Monday, February 24, 2014

North by Northwest

Can the scene where Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) and Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) descend Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest, which was recently revived as part of the current Hitchcock retrospective at Film Forum, be compared to the Odessa Steps sequence of Potemkin? It’s just one of a number of historical landmarks turned into imaginative constructs in the film. The U.N. was still a fresh contribution to the Manhattan’s skyline when Hitchcock cast it and the cantilevered shots are prescient of both the majesty and tragedy of the enterprise the structure represents. “War is hell, even if it’s a cold one,” says The Professor (Leo Carroll), the film’s intelligence operative, but that still doesn’t do justice to either the pseudo-politics of the setting or to the multivalent levels of Hitchcock’s canvas. The answer may be found in the title, which derives from Hamlet who says “I am but mad, North by Northwest.” The movie starts out with another piece of New York architecture, a classic modernist skyscraper of the Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building variety in which reality is reflected, a reality of bustling cabs one of which reads “Kind Taxi.” Is it kind or one of a kind? Little by little we are given coordinates. George Kaplan occupies suite 796 at the Plaza, but he doesn’t exist, and is only identifiable by a valet and a maid who identify him respectively with a room key and suit. When Thornhill fills a void left in time and space, he becomes Kaplan and that sets the plot in motion. Then there is berth 3901, Suite E on the Chicago Limited and Prairie Road 41 which is the site of the famous crop duster sequence. The doomed diplomat Leonard Townsend (Philip Ober) is mistakenly identified by the house he no longer occupies and the wife who is no longer alive. In neurology you have Capgras Syndrome in which a familiar person seems like an imposter (in one of the film’s comic asides, even,Thornhill’s mother doesn’t really seem to know the person who inhabits her son’s body) and the countervailing prosopagnosia in which the familiar is no longer recognizable. Here we come closer to the heart of Hitchcock’s visions, a nightmare world in which appearances whether they be awe inspiring landmarks or merely individual identities (the redcaps sequence in which the police futilely try to locate Thornhill amidst a sea  of baggage handlers is another example) are obscured by the presence of more unsettling realities.  Eva Marie Saint is just another setting which Hitchcock’s camera explores. Her ethereal beauty can lure a man into bed or death.  She is Janus-faced like Hamlet who also says “When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” One of the many triumphs of this masterpiece occurs when Hitchcock peels away the layers of darkness, transforming madness into romantic comedy.

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