Sight and Sound Top 250 – #054 North By Northwest (1959)

And here we are, back again with another look at one of the world’s best movies as designated by the Sight and Sound Top 250 Movies of All Time list. This time around, it’s #054 on the list, Alfred Hithcock’s North By Northwest. And as always I’ll note that for those just joining us, you can find a full introduction to what the Sight and Sound Top 250 list is, and a look at the complete list of the movies on it, along with links to the ones I’ve already written about here. And, if you want to be sure not to miss any of these posts, just head on over to the Facebook page and give it a “like”or follow me on Twitter (both of those links are also in the sidebar) where I post anytime one of these – or anything else on the blog, along with just random other links and thoughts that may not make it into full posts – goes up. Trust me, if you’re not following one or the other (or both), you’re not getting the full Durmoose Movies experience.

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I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.

nw1No one is going to dispute, I think, that Alfred Hitchcock deserves at least one, if not many places on this list. As a matter of fact the problem that most of those who filled out ballots likely had, considering the continued quality and the volume of the master craftsman’s work was limiting the number of Hitch’s films that they voted for.

Obviously, considering that it took the number one spot in this particular poll, the majority of them ranked Vertigo the highest of all of Hitchcock’s films. But even if you take that as the consensus (which I feel certain not everyone would. For my own part I’ve noted before that while I may not consider it his best movie, my favorite of the director’s films is Rear Window.

So what is it that puts North By Northwest in the position it obtained on the Sight and Sound list this time around?

I suppose it comes down to the fact that it is very much a compilation of a number of the director’s favorite themes.

First, you have the everyman accidentally caught up, through a case of mistaken identity into a plot which he at first not only has no control over, but has no idea what is going on, why strange things seem to be going on around him, nor even why people whom he has no awareness of seem to think they know him.

nbnw01Second you have the spy vs spy theme which allows Hitchcock to interweave characters and plots and slowly reveal the various layers of machination that are going on to the point that although the audience does have those moments of suspense which are a Hitchcock trademark where the audience knows more than the protagonist, there are still more reveals to come which can easily alter not only our perception of current events, but past ones, and make us question just who the true “good guys” (if there even are any) are and just who is loyal to whom and who we should truly be rooting for.

Third, there is that of the femme fatale, taken directly from the best films noir; the beautiful woman who may or may not actually be in distress, or who could just as easily be a part of the manipulations drawing our “hero” further and further into the ever tightening web which is surrounding him.

Tnbnw04hen, once you take those themes and add to them the incredible set pieces and action scenes such as the infamous crop-duster scene and the climactic fight on Mount Rushmore along with a number of smaller scenes such as the confrontation at the Rushmore Visitor Center and the escape from Vandamm’s house, and you have that mix of the grandiose and the small moments which make up the best of Hitchcock’s thrillers.

Oh, and let’s not forget to note the incredible performances. Cary Grant is, as almost always, pitch perfect in his depiction of advertising executive Roger Thornhill, who is mistaken, or at least seemingly so, for master spy George Kaplan, and Eve Marie Saint plays her role of perhaps innocent, perhaps not Eve Kindall to the hilt. Nor are they alone. Supporting characters, such as James Mason as Phillip Vandamm, Leo G. Carroll as The Professor, and Martin Landau as Leonard are all spot-on, as one would expect not only from such veteran actors, but from the way that Hitchcock always seems to be able to pull even from lesser actors than these.

nbnw02Finally, one has to consider the score by Hitchcock regular Bernard Herman, which, while it may not be one of his most stand-out efforts still works incredibly well within the film and helps both to support the ongoing action when needed and to contrast it when that is what is called for. Nor can one fail to note Robert Burks’s cinematography which plays such an important role in capturing just the right moment in just the right way that it allows the master to truly make the most of the script. There is a reason that Burks was Hitchcock’s cinematographer on twelve of the director’s films, beginning with 1951’s Strangers on a Train right through until 1964’s Marnie. The only Hitchcock film he was not part of during that period was Psycho.

In the end, what we have in North By Northwest may simply be the height of the master director’s action-thriller films. It is a film that combines and highlights so much of what he tried to accomplish throughout his career that it definitely deserves a high place not only on a list of his best, but, as it obviously has achieved, of the best films of all time.

Here’s your trailer:

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