VOD film review: North by Northwest
Ivan Radford | On 25, Oct 2020
Nine minutes. That’s how long North by Northwest has almost no music or dialogue, as its infamous crop-dusting sequence unfolds. The set-up is simple: Robert Thornhill, who has been mistaken for George Kaplan, is in the middle of nowhere, waiting for a bus, but finds himself preyed upon by a rogue crop duster, seemingly connected to a wider group chasing after him – or, more accurately, chasing after George. The result is instantly iconic and nail-bitingly tense – not least because it’s one of the film’s rare moments of stillness.
Roger’s mistaken identity is established right from the off, as the ad man is kidnapped by a guy called Townsend, interrogated by a spy and then set up for a fake driving accident. When Roger does try to track down Townsend, he discovers even he’s been introduced to him under a fake identity – and Townsend winds up dead for real. And so Roger goes on the run, chased by shady thugs and skirting along the edge of a conspiracy he only barely understands.
We know how he feels, as Alfred Hitchcock takes his man-on-the-run scenario and doesn’t let him pause running – a role that Cary Grant plays to suave perfection. He’s excellent at staying cool, even as he crosses paths with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) on a train, even as he dangles off the edge of Mount Rushmore, and his performance helps this increasingly ludicrous tale remain grounded in everyman confusion.
Hithcock lets us see the other side of the cat-and-mouse chase, as a government agency decides it won’t interfere with the situation because they don’t want to expose their own hoax – a detached, matter-of-fact perspective on life-and-death events that recalls the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading. That this could almost play as a farce in the same comedic vein highlights just how well Ernest Lehman’s script juggles its various tones: there’s romance as well as comedy lying underneath the sinister mystery, and Roger’s playboyish attitude even finds time to mature by the end credits.
And, throughout, Grant treats the never-ending onslaught of near-slapstick set pieces with the straight-faced star power of Buster Keaton in his prime. The result is a propulsive piece of cinema that doesn’t let up, uniting our experience of Roger’s chaotic peril with his. From Hitchcock’s ambitious recreation of Rushmore to his bold stashing of a camera in the back of a van outside the UN (which refused permission for filming), the bullish director refuses to let anything derail his impeccably paced freight train of a thriller – you spend half the runtime waiting for a chance to catch your breath, even though you know that it’ll only ramp up the tension further.