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Video Review: North by Northwest (1959)

July 11, 2011
  • Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
  • Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
  • Written by Ernest Lehman
  • Rating ****
Original Laserdicks Review:
Hitch misses the bus at the start of the film, but he could hardly be accused of missing at any other point with this masterful comedic chase thriller. North by Northwest is possibly the greatest showcase for the director’s skill in blending suspense and humor, and the movie serves as a last great hurrah for his 1950s winning streak of audience-pleasers before the transition into darker territory with 1960’s Psycho.
Hitchcock alum Cary Grant stars as the charming Roger Thornhill, a man mistaken for a spy by the villainous Phillip Vandamm (played with proper sinisterness by James Mason), who tries to have him killed. To further sour Thornhill’s day, a murdered UN diplomat falls literally right into his arms, and the authorities declare him to be the killer. While on the run from the authorities and the spies, he shares a lovely train ride with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who also happens to be in the middle of the mess. As the plot continues to thicken, Leo G. Carroll arrives to give him the opportunity to play the spy for real.
From the iconic opening credits (accompanied by Bernard Hermann’s unforgettable theme) to the hilariously Freudian final image of the train entering the tunnel, and every crop duster chase and Mount Rushmore confrontation in between, North by Northwest is addictively fun. Light-hearted but genuinely tense, the movie overwhelms the viewer with a passion for adventure and intrigue–and fulfills that passion splendidly. While not as thought-provoking as the films on either side of it (Vertigo and Psycho), it outclasses both in sheer entertainment value.
Although Hitchcock was creating one influential film after another during this period, North by Northwest stands out especially for its impact on the 1960s spy thriller. Three years after this film’s release, Dr. No introduced Ian Fleming’s James Bond to the big screen, and that film’s director, Terence Young, clearly incorporated much of this film’s tone and style to his adaptation of the more straightforward espionage novel. Young’s sequel, From Russia with Love, goes even further, openly homaging the crop duster scene with a moment in which 007 must evade a helicopter. As the films progressed, Bond would offer more Thornhill-esque quips in the midst of danger, and the countless movies and TV series that strove to cash in on that franchise would further borrow from North by  Northwest.
Both as the end of an era for a great director and the birth of an era in the spy thriller genre, North by Northwest succeeds in offering audiences a wonderful romp that stays fun even on repeat viewings. As to be expected from a 1950s Hitchcock picture, the acting, mise en scene, and writing are all top-notch, and they are especially outstanding here. For pure popcorn entertainment, it is hard to match and impossible to beat.

From → Film Criticism

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