Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.



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North by Northwest

Film #328


A hapless New York advertising executive is mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies, and is pursued across the country while he looks for a way to survive.

Year 1, Day 330

BEFORE: While I’m not finding money in banana stands (I still hope to watch that this week though), I will be continuing with another double-feature of films. Today I’m going a bit old-school starting with a classic Hitchcock film, North by Northwest.

AFTER: From time to time, especially when I’m watching an older film, I have to put behind how I normally think. Back in the earlier days of cinema, fast cutting, lots of coverage, and ridiculous action scenes were just not done. Things were much more subdued and calm. Comparatively, it may not seem as thrilling, but when done well as Hitchcock often does, and as if the case with North by Northwest, this “calm” can actually lead to more suspense.

One thing I love about Hitchcock films is that they are very straightforward. Everything that goes on is easy to understand and it’s clear why things happen the way they do. But at the same time, things are held back. You are finding everything out only when you need to and not a moment sooner. This keeps suspense up and keeps dragging you along as you wait to find how where the story will go. In many ways, North by Northwest is overly simple - Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for George Kaplan and he is then chased by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) - but this simplicity allows for plenty of wiggle room. The wide shots and long edits also set up this idea that you are aware of what is going on, but that something is missing. You expect something more and your imagination starts filling in blanks that aren’t there and guessing what will happen next. A great example of all this is when Thornhill is waiting at the bus stop out in the barren countryside. It is just Thornhill standing there alone, waiting for “George Kaplan” to show up. A crop duster is flying way in the distance and every now and then a car or two drives by. You watch Thornhill, surrounded by space, staring in the distance then at the car driving by, then at nothing again. As the viewers we can see everything because Hitchcock uses many wide shots here, and see it in what feels like real-time due to the extended cuts. But all this really does is excite and get your heart pumping. Because nothing is going on, whenever anything happens (like a car passing Thornhill), you expect it to be big. And then it’s just more nothing and your anticipation builds up. Eventually this would get boring, but Hitchcock does a great job at know just when to release that tension and suspense and deliver a final blow.

I mentioned at the beginning that when I watch older films I need to change my thinking to appreciate the film for what it is. Reading Wikipedia, there are comparisons between North by Northwest and James Bond films and talk about how influential North by Northwest was to the thriller and spy genres as a whole, being one of the first and best. While I really enjoyed the film and can appreciate the work Hitchcock did, it still doesn’t reach that next level. And the reason I’m holding back is that compared to the other Hitchcock films I’ve seen, it’s not the best. While I haven’t watched Dial M for Murder as part of the marathon, I have mentioned it before. That was a film that I watched and didn’t need to think differently for. It was instantly gripping for me and had the same level of excitement as a more modern film does. North by Northwest isn’t so instantaneous. There is still a lot to like and enjoy, and I do recommend watching it, but it may take some effort.

RATING: 4 out of 5