Sunday, June 7, 2015

Don't Make a Scene: North By Northwest

This week, we're going to break a couple traditions: there will be a post tomorrow, despite the regular "Closed Mondays" policy. We'll also be devoting the week to one subject and a week-long examination of that subject's work. 

That subject being Alfred Hitchcock. Finally, after some considerable amount of time I can say that "Now I've Seen Everything" as regards to his work—at least as much as anybody else has seen (as a couple early films are still buried somewhere waiting to be unearthed)—and Monday through Friday we'll be tossing out that five-part series (done in reverse order, as I'd seen all his Hollywood work, but missed his early British films).  So, we'll start out the week, with a scene—simple in set-up, but complex in journey from a movie that Hitchcock could be said to have been working on throughout his entire career—the "trifle" of North By Northwest.

The Story:  First off, a warning: we can't do this one without a little spoiler.  Because the plot of North By Northwest is as twisted as its route through the country, you have to center it somewhere, and at the base of Mt. Rushmore is where this movie makes its stand and comes to its moral (as well as geographical) center.  In a maze of unreality, here is where ugly truth appears. 

And what was previously a deadly romp turns serious.

What we have seen so far entails Roger Thornhill, a shallow and rather slippery advertising executive being mistaken for George Kaplan, an investigative spy for the U.S. by an underground network of smugglers and foreign agents hiding in plain sight among the gentry in this country.  Thornhill/Kaplan is kidnapped by this cell and attempts are repeatedly made on his life by unseen forces connected to the ring, and it's complicated when one of his contacts is murdered publicly at the U.N. and Thornhill is accused of the crime.

The police are chasing him and the spies are trying to kill him.  Why?  For absolutely no reason.

For "George Kaplan"—the agent assigned to watch the activities of the foreign agents—does not exist.  He is a diversion, a "man who never was" meant to distract the group from the real agent hiding in plain sight (Eva Marie Saint), recruited by "The Professor" (Leo G. Carroll) to become a double-agent after her affair with the gang's leader Phillip Vandamm (James Mason).  The U.S. government has planted a spy in Vandamm's very bedroom.  

Basically, that's the same plot as Notorious, also starring Cary Grant, only this time he's not in The Professor's role, sending the woman he loves into harm's...and cupid's...way for The Greater Good. This time, the actor can vent his full indignation, as opposed to having to bury his feelings in deference to his bosses...because that's the job.  This ad exec, for whom spinning is a way of life on Madison Avenue, reaches his limit of how much subterfuge he is willing to be a part of. 

Roget O. Thornhill (the "O," as he points out, stands for nothing) finally has to stand for something.

This is a Hitchcock set-piece, set in a studio forest of trees, that divides the two people unwittingly fighting for the same side, until Hitchcock cuts through the forest for the trees and joins them in the same frame with nothing between them when they re-unite and start to confess their feelings.  That can't last long for the only date they can have is one with destiny.  And Hitchcock, as he does throughout this film, exits the scene laughing...with a visual pun of a flattened Grant super-imposed over an empty bed.

The Set-Up: Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), advertising executive, has had a couple of days trying to deal with a case of mistaken identity.  First, he's suspected of being a spy and nearly bumped off by rival spies.  Then, he's present at the murder of a U.N. representative killed off by those rivals and becomes the chief suspect in a nation-wide man-hunt.  The only way to get the spies to stop trying to kill to kill him.  

Eve Kendall, whose loyalties have been suspect throughout the film, commits the crime—staged by the U.S. government—and with the thorn of Thornhill safely out of harm's way, the operation can continue...after a moment of explanation.


