Saturday, January 5, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest - aka The Prisoner From U.N.C.L.E.

If this doesn't work, they're going to force him to smoke top-brand imported Cuban cigars until he dies of cancer.
Most people don't think of "Hitchcock movie to end all Hitchcock movies" North by Northwest (1959) as a mind--blowing film. They see a straightforward spy thriller, perhaps the definitive first example of the genre. I see a psychedelic, surrealist, post-modern, art-house exercise to rival anything by Lynch or Bunuel, but dressed up in piles of money.

There's still some argument for being the seminal spy thriller. North by Northwest does, after all, predate the James Bond films, although Ian Fleming was already cranking out Bond novels throughout the '50s and 007 had already seen TV adaptation by 1954. But people forget that ur-example of mind--blowing surrealist TV, The Prisoner, was also being broadcast in Britain at the time. Hitchcock, a British expatriate to America, would have to have been blind and deaf not to be aware of it.

(Right about here, SPOILER warning. Although if this movie can be spoiled for you, you haven't lived yet.)

Ant escapes anthill.
Nevertheless, the spy thriller genre has always been a kind of psychedelic one. We don't give a thin damn about common sense when we sit down to a spy flick. The wacky, silly, gibbering capers of nations trying to out-spy each other is meant as a symbolic template for a world of war gone mad. International political relations in real life bear all the civility and common sense of a preschool playground, and the spy thriller genre is simply reflecting that cacophonous madhouse. North by Northwest has more in common with The Prisoner than anybody but me has noticed. Cary Grant even gets taken prisoner by both the good guys and the bad guys. He's up to his ass in a spy thriller while having no idea what's going on. His antagonists constantly quiz him for information he doesn't have. He even has a number associated with his name, right in the script! Forget "Who is number one?", who is number zero?

What's often acknowledged is how little sense the film makes upon reflection, and yet what nobody seems to catch is that it was quite deliberately crafted to not make sense. If you needed a hint that this was deliberate, listen to the final two lines of dialog: "This is silly." "I know, but I'm sentimental." Perfectly describes the entire story we've just seen. Hitchcock would later have a more obvious turn with surrealism in The Birds, which everyone can tell doesn't make a lick of sense from credits to credits. Hitchcock famously admits that by crop-duster time, all logic has been thrown out the window, but by this point the audience doesn't care because the film's just that damned cool!

Kicking off the new "think thin" regimen calls for exercise in the form of jogging around cornfields.
But the illogical crop-duster scene, exactly at the split middle of the film, is small potatoes. Here, for the first time anywhere, is just some of the surrealist points of the film up before the crop-duster:

1. Opening scene. Roger Thornhill, in dictating to his secretary, goes from goading her to use her blood sugar to sustain the walk, to ordering her to buy another woman a box of candy, describing it with the words "gold" and "eating money", to composing a note mentioning "sweet tooth", and now chiding his secretary that she doesn't eat properly. Then he swipes a taxi with the excuse that she's a very sick woman, then, once inside, comments in complete non sequitur that he's concerned about his weight and has her make a note for him: "think thin".

The conversation doesn't make any kind of practical logic and most people would dismiss it as idle banter to open the film. But it makes fantastic symbolic sense: In a film dripping with money and luxury, we're being introduced to the theme that over-consumption and rampant consumerism (Thornhill is an advertising executive, don't forget) are slowly killing America. In fact, Thornhill is about to be plunged into an adventure in which he is surrounded by his familiar and comfortable upper-class setting while having none of it do him any good and in fact his whole environment will turn hostile against him. In addition, the phrase "think thin" is a subliminal command to the audience: Don't think too hard about what you're about to see.

They're actually after it because it's full of microfilm. Not that it matters worth a crap.
2. The very next scene: Our bad guys mistake Thornhill for Kaplan (a supposed spy) based on nothing but his having raised his hand at the wrong time when a page is calling the name "Kaplan" in a crowded bar.

OK, why are VanDamm's henchmen even doing this? Do they expect the "real" Kaplan to fall for such a transparent ploy? Moreover, do they think the "real" Kaplan would stumble trustingly right into their arms? Is there really a telegram for Kaplan or is the page-boy in on this too? What in hell would they have done if they'd been confronted by a real, trained spy? This is a busy bar in a busy hotel in broad daylight. In fact, the actions here were dreadfully ineffective for capturing an actual spy, but just right for abducting the first hapless white-collar drone to happen by.

3. The Townsend estate. Raise your hand if you put your surname on a big sign in your front lawn.

Now, leaving aside the attempt to kill Thornhill using bourbon (ironic for a man who apparently lives on martinis), it's going to turn out later, long after we've forgotten these events, that the entire VanDamm camp has set up housekeeping at the household of Townsend, a bigshot UN diplomat, and even manage to maintain the charade while the court later sends detectives back to check out Thornhill's story. They even thought to replace the liquor with books, clean bourbon stains off the sofa, and had their lies all prepared - clearly they were ready for police inspection. The lady of the house even knows to call Roger by his true name. VanDamm even entertains guests here - at somebody else's house, unknown to the rightful occupants! Why are they even doing this? No explanation is ever given. The lady posing as "Mrs. Townsend" even offers to direct the detectives to the UN to speak to Mr. Townsend - presumably the diplomat, but how were they planning to maintain the charade if they decided to go meet him there? The answer is that they weren't; the charade was just enough to pass muster for defeating a story by a bumbling ad executive, and not an inch more.

