It’s probably impossible to pinpoint the first Alfred Hitchcock-designed image I was exposed to, but I know the single shot that stands as the first I really saw. It’s arguably his most famous, certainly in a neck and neck race with the shower curtain being pulled back to reveal a shadowy figure with a gray-haired bun holding a knife or the blonde, drenched woman screaming in response. The shot that connected with me, for me, had a man in a suit running furiously along an expansive, arid field, a biplane bearing down on him from behind. The shot is dynamic, propulsive, beautiful framed, and intriguing in the manner of the best storytelling. I wanted to know how that situation arose. How did he get there? In truth, the eventual lesson I was able to take from the film is that it didn’t necessarily matter how he got there, with the antecedent for “he” either the character or the master filmmaker. As Paul Thomas Anderson recently observed: “North by Northwest? Tell me again how he gets to the middle of the field with a plane after him? I can’t. How does he get to Mount Rushmore? I don’t know, but it’s great.” Sometimes the art of storytelling is in making the details of the story irrelevant.
Hitchcock believed in the facility of the MacGuffin, an item that drives the plot without necessarily having a great deal of import or meaning. It is important because the story maintains it is important, because the narrative needs it to be. In the case of North by Northwest, the primary MacGuffin is microfilm containing devastating secrets that a secret organization is trying to smuggle out of the United States. In the midst of their efforts, there is a case of mistaken identity creating the favorite Hitchcockian trope of an everyday joe thrust into extraordinary circumstances. In this case, the normal fellow is hardly a schlub. Roger O. Thornhill is played by Cary Grant, and its a testament to the actor’s marvelous capabilities as a performing that he operates with his customary charm but still suggests all the ways Roger is plain as can be. As matters escalate around him — the previously mentioned biplane buzzing, a sudden knife in the back, side trips of varying intensity to the United Nations and Mount Rushmore, a bizarre scene of forced drunk driving — Grant is perfectly perplexed, always a half-step behind, his boldly unruffled demeanor showing the slightest sign of fraying around the edges.
Hitchcock delivered Vertigo one year earlier. While that is now routinely cited as the quintessential depository of all of the filmmaker’s creative obsessions, North by Northwest is the movie that was genuinely built to be the ultimate Hitchcock film. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman has said as much, noting that he did everything he could to tilt the script to every one of Hitchcock’s considerable strengths. Informing that mission, no doubt, was an understanding that Hitchcock was above all a grand showman. Yes, he tapped into something primal in the human condition and could subtly paw at the darker parts of his own psyche to find his way to a troubling universality. At his core, though, he was an entertainer, a creator who had an inherent understanding of the rhythms of the audience — their desires, their anxieties, their passion — unrivaled until Steven Spielberg explored the waters surrounding Amity Island. Lehman set Hitchcock up gloriously, giving him everything he needs to spin up a buoyant thriller. Hitchcock may have made better films or more important films. I’m not sure he made anything else that is so plainly, perfectly joyful in its mastery of every stirring part of the movies.