CAMERA IS ON a lovely wooded glen securely hidden from the main road that cuts through the Black Hills.  Perhaps the Mt. Rushmore monument can be seen in the distance through the trees. 
CAMERA PANS OVER, revealing the parked ambulance.  The Professor is in the act of opening the back doors.
He peers in.
PROFESSOR: Mr. Thornhill?
Thornhill rises with alacrity.
THORNHILL: Are we there?
Thornhill looks off, sees someone and slides out of the ambulance to his feet.  He stands for a moment looking off.  Then he starts slowly forward, CAMERA EASES BACK ultimately to reveal Eve standing beside the white Lincoln convertible.  During this, The Professor has started back toward the front of the ambulance, saying:
PROFESSOR: Don't be long.
Eve Kendall: Hello.
Roger Thornhill: Hello
Eve Kendall: Are you all right?
Roger Thornhill: Yes, I think so.
Eve Kendall: I asked the Professor if I could see you again.
Roger Thornhill: Oh.
Eve Kendall: There's not much time.
Roger Thornhill: Isn't there?
Eve Kendall: I wanted to tell you...I mean, apologize.
Roger Thornhill (without feeling): No need. I understand.
Roger Thornhill (slightly bitter): All in the line of duty.
Eve Kendall: I did treat you miserably.
Roger Thornhill (a self-accusation): I hated you...
Roger Thornhill:...for it.
Eve Kendall(faltering): I didn't want you to go thinking...
Roger Thornhill (softening slightly): Well,I-I used some pretty harsh words.  I'm sorry.
Eve Kendall: They hurt...deeply.
Roger Thornhill (defensively): Well, naturally, if I'd known...
Eve Kendall (defensively): I couldn't tell you.
Roger Thornhill: Of course not.
Eve Kendall: Could I?
Roger Thornhill: No, I guess not.
Eve gives the tiniest of shrugs.  They gaze at each other.  That is the situation.  Nobody to blame really.  No need for further apologies.  They each were unkind to each other - but always with due cause. But mixed in with the unkind acts and harsh words had been other words, other feelings - no?  Eve smiles at him tenderly.
Eve Kendall: You didn't get hurt.  I'm so relieved.
Roger Thornhill (eagerly): Of course I was hurt.  How would you have felt?
Eve Kendall: I mean in the cafeteria, when you fell.  When I shot you with the blanks.
Roger Thornhill (smiles): Oh, that.  No.
Eve Kendall (moving closer): You did it rather well, I thought.
Roger Thornhill (pleased with himself): Yes, I thought I was quite graceful.
Eve Kendall (putting her hands on his): Considering it's not really your kind of work.
Roger Thornhill (touching her tenderly): No, I got into it by accident.  What's your excuse?
Eve Kendall: I met Phillip Vandamm at a party one night and saw only his charm.
Roger Thornhill: Oh.
Eve Kendall: I guess I had nothing to do that weekend, so I..decided to fall in love.
Roger Thornhill (sorry he brought it up): Oh, that's nice.
Eve Kendall: Eventually the Professor and his Washington colleague approached me...
Eve Kendall: ...with a few sordid details about Phillip and he told me that...
Eve Kendall: relationship with him would be "uniquely valuable" to them.
Roger Thornhill (bridling): So you became a Girl Scout.
Eve Kendall: Maybe it was the first time anyone ever asked me to do anything worthwhile.
Roger Thornhill: Has life been like that?
Eve Kendall: Mm-hm.
Roger Thornhill: How come?
Eve Kendall: Men like you.
Roger Thornhill (kissing her): What's wrong with men like me? 
Eve Kendall: They don't believe in marriage. 
Roger Thornhill: I've been married twice. 
Eve Kendall: See what I mean?
He looks at her with affection.
Roger Thornhill: I may go back to hating you.
Roger Thornhill: It was more fun.
Eve Kendall: Goodbye, darling.
Roger Thornhill (holding her): Wait a minute.  Not so soon.
Eve Kendall: I've got to go back to the house and convince them...
Eve Kendall: ...that I took the long way around so nobody followed me.
Roger Thornhill (holding her closer): Couldn't we stand like this for just a few hours?
Eve Kendall: Just this time you're supposed to be critically wounded.
Roger Thornhill: I've never felt more alive.
Eve Kendall: Whose side are you on?
