Any Which Way But ‘North’

I feel so naughty. So subversive. I can’t believe I’m about to confess this in public, but:

We watched “North by Northwest” for the first time and … it was OK.

I mean just OK. It’s Hitchcock, and Hitchcock is a god of cinema, I know, I know. Believe me, there’s plenty to love about this movie. Here’s the thing, though: Watching a “classic movie” brings up the perennial problem of having to put on your “classic-movie glasses,” which filter the images and remind you that “back in the day, this was something new” and “for its time, this was considered pretty great.”

I certainly can’t knock Hitchcock as a storyteller, nor a trailblazing moviemaker. Heck, “N by NW” is on the AFI 100 Greatest American Movies list. And for some great reasons: It slams into its “wrong man” spy plot quickly, it pulses with snappy dialog and sexy characters, its caffeinated soundtrack gets the heart going, and several suspenseful scenes show that masterful Hitchcock hand. My favorite is one where Cary Grant is trying to toss an urgent matchbook message to Eve Marie Saint …

You can tell it's a tense moment: Lookit that shadow!

… but she turns at the wrong moment, missing its fall …

Perhaps her flippy hair obscured her view.

… now creepy Martin Landau may find it first!

Seriously, Landau's got this Norman Bates ree!-ree!-ree! vibe going on in this movie. He weirded me out.

See? I can appreciate this movie. It really is quite great.

As long as you’re wearing those classic-movie glasses. Because if you don’t keep reminding yourself to forgive that 1959 aesthetic, you’ll find yourself bursting out laughing for the wrong reasons. Take, for example, the early scene where Creepy Landau force feeds a bottle of Scotch to Cary Grant before shoving him behind the wheel and sending him to certain doom off a cliff. Thanks to Cary’s high tolerance, he manages to swerve the vehicle back on the road, and for the next minute he careens downhill, inches from danger, while mugging a series of increasingly awesome “drunk faces”:

Look out! You'll hit the green screen!

It’s that second to last face that had my wife and me howling. We’re so bad, right? This is one of Hitch’s masterpieces, and we’re nitpicking over some silly faces, right? Right. We got it back together and forgave him the scenery chewing — after all, Hitchcock may have meant to deliver some deliberate goofiness to break the tension. Just because we were yanked so hard out of the movie was no reason to give up now.

And largely we were rewarded. Cary Grant is fun to watch, even when he inexplicably brings his mother along to investigate a crime scene. Or to a breaking-and-entering in a hotel. But then, to get the “wrong man” ball really rolling, he had to go and do this:

Stabby stab stab!

Let’s go down the list of what’s been asked of my incredulity:

1. A gloved assailant hurls a deadly knife into the back of his victim in the middle of a crowded United Nations lounge. No one sees him.

2. Cary Grant grabs the knife and pulls it out. He will stand around with it in his hand for several seconds.

3. A photographer (see him conveniently placed in the background?) whirls around and gets a snapshot of Cary looking all menacing and deadly. Instant media conviction!

After this series of events conspires to turn Cary into a wrongly accused man on the run, my wife turned to me and said, “What a dumbass.” I had to agree. But if I thought Cary was dumb to fall victim to that series of contrivances, then clearly he’s the perfect match for a villain who chooses this method of dispatching his foes:

This post will lose me friends, I just know it.

I know! I know! One of the most iconic images in cinema history, and here I am cracking wise about it. But come on, this is how James Mason conspires to off a guy? Trick him into taking a bus for an hour and half into deepest Indiana, hire a crop duster, and hope for the best? This may make for a surprising twist in 1959, but in 2009 it merits a tired “Really?” Death-by-crop-duster seems a particularly clumsy method, especially when the pilot you’ve chosen can’t tell the difference between the sky and the gas-filled tanker truck.

Aw, man, how did that truck get in the way?

Whoops. Here’s how I imagine the original call going:

James Mason: Now, Clive, in a couple hours, there’s going to be a man standing at the turn-off for Highway 41. It’s a real middle-of-nowhere place. I want you to get in that plane of yours, fly over him and shoot him.

Clive: You sure about that? I could drive there instead and be waiting with a gun. Get real good and close. Shoot him in the head.

James Mason: No, no, no, that will never do. Lacks drama. It’s got to be a crop duster, or it’s just no good.

Clive: Well, you’ve got that smooth James Mason voice and I just can’t say no to that …

This method of assassination is just one step removed from Dr. Evil’s “Ridiculously Slow Lowering Device.”

And just who is the U.S. government’s mysterious agent “working right under the villain’s nose”? Well, in 1959, Hitchcock was counting on his audience to be amazed by the big reveal … but since modern consumers of media have already ingested thousands of hours of story by an early age, let’s just say a Suprising Twist in 1959 may rate no more than a Well, Duh in 2009.

Years ago, we rented another classic, “The Maltese Falcon,” and had a similar reaction: Though that 1941 movie may represent a formative moment in film noir, from a more modern perch it looked like a parody of film noir. I had a debate with noted cinéaste Rick Carton at the time, who could not believe I would view the seminal noir movie through the lens of the movies that came after.

“How could you fault it for being cliched?” he asked. “It’s where the noir cliches evolved from!”

Had I known about the special goggles, the classic-movie glasses, I would have known better than to stir him up. Just strap those babies on, and remind yourself that the hammy acting, the unconvincing patter, and broad fake punches are all part of a period piece, like a time capsule from a more innocent age. Then maybe, just maybe, you’ll forgive Hitch for pushing in for the dramatic reaction shot when Cary finds out … Eve Marie Saint is the mysterious agent.

Oh, uh, spoiler alert.

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