Monday 4 April 2016

North By Northwest (Hitchcock at the cinema)

My friend Jon & I are Alfred Hitchcock fans of long-standing (I won’t go into detail again about when my interest started) so when he discovered that the Errol Flynn cinema (attached to the Derngate theatre) in Northampton was showing a season of the Master’s films, we leapt at the chance to go and went to see North By Northwest.
Madison Avenue advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) suffers a bad case of mistaken identity when two spies confuse him for fictional FBI agent George Kaplan.  Kidnapped by a gang led by the suave Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and framed for the murder of a UN diplomat, Thornhill is forced to go on the run.  Encountering Vandamm’s mistress Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) and his sinister right-hand-man Leonard (Martin Landau) along the way, he races to clear his name before he’s caught, taking in a close encounter with a crop-duster plane, an exploding petrol tanker and being shot, before the famous climax atop the Mount Rushmore monument.

I loved it.  It had been long enough since I last saw it that I didn’t recall everything, which made for a more entertaining viewing but seeing it on the big screen with great sound was a revelation after TV and DVD showings.  Cary Grant was effortlessly stylish and cool whilst Eva Marie Saint (her Eve Kendall is a ‘very’ modern woman) was luminous - if anything, I wanted to see more of her.  James Mason, Martin Landau and Adam Williams made convincing villains (and hearing Grant and Mason together, talking over each other with their gloriously rich accents, was wonderful), the plot is airtight (and based on the most simple of premises) and, of course, the direction is peerless.  From the mundane - Thornill and his mother (Jesse Royce Landis) in the hotel room - to the exciting - the crop duster scene or the Mount Rushmore climax - Hitchcock writes the grammar of modern cinema and in doing so sets up the template that spy thrillers still follow.

Cary Crant & Alfred Hitchcock at Mount Rushmore
Following Vertigo (1958), Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman put aside their planned project, The Wreck Of The Mary Deare and began work on creating an original screenplay.  “The Man On Lincoln’s Nose”, as Hitchcock called it, was inspired by a story the journalist Otis Guernsey had told him, about an innocent man who is mistaken for a master spy.  Purchasing the story rights for $10,000, Hitchcock’s plans for the film included an assassination at the United Nations, a chase across America and a climax at Mount Rushmore.  This appealed to Lehman, who started work in August 1957 and completed his first draft, which Hitchcock liked, in early 1958.  The title, suggested by MGM story editor Kenneth MacKenna, didn’t satisfy Hitchcock and other titles were suggested, including “Breathless” and “The CIA Story”, though favourable pre-publicity persuaded him to stick to the original.

James Stewart was originally earmarked for Thornhill but delays to the completion of Vertigo (plus the cool reception that film received) edged him out in favour of Cary Grant.  Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor were considered for Eve Kendall before Hitchcock chose Eva Marie Saint and James Mason was cast as Vandamm when original choice (at which point the character was called Mendoza) Yul Brynner was unavailable.  Hitchcock makes his signature cameo appearance at the start, having a bus door slam shut in his face.
Principal photography began in New York on 27th August 1958, though it didn’t start well as the UN refused a filming permit to the production.  Instead, Grant was filmed walking towards the building and still shots and matte paintings were used at all other times (including the famous overhead shot).  Other locations included Madison Avenue, Grand Central Station, the Plaza Hotel on 5th Avenue, and Westbury House and gardens on Long Island.  Moving to Chicago by train, the production filmed at LaSalle Street Station, the Omni Ambassador Hotel and Midway Airport.  In South Dakota, location shooting was limited to the Mount Rushmore car park, the café and its adjoining terrace and was completed in two days.

Although permission was initially granted by the National Park Service at Mount Rushmore, it was on the strict instruction that no violent scenes be filmed “near the sculpture, on the talus slopes below the structure” or on “any simulation or mock-up of the sculpture or talus slope.”  After a local journalist published an article describing a violent chase Hitchcock had planned, permission was withdrawn though after further negotations, officials allowed for the action to take place on a studio set “on the condition that the presidents' faces be shown below the chin line in scenes involving live actors.”

The crop duster scene was filmed on Garces Highway, between Wasco and Delano at the San Joaquin Valley in California.  A suitable location had been hard to find as Hitchcock wanted “a scene where our hero is standing all alone in a wide open space and there's nobody and nothing else in sight for 360 degrees around, as far as the eye can see.”  The plane was flown by local pilot Bob Coe.
Starting in September, all the interiors - as well as elements of Mount Rushmore to complement matte paintings - were filmed at MGM Studios in Culver City on sets by production designer Robert Boyle.  Vandamm’s house was designed to look like it had been built by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright but apart from a few portions of the structure built on the set, it was mainly a series of superb Matthew Yurichich matte paintings.
Top - Matthew Yurichich's matte painting of the Vandamm House
bottom - film still
Since the film went over budget, Hitchcock had to abandon his original opening sequence, which was to have shown Thornhill in his office alongside various advert layouts.  Instead, graphic designer Saul Bass created his second credit sequence for Hitchcock, which was the first to use kinetic typography where the credits fly into the frame from off-screen (and mirrors the use of straight lines and intersections - note the crop duster sequence - throughout the film).
Filming finished in mid-December and the post-production period lasted until early April 1959.  Hitchcock argued with the Production Code Administration officials over the final sequence (where Thornhill pulls Eve into the train compartment bed) and also her line “I never make love on an empty stomach”.  He agreed to re-dub the line to “I never discuss love…” and changed the dialogue in the end sequence to imply the couple were married, but then inserted the famous final shot, where a train is seen entering a tunnel (which wasn’t in the script and wasn’t submitted for approval by the Code).

After the initial screening, the MGM board raised concerns over the films length, wanting it under two hours.  Hitchcock, who had final cut, refused to take anything out.  As publicity began, the mischievous Hitchcock led journalists to believe the Mount Rushmore climax was filmed on location.  Elmer F. Bennett of the Department of the Interior complained to the MGM present Joseph R. Vogel about it, which led to the removal of a screen credit acknowledging the Department’s co-operation with the film.

North by Northwest premiered in Chicago on July 1st 1959, attended by Hitchcock, Eva Marie Saint and Leo G. Carroll.  It became the sixth highest-grossing film of 1959 and was nominated for three Oscars - for art direction (Robert Boyle), film editing (George Tomasini), and screenplay (Ernest Lehman) - but didn’t win any, though Lehman received the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1960 for his screenplay.

In 1995, it became the fourth Hitchcock film to be selected for preservation by the United States National Film Preservation Board.  The Writers Guild Of America ranked the screenplay No. 21 on its list of 101 Greatest Screenplays ever written while the American Film Institute ranks it as the 40th greatest American film (as well as 7th on its ‘Top Ten Mysteries’ list).  Ian Fleming was also a fan - he sent a telegram outlining a plot for a novel, asking if Hitchcock would “be interested in directing this Bond film...?”

Produced on a budget of $3.1m, the film has so far grossed £44.4m.

Hitchcock's original trailer for the film

If you get a chance to see this at the cinema then take it, it's a superb experience!

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