Roger Thornhill: Yours, always, darling.
Eve Kendall: Please don't undermine my resolve just when I need it most.
They HEAR the SHORT BEEP OF A HORN and look off.
The professor is motioning to Thornhill to come.
Roger Thornhill: Oh, well.  I guess it's off to the hospital for me and back to danger for you. I don't like it a bit.
Eve Kendall: It's much safer now, thanks to you, my darling decoy.
Roger Thornhill: Don't thank me.  I couldn't stand it.
Eve Kendall: Alright.  I won't.
Roger Thornhill: After your malevolent friend Vandamm takes off tonight...
Roger Thornhill: I'm going to undo my bandages and You and I are going to get together and do a lot of apologizing to each other, in private.
Eve Kendall (glancing at him wistfully) Don't talk like that...
Roger Thornhill: It's the way I feel...
Eve Kendall: You mustn't....
Roger Thornhill: I must...
Eve Kendall: You know that can't be.
Roger Thornhill (unconcerned): Of course it can be.
Eve stops, looks up at him, disturbed.  She glances toward the Professor.
Eve Kendall: Well, he has told you, hasn't he?
Roger Thornhill (puzzled): Told me what
Eve shakes her head, unable to speak.
The Professor (coming up to them): Miss Kendall, you've got to get moving...
Roger Thornhill: Wait a minute...
Roger Thornhill: ...what didn't you tell me?
Eve and the Professor glance at each other.  There are tears in Eve's eyes now.
Eve Kendall: Why didn't you?
For a brief moment, the Professor's face reveals an all-too-human regret for what he has done.  Then he looks at Thornhill and speaks crisply.
The Professor: She's going off with Vandamm...
The Professor: ...tonight on the plane.
Roger Thornhill (stunned): She's going off with Vandamm...
The Professor: That's why we went to such great length to make her a fugitive from justice...
The Professor: ...So that Vandamm couldn't very well decline to take her along.
Roger Thornhill: But you said...
The Professor: I needn't...
The Professor: ...tell you how valuable she can be to us over there.
Roger Thornhill: You lied to me.  You said that after tonight...
The Professor: I needed your help.
Roger Thornhill (bitterly): You got it...
Roger Thornhill (bitterly): ...alright.
Eve Kendall (through tears): Don't be angry.
Roger Thornhill: (to Eve) You think I'm going to let you go through with...
Roger Thornhill: ...this dirty business?
The Professor: She has to.
Roger Thornhill (turning on him): Nobody has to do anything! I don't like the games you play, Professor.
The Professor: War is hell, Mr. Thornhill. Even when it's a cold one.
Roger Thornhill (savagely): If you fellows can't lick the VanDamm's of this world...
Roger Thornhill: ...without asking girls like her to bed down with them and fly away with them...
Roger Thornhill: ...and probably never come back, perhaps you ought to start...
Roger Thornhill: ...learning how to lose a few cold wars.
The Professor (quietly): I'm afraid we're already doing that.
Suddenly Eve breaks away, runs for her car. 
Thornhill goes after her, and the Professor quickly motions to the ambulance driver to step down.
AT THE CAR                                               157
Eve gets into the car, starts the motor, as Thornhill catches up with her and pulls open the door to stop her.
Roger Thornhill: I'm not going to let you do this.  Get out.
Eve Kendall: Please don't spoil everything...Please!
A hand taps him on the back.  He turns.

CLOSE SHOT - THE AMBULANCE DRIVER                        158
His fist is cocked, and moving on the backward arc of a knockout punch.                                           
CUT TO: CLOSE SHOT - THE CAR DOOR                                159
Slamming shut as though it were illustrating the impact of fist on jaw. 
The car drives off with a screech of tires, and we see Thornhill falling into the shot, and to the ground.

North By Northwest

Words by Ernest Lehman

Pictures by Robert Burks and Alfred Hitchcock

North By Northwest is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from MGM Home Video.

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