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Cult Column: North by Northwest

ByRafe Jennings

Nov 12, 2017

Discover Tuesdays at Picturehouse Cinemas

There is a certain kind of old Hollywood glamour in North by Northwest that, these days, no one would accept in modern film. Mistaken identities, murder in the UN headquarters, and microfilm being smuggled out the country in priceless antiques – these sounds like tired clichés to even the most casual film buff. But with Alfred Hitchcock at the helm, Cary Grant sporting the most elegant suit of film history (voted by GQ fashion journalists), and shot in luscious technicolour, the McCarthy era intrigue all starts to make sense. For a picture like North by Northwest, we not only allow clichés – we demand them.

The title North by Northwest refers to the train Cary Grant’s character Roger Thornhill escapes on, after being framed for the murder United Nations diplomat. This takes place in the UN headquarters, while he is being tailed by what we assume to be Soviet double-agents, who in turn are only tailing him because of a case of mistaken identity in a luxury hotel. Of course, the plot further thickens with the introduction of beautiful Eve Kendell (played by Even Marie Saint), who Thornhill easily seduces – but once again, there is more to this than meets the eye. The film’s writer, Ernest Lehman, said that he wanted North by Northwest to be “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures”, and he probably succeeded.

At some points, the film definitely descends into the ridiculous. It’s easy to notice, especially when watched on a cinema screen, that the only thing that matches the intensity of the gold in the film’s luxury settings is the technicolour orange of Cary Grant’s face. The fact that he could get around incognito, despite being the most wanted man on the Eastern seaboard, and with only a pair of sunglasses on as disguise, is hard to believe. But given the film’s subject, we do suspend our disbelief, and when we do, we are rewarded. The infamous crop-duster moment stands up to this day as one of the tensest in film history.

North by Northwest is one of a breed of old classic that demands a proper cinema screen, so it’s great to see that Discover Tuesdays is branching out from the usual fair of obscure arthouse cinema and paying respects to classic film history. With most cinemas today focused on showing only the most popular blockbusters, it’s refreshing to see an institution such as Picturehouse taking risks. It’s so easy to forget why some old films are considered ‘classics’ until you see them on the big screen.

In all, another highly successful Discover Tuesday at the Picturehouse. If ever you get a chance to see North by Northwest in a proper cinema, jump on the chance. The film’s a classic, and deserves to be treated that way.

Image: Motion Picture Daily via Wikipedia

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