The master of suspense and thrillers in the Classical Hollywood era was none other than Alfred Hitchcock. Staring in this period, Hitchcock created and battled his way to master his craft and visionary direction with The Man Who Knew Too Much kickstarting the Hitchcock we know today as before Hitchcock was not quite the household name with smaller pictures. The period that most fans of Hitchcock’s works would agree was between the 40’s to the early 60’s where the world was brought classics from Rebecca to Rope to Strangers on a Train to The Birds and many more to cinema fans. These films have been parodied, lampooned and paid homage to…and I just happened to pick the second-most referenced film of his catalog as I have never seen it before.
That’s right, it’s ‘Crop Duster Chase: The Movie’ if judging by how many times that has been used in popular culture. 1959’s North By Northwest tells the tale of Roger O. Thornhill, played by the always classy Cary Grant, who is mistaken for a spy named George Kaplan and goes up against another spy Phillip Vandamm, played by James “Captain Nemo” Mason (shamless plug to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea review). This leads our hero into a thriller filled with planes, trains and automobiles except without Steve Martin and John Candy.
The film begins with our protagonist in a business meeting in Long Island, New York until he is mistaken for a mystery man he has no clue about and carried off by two hired goons.
The hired goons are under the care of a man named Lester Townsend alongside his right hand man, Leonard, played by Martin ‘I Was Handsome Once, Dammit’ Landau to interrogate him by getting him drunk on bourbon in order to get Robert, thought to be George Kaplan, out of sight and mind. While out on the open road on a nearby ocean side, Robert awakens in a car to realize they are going to send him drowning in the ocean, says “I’m Cary fuckin’ Grant. I have no time for this,” pushes the goon out and makes haste in a fast-paced drunken chase that Smokey would be proud of. Robert is taken by police and sent to trail to speak on behalf of why he was drunk by telling the court he was taken hostage. When he tries to prove that he has been framed by going to the Townsend estate, apparently everything he revealed has gone away. This leads Thornhill to go on a wild goose chase to find out where Kaplan is headed next by sneaking into his hotel room.
Kaplan was due at the U.N. General Assembly meeting to meet up with Lester Townsend to find that Townsend is not the Townsend he met, but the a diplomat that bears the same name. As he questions him about who Kaplan is, Townsend gets a knife tossed into his back (somehow, missing everyone walking) with Thornhill to take out the knife. The press capture the moment on camera and hence say that Thornhill is responsible for the stabbing of the man. As a journalist myself, making an outrageous assumption like this is awful, but in a Hitchcock film, it just builds the suspense.
Thornhill escapes the building and heads to Grand Central Station as the audience gets a nice scene of exposition with a man known as The Professor explaining that the man portraying Townsend is a spy named Phillip Vandamm that is trying to steal a microfilm containing government secrets and that George Kaplan is a fabricated live decoy to distract Vandamm from the true spy at hand. Confused, yet? Don’t be. Thornhill hides behind badass shades, sneaks onto a train headed to Chicago and comes across the gorgeous Eve Kendell, played by the equally gorgeous Eva Marie Saint.
This meeting leads to a seductive conversation that creates a aura between the two that does as much sexual tension as a modern scene without the nudity. After a long night of hiding away from the 5-0 and such, they begin to be attracted to one another until it is revealed to only the audience that Eve is in cahoots (ha, ‘cahoots’) with Vandamm unbeknownst to Thornhill. Thornhill is told to go into the middle of nowhere by Eve to meet up with Kaplan face to face, only to be pursuited by…well, you know.
So after the most parodied scene in the known universe (and, full disclosure, the buildup to this moment is brilliant), the crop duster smacks into a tanker truck and explodes with Thornhill having none of this, finds a locals car, is reminded once again ‘I am Cary fuckin’ Grant” and drives back to Chicago to discover Kaplan has gone and Eve is leaving. Thornhill finds Eve at a local art auction after deciphering her message on the notepad and discovers she is right beside Vandamm and Leonard. As they leave with a statue Vandamm bought, Thornhill creates the biggest trolling of an auction even before the term ‘trolling’ existed in order to be taken into custody like the wanted man he is. Unfortnately, he is released as he is no longer in trouble but is approached by The Professor.
