A film critic’s most daunting task is tackling that which has been pored over for decades. What can be left to write about a film such as this? This is no doubt one of the most famous movies ever made. What has accounted for its “staying power?”
There is, of course, the well-tailored Cary Grant in his grey suit and tie (grey tie) thinking thin while suavely moving between Madison Ave. and points west. There is the deliciously-evil James Mason whose one-liners ring with Shakespearean gravity in their chilly enunciation. Even Martin Landau…with his iconic, effeminately-sinister visage makes a lasting mark upon the viewer’s brain. And then there is Eva Marie Saint: her glowing locks like Garbo in Technicolor. These are great characters, but there is something more.
Situations. What would Sartre and Debord make of this dissection? This critical tangent? The crop duster scene. Surrealism. Beckett, but back to Finnegans Wake. Somehow screenwriter Ernest Lehman tapped into the non sequitur nature of Joyce’s masterpiece (akin to Hawks’ approach in The Big Sleep [by way of Raymond Chandler]). It is one of the greatest situations in cinema. There are few scenes more iconic than Cary Grant in full stride trying futilely to outrun an approaching plane.
The overarching situation involves the C.I.A. Leo Carroll is fantastic in the short-but-powerful role of The Professor. We sense a Donald Rumsfeld sort of character. Polite. Gentlemanly. But certainly a man of the cloth in the dark arts. It is perhaps fitting that we end up atop Mount Rushmore…that gargantuan creation of Gutzon Borglum (himself a mysterious if not shadowy personage).
But all of these methods merely attempt to approach what can be summed up only as essential cinematic viewing. In Hitchcock here we find an apex of craftsmanship and imagination. Not even the masterful performance of Grant can usurp the controlling role of our auteur. It is a slippery slope. Had the film failed to deliver; failed to age well, it would have been Hitchcock’s fault. Somehow this greatest of all directors managed to make all the elements work together in a dramatic harmony of color. Cinema is the closest we come to a truly synesthetic art. When films start to differentiate themselves by their smells and the ways they literally touch us, we will have tasted the future. For now, pinnacles such as North by Northwest have yet to be surpassed.