Day 306: ‘Hitchcock Rises Above His Thematic Limitations – N by NW’ 2018

Day 306
Wednesday 2 May 2018  11.42pm
‘Hitchcock Rises Above His Thematic Limitations – North by Northwest’  2018

Top 100 Films Ever Made  –
This film is #53 in the BFI 2012 Critics Poll and #107 in the Directors Poll.

Hitchcock may appear to some to be a director with a limited scope, coming back to the same well, over and over. But it isn’t the case. He has numerous, and significantly different, styles of filmmaking within him and has attempted many variations even if most of them centre around mystery, suspense, intrigue, thrills, romance and obsessive love.

There are three Hitchcock films I expect to see on the 100 Greatest Films Ever Made list: Vertigo, Notorious and Psycho. I was surprised that Psycho was on the list initially because I didn’t think people could see beyond the stereotype of horror films it inspired, and realise how ground-breaking Psycho was and is.

The most surprising Hitchcock film in the Top 100, however, was North by Northwest because it is one of the lightest and brightest films he made. It’s a marvellous film which shows his flamboyant side, devoid of being in touch with any kind of reality that any of us know as real-life. It’s a one-dimensional Hollywood concoction which lacks characterisation, depth or meaning, and it eschews the darker side of films like Rebecca, Suspicion, The 39 Steps, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, Psycho, Rope, Strangers on a Train and Vertigo. It’s a puff-piece of beautiful people, flippant dialogue and grand design. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most irrelevant films. It has no meaning other than to entertain. It lacks a darker side.

But, because there are no rules about the Top Ten lists which critics and directors submit, anyone can choose this as their favourite Hitchcock film and that’s not a bad thing. Serious films with a message are often not the films that are most successful and are, often, the films that are least engaging. But a piece of Hitchcockian fluff, could be the film which brought someone, many people, to look at Hitchcock’s other films.

Even though there is only one name I know on the list of critics and directors who voted for North by Northwest, V.F. Perkins – a noted film academic, it made me re-evaluate the fact that it is seemingly such a featherweight film when held up against the list of the Hitchcock films which are accepted as masterpieces.

What I discovered tonight was that North by Northwest is more of a comedy than it is a thriller or a film of political intrigue. In fact, it is the most perfect blend of all his films which combine romance, mystery, suspense, intrigue, comedy and crime. It’s also the forerunner to the chase film, which in recent years has been perfected by Salt, the Bourne films, the Jurassic Park films and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The perpetual chase was grounded in North by Northwest, in each moment, in the serious scenes, which brings death knocking on Roger Thornhill’s front door.

Thinking of all the serious films I’ve seen in the last ten months it has made me realise tonight that North by Northwest is a comedy with moments of romance, mystery and intrigue. It’s probably the quintessential frothy Hitchcock film that has no real depth or meaning, because it doesn’t try to have any real depth or meaning. It’s Jurassic Park. There are moments where the film pays lip-service to characterisation but that’s not what it is about.

At some stage in the history of films some director had to make the best one-dimensional film ever made and in 1959 it was Hitchcock. In 1975 it was Spielberg, with Jaws. He also blended humour with action. There’s a lot more in common in North by Northwest and Jaws than I have ever noticed before. To see films like this on the Top 100 list is a relief amongst the serious films like Ordet, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Sunrise, Gertrud, Persona, Au hazard Baltazar, Taxi Driver, La dolce vita and Metropolis.

North by Northwest is a comedy and there’s only a handful of comedies in the Top 100. It probably deserves its place even if it’s (possibly there) for the wrong reason.

Master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock apparently had lots of fun directing this tongue-in-cheek spy thriller, and you’ll have fun watching it.

– Steven H. Scheuer, 1978-1979, Movies on TV