The Professor informs him that it has all be an elaborate ruse as a plane passes by loudly because, well, we already know why, so why do we need to remember? Good thinkin’, Hitch. The Professor does reveal that the spy is Eve and in order save her, Thornhill must cooperate to save her and end Vandamm from getting away with his plan. They head to Rapid City, South Dakota to get a hold of Vandamm near Mount Rushmore. Eve meets with Thornhill and shoots him dead. The end.
The hell it is! This is Hitchcock, dammit.
Thornhill was shot by blanks by Eve in order to chat in the nearby forest a la James Bond in You Only Live Twice by predating that film. Eve and Thornhill chat, but The Professor says she is leaving with Vandamm in order to continue the plan. Thornhill, once again realizing he is in fact Cary fuckin’ Grant, is back at the hospital and escapes to take matters into his own hand by getting Eve out of Vandamm’s hold. Leonard realizes that Eve played a trick on Vandamm in order to save herself, leading Vandamm to make sure Eve does not leave.
Warning: The Following Paragraph Requires Badass Music. Please Play Loud.
Thornhill manages to get back the microfilm and gets Eve out of harms way and takes on some thugs. Soon, they head to Mount Rushmore. Oh yes, that is right: Mount Frickin’ Rushmore. The film has a climax on a national landmark. Suck on that, Eagle Eye. On the face of Mount Rushmore, it up to Thornhill to foil the thugs and Leonard with nothing but his wit, yet cannot as he is falling off the damn thing. Luckily, a policeman comes and shoots Leonard and Martin Landau waits until Burton gives him an Oscar for Ed Wood. Eve, barely holding on, is grasping on to Thornhill as he pulls her up and suddenly…cut to them on a train now in love and ready to get it on as demonstrated in this humorous video below by Taylor C. Pemberton.
That, my dear readers, was North by Northwest and while one was reading, did it come into mind why this review was back to the old format? Because this could very well be the first James Bond movie. The style, the pacing, the sets, the gorgeous bombshell and the esponiage elements are pure James Bond style before the films were even made. I firmly believe that with the success of this film and other espinage thrillers, it was bound that Bond would not be what it is today. There were stirrings back then that Hitchcock would have loved to direct a James Bond feature, yet he never got to try his hand at it. North by Northwest feels like the feature he would have made and actually reminded me of why I loved From Russia With Love.
In my From Russia With Love review back in the 007 in 23 series, I pointed out that that would have been the Bond film Hitchcock would have made. Hitchcock was the master of slow builds and set up in order to create an aura of suspense while maintaining the fun. The casting is just as great in From Russia as in this film with Cary Grant pulling off the sauve sarcastic snarker hellbent on getting the job done and Eva Marie Saint laying a sultry femme fatale that is more about words than showing off herself. James Mason as Vandamm is damn good, pun intended. Mason, though a small role, leaves a huge mark with a charming smile and cool wit about him. I love him as much as I did in this film than I did back in 20,000 Leagues. Martin Landau also gets a special mention as the calm killer who might have a little closeted secret of his own according to Landau himself. The direction and style is pitch perfect creating moment of intensity and pure thrills. Infamous scenes such as the crop duster scene and Mount Rushmore climax are neat and nifty. This was my first time watching this feature and what a delight it was as it reminded me of why I started Film A Week in the first place: To celebrate films both past and present and the films they inspired.
Next week, Film A Week goes toe to toe with the King of All Monsters…Gojira aka Godzilla. Film A Week views the 1954 original and the legacy it has created, the impact it had and why that 1997 remake was such a piece of shit.
Film A Week 23: Gojira (a.k.a. Godzilla)
Saturday June 15th