Tuesday, May 23, 2006


It's Tuesday, which by my newly-established tradition means I should be recomending a new release on DVD. Today, however, inspired by the massive botch that is The DaVinci Code, I'm instead going to take a look at a movie that's long been available: Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 classic North By Northwest.

Comparisons to The DaVinci Code are unavoidable: Both movies are about a man framed for murder, who sets off on a cross-country odyssey in which he must not only prove his innocence, but determine why he was set up. A big difference between the two films is their tone: North By Northwest is light and breezy, though the film is not as insubstantial as it at first seems. The DaVinci Code is dark and ponderous, and a good deal dumber than it thinks it is.

Hitchcock had a device he called the McGuffin; it was a plot device, the thing the bad guys wanted that the godd guys (often inadvertantly) possess. A good example of a non-Hitchcock film using a McGuffin would be Raiders of the Lost Ark: Though the Ark of the Covenant figures in the climax, what with its awesome ability to melt Nazis and all, for the most part it's just a plot device, the thing everybody's chasing.

The McGuffin in The DaVinci Code is a scroll which would prove that Jesus Christ was married and had children. Okay. Not a bad premise; people would kill for something like that, and the hero is plausibly clueless for much of the running time. It's a perfect Hitchcockian setup. But then this cheesy plot device takes over the whole story, and we're forced to watch bad CGI-rendered historical recreations that look like something from a basic cable cheesefest and any forward momentum the plot has just dies.

North By Northwest is all about momentum, and it features Hitchcock's most ingenious McGuffin: the hero himself. Our protagonist is a bored businessman mistaken by sinister foreign agents for another man, a double agent, a man who does not exist and was created by an equally sinister u.S. government agency. Our hero will be beaten, left for dead, shot at, find romance (but can he trust her?), unravel secrets and, since he's played by Cary Grant, be cool, unflappable and elegant the whole time.

Everything here is absolute perfection: the cast (besides Grant--the very definition of a Movie Star--you get James Mason, Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau), the cool blue cinematography of Robert Burks, George Tomasini's editing and especially Bernard Herrmann's score. Yeah, there's some bad rear projection and a painfully obvious miniature airplane crash, but their phoniness doesn't distract because Hitchcock clearly wasn't going for reality here. This is a movie that revels in its artificiality.

As someone who tends to be depressed by nature, intellectually I prefer Hitchcock's bleaker films, like Shadow Of A Doubt and Vertigo. But they're not fun. The high spirits of North By Northwest are infectious, and it's better than therapy. Watch it, and you immediately feel better.