September 7, 2010

Justify My Netflix: North By Northwest

(Like many Netflix customers, I too can get quite lax with the timely watching and returning of my movies, which of course defeats the entire purpose of having a flat-rate rental plan in the first place. To combat that, I am now writing standardized mini-reviews of each and every movie I end up watching through Netflix, both instantly and on DVD. Don't forget, all previous 'Justify My Netflix' reviews can be found on CCLaP's main movie page.)

North By Northwest

Today's movie: North By Northwest, 1959 (Amazon | IMDB | Netflix | Wikipedia)

Why I added it to my queue: Because although it's not exactly a high priority, I do think it'd be nice to one day be able to say that I've seen all 32 films Alfred Hitchcock made in America (as of today I've seen eight of them); and this was one of the most glaring omissions on my list, a 1959 dark comedy of all things starring Cary Grant, and which is many people's favorite Hitchcock film out of them all.

The reality: Brilliant as always; but then again, this is Alfred Hitchcock we're talking about, who even thirty years after his death is still considered by many to be one of the most important filmmakers of all time. And one of the reasons for this is that he had the almost magical ability to understand exactly what memes were most fascinating the public at any given moment in history; just take this film for example, which for those who don't know is a dryly funny satire about the Cold War, shot just five years before Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove would push the genre into even more ridiculous extremes. In this case, Grant plays a charming ad executive (yet another culture meme of the late 1950s) who is mistaken for a secret government agent by a group of foreign spies, a setup that leads to an evermore ridiculous series of situations -- from the United Nations to the 20th Century Limited train to Chicago, then to the movie's famed dustcropper scene, then on to a glittering Mid-Century Modernist home in the middle of the South Dakota woods, and eventually onto the face of Mount Rushmore itself, about as obvious as Hitchcock could get with his "rah rah America" Cold War satire shtick besides literally holding the final fight scene in the armpit of the Statue of Liberty. (And indeed, for the rest of his life, Hitchcock joked that he originally wanted to title the film The Man In Lincoln's Nose, while his peers argued that the suggestion was no joke when Hitch first thought it up.)

Mid-Century Modernist architecture and fashion in North By Northwest

I'll let the plot itself mostly remain a secret, but suffice to say that it has a lot to do with the various multiple layers of feints and psychological tricks that both the US and the Soviet Union were perpetrating back during the height of the Cold War, which if you want to look at it a certain way makes this not actually a spy thriller but rather a devastating criticism of the military-industrial buildup America saw in the '50s; and then in the meanwhile, this movie has some of the sharpest, most jaw-dropping fashion and architecture from the Mid-Century Modernist Age that you'll ever see, which like the contemporary show Mad Men is almost worth watching just to salivate over the visual details, much less the actual story being told. It's easy to see why this is many people's favorite Hitchcock film, because it contains a sort of breezy humor and casual tone that was a lot more prevalent in his British films from the '20s and '30s, but that he mostly dropped after moving to America for good in the '40s; and I have to say that it's kind of a shame that he didn't do more projects like these, simply because he was so good at them. It comes highly recommended today.

Strangest piece of trivia: Hitchcock couldn't get permission to film around the United Nations complex, so shot the exterior shots with a hidden camera.

Worth your time? Yes

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:13 AM, September 7, 2010. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |