Old Ass Movies: North By Northwest


Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

North By Northwest (1959)

I swore when I started this column that I would do my best to protect you, the dear reader, from my incessant love of Alfred Hitchcock and his films. I’ve probably failed at this considering that I’ve still covered a lot of his movies, but with the release of North By Northwest on Blu-ray and the fact that it’s my favorite Hitchcock film, I can’t avoid it any longer.

Everything about this movie is beyond perfection.

Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken by a group of spies for a CIA agent who may have committed murder. While searching for the real agent, Thornhill meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who both protects him and gets him deeper into trouble.

For starter’s, the script by Ernest Lehman about a tragic case of mistaken identity is top notch, a tight thriller that’s rooted in humor and the sexual tension between a man and a woman. It’s got the rapid-fire dialog that was a trademark of classic Hollywood, that back and forth of metaphors and lines that mean two or three things at once. It’s the kind of writing that allows for Eve Kendall to let Thornhill know she wants sex by telling him she doesn’t talk about love on his empty stomach. It’s the kind of writing that shows up decades later and makes it ten times cooler when Han Solo says, “I know,” in response to Leia’s declaration of love.

But the words are given life on the screen by some phenomenal actors. Not only are Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau and James Mason fantastic in their roles, they are fantastic together. That’s the difference between a great film and a brilliant one. Placing talent in a movie with a great script is a no-brainer, but if those actors don’t have the right chemistry, the recipe doesn’t quite work and the movie comes out flat – working against serious expectations. North By Northwest leaps far beyond any expectations that could have been built by the names on the screen – delivering a fascinating, riveting story from ultra-well known entities who disappear into their roles.

The visuals are breathtaking. That goes without saying. Whether it’s the heights of Mount Rushmore, shots from directly above the earth that look like moving art deco, the iconic crop-dusting sequence, or the intimate body shots of Grant and Saint – it’s all done so carefully, so respectfully. Hitch and frequent collaborator Robert Burks as cinematographer build 24 pieces of high art per second.

For your ear drums, Bernard Herrmann makes what might be the greatest film score of all time. At points it seems to be swirling a martini and in others it represents the dark fear only seen in the pupils of a woman about to be thrown off a cliff. Sweeping and dark, constantly elevating every scene and nuance, the music here works on its own in your living room (or for a very strange dinner party) as well as it does on screen.

And, of course, the hand that ties it all together is Hitchcock – unabashedly my favorite director of all time. The man is unmatched in his ability to tell the audience everything they need (as beautifully as possible) without letting any of the main characters know. He tells us about the bomb while the characters talk baseball. It’s filmmaking as an art that has somehow died in modern times – the ability to give everything away and still keep an audience on the edge of the seat. The gun is loaded. It’s in the hands of the villain. It’s ours to watch until it goes off.

Over all, a genius filmmaker working with the best source material, the best talent, and the best visual and sonic storytellers of the time turns out to create one of the most memorable movies of all time. If you haven’t seen it, go see it immediately.

A veteran of writing about movies for nearly a decade, Scott Beggs has been the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects since 2009. Despite speculation, he is not actually Walter Mathau's grandson. See? He can't even spell his name right.

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