of it is worth discussing. Hitchcock actually made a lot of these types of movies, the everyman who gets sucked into a crazy spy plot. None of them come close to this level of sophistication.

Hitchcock's greatness can make it easy to gloss over just how much crap he made. When you get right down to it, the man made cheesy, pulpy movies. He never won an Oscar. He never tackled any major issues. In his long career, he never careened into "Schindler's List" territory. He settled into being master of suspense, and stayed there for decades. That should only help to illustrate how unlikely a success "North by Northwest" really is.

Hitchcock spy movies tend to run on the bad side. When he goes experimental, like "Rear Window" or "Psycho" or even ::shutters:: "Rope," he delivers on the brilliance everyone knows is coming. By 1959, I'm sure there were tons of skeptics dreading another zany Hitchcock spy caper. His previous movie was "Vertigo," which signaled a whole new level of amazing for the director, but now he's back to his old tricks. Great, a mistaken identity, but this time he's an advertising guy of some sort. Sweet, he chases some blond woman, never seen that in a Hitchcock movie. And they're all chasing after some sort of, well, the thing never matters in a Hitchcock film.

From out of nowhere, this movie ends up being ridiculously good. It all starts with the script, which nails the exact balance between hokey Hitchcock fun and serious suspense. Cary Grant is great as Cary Grant: Ad Guy of Some Sort, and as always he nails the suave as well as he nails the confused and the bewildered and the hilarious. For my money, the coup de gras is Eva Marie Saint. The only other movie I've seen with her is "On the Waterfront," where she plays basically a nun. Here, she brings the sexy in spades. The key to this movie is boiling it down to a love story, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say no one challenges Grant in a movie like this, except maybe Katherine Hepburn.

I tell you, Eva Marie Saint is like 90-something now, and she is still smoking.

Anyway, back on topic. "North by Northwest" is an exciting mystery and goes way off the rails before swinging back and staging a thrilling fight on the face of Mt. Rushmore. SPOILER ALERT, the best part is the ending. A screenwriting professor put it this way: "Cary grant has to stop the bad guys, save the girl, debrief the FBI, get his life back, marry the girl, go on his honeymoon, and have sex. How many pages do you think it took to tell all this?" Once you find out the answer, you'll know what I mean.


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