4. Thornhill and mom go check out Kaplan's digs. Thornhill actually bribes his own mother to help him get the key. They also find one of the plot MacGuffins, a photo of VanDamm standing in a group of guys photographed at a university. No sooner is Kaplan in the room snooping around than a valet rings the doorbell to deliver a suit. Then the phone rings, and the henchmen are back on his tail. Later they all confront each other on the elevator and a merry time is had by all.

We'll later find out that there is no George Kaplan, but now we don't know, so once again, the plot behaves as if it didn't know any more than we do. Why is a photo of VanDamm on the desk conveniently there to find? How did VanDamm know that Thornhill would get into the room right then? Why is VanDamm calling the room to pre-warn "Kaplan" that he's coming for him? The whole hotel room scene was set up like a big trap waiting to snare Thornhill, yet it's supposedly maintained by "our" side. But beyond that, even Thornhill's mother shows a logical short-circuit - she's just seen a whole hotel staff act like her son is Kaplan, so she knows that at least part of his story is true. Yet she goes back to being a skeptic between the phone call and the elevator scene, even after expressing concern about the danger when she's in the room. Even Thornhill doesn't seem the least bit surprised at any of this - apparently his mother always treats him like a liar even after she's been shown proof. If she doesn't believe her son's story, then how could she explain the whole Kaplan connection?

Here's the title direction. We're obligated to stand right in front of it.
5. The UN scene.

OK, was this whole story up until now a plot to assassinate the real Townsend? If so, Thornhill made the perfect gopher. But once again, nothing adds up if you think about it for more than a second. It isn't explained why Townsend was killed, or what their plan was to cover up Thornhill's story should he have been arrested and tried for Townsend's murder. If they didn't plan to assassinate Townsend from the get-go and only killed him to keep him from talking to Thornhill (whom they're still supposed to believe is Kaplan), it's VanDamm's own fault for bringing him to Townsend's estate and posing as him in the first place. If they really believed that Thornhill was Kaplan, how could they have possibly believed that any of this would work?

6. Eve sends Thornhill off to his fate in a cornfield.

By now, all traces of logic in this plot have imploded. VanDamm is supposed to believe that Thornhill is Kaplan, and yet lures him to the appointment with the promise that he's going to MEET Kaplan. Why would he go, if he really was Kaplan? Also, Eve at this point has been revealed to be working for VanDamm, but later it will turn out that she's a double agent and works for the US government. Her actions, whether working for VanDamm or the US Government, make no sense whatsoever - she's knowingly sending a man to his doom under a pretense she knows is absolutely false.

Boy plugging ears in background: They left it in because it's NOT a mistake!
I'm pointing all this out just to say, the whole film only works as a post-modernist, surrealist story. At every step of the story, there's no internal logic, but it only makes sense in the context of what the audience is thinking. Surrealism is about playing with what's already in the audience's head. In this case (the late 1950s America), the audience was downright spoiled after a decade of prosperity and industrial innovation, and growing a little bored with everything being so perfect all the time. Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint manage to get through the adventure with naught but a few bumps and scrapes - Grant's celestial suit gets dusty in a cornfield. Nobody seems to get really terrified or too emotional here; in the thickest of the action, everybody quips smug little lines over their cocktail, confident that they'll still make the matinee. It's all escapism for the middle class.

Notice that Roger Thornhill may want for a lot of other things, but he's never short of cash. He solves a lot of problems with money, constantly dipping into his pocket for fistfuls of cumshaw to pay off bellhops and pages. He even produces coins from his pocket to try to signal Eve while clinging to the outside of that cliff-side mansion. Apparently he has an ATM up his ass.

The entire hospital is filled with healthy people embroiled in their own spy fantasies.
By this time, we should realize that these plot bubbles and pits aren't mere oversights - the masters behind Psycho and Vertigo were smarter than that. They were deliberate warps of reality, meant to bend the fantasy around our expectations with eerie precision. Like an implanted memory from the dream-vacation merchants in Total Recall, it's a tailor-made fantasy for 1950s-Americans - and no one else - to identify with perfectly. Which is why it looks so vintage, and is also why it's a little harder for modern audiences to identify with.

Now then, while I'm here I can gush about the excellent quality of this film. I'd nominate it for the ultimate valentine to the 1950s. Even though it's half matte illusion and half painted plywood, it all looks solid. The whole film looks like a million bucks, Grant's suit alone practically has a starring role, and the all-star cast is having an orgy of fun rolling around in the world's most luxuriously, but tastefully decorated, sets. I'd also nominate this film for the universe I'd most gladly occupy if a genie curse sucked me into a movie. I'd love to live in this carefree world of impeccable tailors, maids and valets, Frank Loyd Wright houses, monogrammed matchbooks, and 1958 Ford sedans painted up as art-deco yellow and green taxis. I'd put a record on the hi-fi and smoke my pipe by the fire, snuggled up with a vintage Playboy and a martini. These were the days when men were men and women were bombshell blondes, you know?