My Favorite World #21

Some of My Most Favorite Things are the moving picture shows. This week, I got to watch North by Northwest again for the eleventieth time.

The movie is terrific in every way, really one of Hitchcock’s best. The story framework – a case of mistaken identity that draws the Cary Grant character, Roger Thornhill, into a spy vs. spy intrigue – is a classic ‘wrong man’ plot. It’s a common plot device1Hellloooo Lebowski, and one that is at the core of so many of his great movies.

The dialogue has the kind of snap and charm that makes me want to listen to Cole Porter and drink a dry martini. Or a Gibson.2Grant’s cocktail of choice in the film, basically a martini with a cocktail onion instead of the olive. Eva Marie Saint, playing Eve Kendall, is a classic Hollywood dame, a model of pluck and barely suppressed sexuality, a character that served as a template for dozens of femme fatales from the classic Bond girls (think Pussy Galore and Tiffany Case) to Romancing the Stone‘s Joan Wilder.3Who actually combines the dame persona with the hapless mistaken identity victim in one character. She is not quite as overt as some of the pre-Code dames, but in some ways that may actually turn up the heat. Film nerd fact: During filming, Eve tells Roger that, “I never make love on an empty stomach.” The censors flipped and made them overdub a change: “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.” The change makes Grant’s double-take response a little less effective.

North By Northwest 5
Roger hearing something the rest of us did not.

Many of the movie’s structural elements – like the preposterous chase in a ridiculous setting (e.g., scampering across the face of Mt. Rushmore or the crop duster chasing Grant across the corn field) have left their stamp on a flood of later productions like the Bond movies, the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon franchises, Bullitt, French Connection, even in a Dr Who episode.4Somebody could write a cool film studies dissertation on this.

The fourth Doctor outruns a bi-plane
The fourth Doctor waiting for a plane

But forget all that. The thing that rang my bells with this viewing was the design sense of the movie. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, and there really has been no more dismal fashion era than that. Sure, we get a little campy buzz off of polyester bell bottoms in eye-popping colors, but nobody wants to dress like that.5The less said about the teased-hair, shoulder-padded 80s the better. But that suit that Grant wears pretty much the entire movie? Good god, people…that is a piece of clothing!

I want that suit.
I want that suit. Hell, I want that dress, too.

In this scene, Thornhill believes Eve to be one of the bad guys.6Which she both is and isn’t. He’s in gray, she’s in red: colors in opposition.

Here, we find Roger and Eve in cahoots. Same suit for Roger, but now Eve is dressed in a dress from the same color family: colors in concert.7All credit to Tom and Lorenzo for getting me to think like this in the first place. My default mode had been “Hey, cool suit!”, if I even noticed it at all.

I still want that suit.
I still want that suit.

But the visual element that really tickles My Favorite World spot, even more than the fashion, are the sets. Much of the movie was filmed on location, as with this early scene in NY’s Plaza Hotel.

Plaza-Hotel-lobby-511x288
Just like a Holiday Inn Express

Now that, people, is what a hotel lobby should look like.

And this scene, in one of my favorite places.

Glory days of Grand Central. A recent restoration has pretty much brought it back to full gorgeousity.
Glory days of Grand Central. A recent restoration has pretty much brought it back to full gorgeousity.

Also, too…Hitchcock knew how to paint a picture. Check out this overhead shot of Grant fleeing the UN Building.

north-by-northwest
I can tell ya, the UN Building can’t look that good these days. It was already falling apart when I was a kid.

But the killer is the Vandamm House, a complete fabrication designed to look like a Frank Lloyd Wright-ish construction at the top of Mt. Rushmore.8In fact, the area at the top of Rushmore is extremely restricted. Almost nobody gets to go up there, and there are definitely no cantilevered houses dangling over GW’s ear.

Nice digs.
Nice digs.

The exterior shots are matte paintings, and the interiors are all built on a soundstage.

North-by-Northwest-Hitchcock-movie-Vandamm-house-5
I would so live in this house.
I mean, come on. A McMansion or this?
I mean, come on. A McMansion or this? Even with the gun entering frame left, I’d still live there.

Another cool film nerd tidbit…look again at this still from the cafeteria.

I still want that suit.
I still want that suit.

Just to the right of Eve, there is a child extra who has his fingers in his ears. From rehearsals, he knew that 1) there was a gunshot coming and 2) that it was loud. So he pre-emptively plugged his ears before the gunshot. Nobody noticed at the time, but apparently Hitchcock was pretty miffed about it when they noticed it later on.

More substantively, Favorite World-wise: this is the first film appearance by Martin Landau. He played Leonard, Vandamm’s (the awesome James Mason) assistant thug.

A couple of real creeps
A couple of real creeps

Hitchcock had asked Landau to play Leonard as “gay” to help explain his animosity and mistrust for Eve. I have to admit that I did not pick up on this the first few times I watched, probably because Landau was so understated.9And partly because I am a little oblivious. This was considered pretty controversial at the time, and many of Landau’s friends urged him to refuse.

The great thing about the portrayal is how he avoided cliche. The menace of Leonard is front and center; hints to his sexuality are almost entirely background, although at one point he ad-libbed the line, “Call it my woman’s intuition, if you will.” Anyway, Landau went on to an impressive career, frequently working alongside his wife, Barbara Bain. His turn as Andro in The Outer Limits – The Man Who Was Never Born is one of my all-time favorite episodes on the electric picture radio box.

andro
There is nothing wrong with your electric picture radio machine.

So let’s review:

  • Gripping plot
  • Great dialog
  • Eye popping fashion
  • Gorgeous sets and scenery
  • Film nerdery goldmine
  • Amazing cast
  • Hitchcock!
  • Cary Fucking Grant!

Admit it. Cary Grant is the coolest guy ever. As he once remarked:  “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant—even I want to be Cary Grant.” Well, I can’t be Cary Grant10I’m barely even Archie Leach on my best day. Probably more like Archie Rice., but I can pretend.

My Favorite World.

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