I’ve never personally liked North by Northwest, mainly cuz it feels a little endless, but, as I’ve now seen it three times with a couple years between each viewing (same rate of exposure I had to Truffaut’s 400 Blows (which is fitting, since Truffaut is largely responsible for Hitchcock’s canonization in academia)), I’m more and more appreciative of how fun North by Northwest is, how free-wheeling (if you’ll forgive the critic-speak); and also, if we can make another connection with movie history, North by Northwest is a star vehicle for the middle-aged Cary Grant, who also starred in Only Angels Have Wings, an adventure movie from the 1930s, directed by Howard Hawks, and it revolves around—“hold onta ya butts!”—postal workers; yes, that bastion of adventure, the US Postal Service; and what the two movies have in common is that they’re wonderful, empirically wonderful, and they’ve both got simple stories with slender casts in exotic locations—and they both take…their…time. They aren’t plodding or tedious or digressive, not at all, but nor do they hasten toward plot points and action beats. The first thirty minutes of Only Angels Have Wings features one of the most suspenseful scenes ever filmed, in which Cary Grant guides a fog-blinded pilot to a safe landing via radio, and the scene has no musical score, the plane is fake as fuck, the scene lasts several minuets and there’s virtually no movement…but it absolutely rivets you.
And that’s the kinda thing we get with Hitchcock’s North by Northwest: it’s indulgent in the way that director Howard Hawks was indulgent with that scene in Angels, which is to say that he’s exercising vreative liberties that he’s earned, having proven his cinema savvy, but he isn’t going to abuse those liberties in the way that (forgive me) Quentin Tarantino abuses them in The Hateful Eight, in which he knowingly exhausts the audience’s patience because his CV appears to’ve earned him the right. (We can someday have a long discussion about The Hateful Eight—the only Tarnatino move I actively (viscerally?) dislike.)
Hitchcock is a dutiful storyteller, economical with time, mindful of what to communicate and how best to communicate it and when. North by Northwest starts off with a few quick maneuvers in the hero’s daily hustle-bustle life as a corporate bigshot to show us that he’s dashing and clever (so that we’re amused by him) but that he’s also a bit of a prick, a little too wealthy and too beautiful; Hitchcock knows that, having established this, the audience will be able to take some bit of delight in seeing him thrown around and persecuted, taken down a peg.
With all of that character-establishing out of the way in the first ten or fifteen minutes, we take him into the company of wealthier and more contemptible folk who bear a grudge against him and, from there, the story gets going. There’s a funny exciting episode of a drunken highspeed jaunt in a luxury car on a mountainside, the famous cornfield footchase between an airplane and a lanky Cary Grant, and a climactic scene of what looks like arthritic parkour across the faces of Mt. Rushmore (Hitchcock had to reconstruct the monument on a studio lot because the Feds felt it would be defamatory to scale the actual, uh, “rockface”).
Whole movie’s a lark.
But it’s larkiness for me is mostly interesting when you look at it within the context of Hitchcock’s filmography (I’ve begun to feel this way about all of his work—with the exception, so far, of Blackmail, which I think is a singular kind of masterpiece). North by Northwest, one of the larger blockbusters of his career, comes on the heels of Vertigo, which–as his disciples in the American New Wave like Scorsese and Coppola and De Palma are quick to say–is his most personal film (there’s lots to pick apart over the question of whether Hitchcock knew how much he was revealing in that movie); and Vertigo, I think, is taxing in the same way that this movie is taxing: it takes its time (which is a virtue in a master’s hands) but it crams in more story than the premise warrants.
What’s different with North by Northwest is that its busyness is part of the joke. It knows how absurd it is that such a silly premise should turn into this continent-traversing extravaganza. So it keeps heaping in the silliness.
But yeah, the Hitchcontext (-cocktext?): after his most personal movie garnered a sort of lukewarm reception form audiences, I’d be willing to bet Hitchcock felt a vague but heavy insecurity. The kind that surfaces after you’ve just revealed a very intimate part of yourself to somebody and they weren’t impressed, or they didn’t reciprocate the feeling, and so he decided to make a huge, sweeping, hilarious and sexy and consummately crowd-pleasing spectacle as a way of wiping Vertigo off everyone’s palate—which, at the time, was easier to do, because unless Vertigo was being revived in theaters (probably unlikely, given its initial reception) or appearing on TV, even the people who loved it would probably have to go a few years between viewings (there’s a good riff about this in the documentaries De Palma and Hitchcock/Truffaut).
Anyway: I recommend North by Northwest because it really is a good time, if you’re in a mood to be bogged down with something heavy, and also it’s packed with so many iconic scenes, it’s probably gonna trigger a buncha memories of movies and TV shows you watched as a kid that were rife with homages.
Which is a treat all on its own.