North by Northwest

Movie Information

The Hendersonville Film Society will show North by Northwest at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot on the left.)
Score:

Genre: Romantic Spy Yarn
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, Leo G. Carroll, Martin Landau
Rated: NR

Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) is the filmmaker’s last work in full The 39 Steps (1935) mode. Yes, there are elements of 39 Steps in Frenzy (1972), but Frenzy seems more like a cousin—more closely related to Young and Innocent (1937) than to The 39 Steps. The concept of the wrong man blamed for a crime and on the run to prove his innocence is a central theme in much of Hitchcock’s work—expressing the director’s own obsessive fear of being accused of a crime he didn’t commit. But The 39 Steps, Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest are the most closely related.

Time—and a penchant for Hitch’s 1950s work—has come to favor North by Northwest as the best of the lot. Myself, I’d rank it in a virtual dead heat with Saboteur. While Saboteur suffers from its WWII propaganda tone and a blandly conceived leading character, North by Northwest has to bear up under a typical 1950s padded length of 131 minutes. There’s not really anything like 131 minutes worth of story here. What you have then in about 90 to 100 minutes of romance/spy yarn and a good 30 minutes of padding that—so far as I can tell—exists mostly for the sake of size, as part of the movies of the era offering something that TV couldn’t.

Even so, I’d call North by Northwest Hitchcock’s last completely entertaining film. By that I mean, it’s a film with no pretense of deeper meaning. Oh, there’s some pretty simplistic Freudian symbolism (the train going into a tunnel for God’s sake—you don’t get more simplistic than that), but really this is a spy thriller with attractive, sophisticated people in interesting locations saying and doing entertaining and/or clever things. And when those people are Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, how much cause for complaint is it possible to have?

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

4 thoughts on “North by Northwest

  1. Dread P. Roberts

    I’m kinda glad to see you give a favorable review to this movie. I was a little worried that this might not be your cup o’ tea, considering your despise (understandable as it is) for ’50s cinema. Even though it is the end of the ’50s, I think it does feel very much like a product of it’s era. Nevertheless, for some reason I just love everything about this movie.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I think it does feel very much like a product of it’s era

    It does and yet every so often it does something so remarkably striking (that extreme long shot looking down on the U.N. entrance) that it doesn’t seem quite so much of that era. Nor does the its playful tone seem quite like so much of Hitch’s 1950s works.

    Nevertheless, for some reason I just love everything about this movie.

    That far I can’t quite go — I really think there’s no excuse for the film being quite as long as it is — but I do like it a lot.

  3. Chall

    How come these reviews for special showings never list the time and venue of the showings, nor does the Movies homepage list them? Is this something you could ameliorate in the future, Ken?

  4. Ken Hanke

    How come these reviews for special showings never list the time and venue of the showings, nor does the Movies homepage list them? Is this something you could ameliorate in the future, Ken?

    I don’t know when the information stopped being a part of the review. It used to be at the bottom. (I’ll see about getting it put back there.) But it is available on the movie page if you scroll down to the “Special Showings” section just below the new release reviews.

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