North by Northwest [1959)

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.

 

-PD

Thunderball [1965)

Perhaps there has been no greater case made for the existence of the C.I.A. and MI6 than the film Thunderball.

So much is made today about the negative aspects of espionage and covert operations.  One need not look far to find the doubters who think the very existence of these organizations endangers humanity.

I myself have long been among that number.  There is plenty to find fault with regarding these services.  Because of their secrecy there is only so much the general public can definitively know about their work.

We live in an age of globalization.  It is a reality.  There is no going back to the days of George Washington.  As much as I admire the philosophy of disengaged detachment, it simply will not do for America or the U.K. in the 21st century.

I myself have criticized these organizations…particularly the C.I.A.  They represent, ostensibly, my country.

The time has come to feel pride in what they do.  We only hear the horror stories.  Unfortunately, the perception management which these agencies employ only serves to make the more intelligent among us more bitter.  The 21st century was ushered in on 9/11/01.

Some among us have taken those events to be the impetus for a renaissance of thought.  Where we were previously disinterested (or ignorant of) the NSA, now we take great care to glean the news snippets from the airwaves and formulate our own thoughts regarding surveillance and espionage.

It is unfortunate that the NSA, GCHQ, CIA and MI6 (might as well throw in Mossad) have been whole-cloth denigrated.  It is a sticky game they play.  There are no clear winners in the secret wars they fight.  There are always casualties.

The idealists among us have legitimate concern when it comes to the undue influence of corporations and big business as regards matters of national securities.  It would well-behoove the nations of the United States, Great Britain and Israel to take a new tack insofar as their public relations.

The current information offensive cannot be sustained.  What is at issue involves not secrecy, but communication.  Entities which rely upon the art of lying can’t be completely blamed for their wrongheaded approach to public opinion.

It will take brave men and women in the intelligence field to stand up for what is right.  We know it is all one big gray, grey area, but there are some timeless principles which should guide the hearts of the human beings in control of this vast apparatus.

They operate on a “need to know” set of principles.  This of course goes for the military as well (and their intelligence…ONI for example).  In a sense, this is how things must be done.

But the time has come for the cooperation which exists between the U.S. and U.K. (to highlight just one treaty line) to be extended to the public at large.  It is not a matter of declassifying and bringing skeletons out of the closet.

The clean break which needs to happen involves a change of heart.  Only those with hearts are eligible.  Fortunately, for the time being, that means everyone.

What does all of this have to do with Thunderball, you might ask?

Pride.

National pride.

International pride.

When the paratroopers descended near the end of this film to fight what must be cinema’s most fantastic underwater hand-to-hand battle, I felt a sense of pride which I had not felt since America elected its first black president.

I may sound like a war hawk in saying this, but it is time we let our men and women of the armed forces do what they have been trained to do.  They have been trained to intervene.  They are our shield.

When Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita upon explosion of the first nuclear weapon he was exhibiting his humanity–his humanity which could never be vaporized.

The agencies which I have mentioned and the people who run them would do well to sit down and view that underwater battle at the end of Thunderball and realize that it was one (albeit fictional) man, two very real intelligence agencies and one unnamed branch of the American military working together to do something undeniably good.  They were saving the lives of those they were entrusted to protect.  Some paratroopers lived.  Many paratroopers died.

I salute you, men and women of the intelligence community.  May your superiors find an enlightened approach to communicate to the public just what you do…without them telling us exactly what you are doing.  May they be duplicitous only inasmuch as it protects us.  After all, we are your countrymen and your fellow human beings.

 

-PD

Notorious [1946)

The key in Ingrid’s hand.  The ring on Grace’s finger.  It’s not her key.  It’s not her ring.

Rio is beautiful…even in black and white.  Only Hitchcock could make it so.  Christ of the Andes.  The greatest creator of forms of the 20th century.

Icy.  Pithy.  Notorious is stoic Cary Grant.  And this shall be a terse dispatch.

It’s a very fine vintage…1946…1940…1934.  I pity the sommelier assigned to this house of horrors.  God forbid he pick the 1934.  You can tell, old man, when a seemingly-polished chap makes a completely inappropriate choice of wines.  Strangers on a train bound for Zagreb.  Yes, a keen eye for detail is certainly not to be underestimated.

T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) knows every trick in the book.  When to bluff.  When to kiss.

It is only when matters of the heart come into play that the C.I.A. has no official manual.  It will never be declassified.  Because it doesn’t exist.  The manual is Petrarch.  Shakespeare’s sonnets.  The manual was written long ago.  It is no secret.  Only a mystery.

We will kill her off slowly, they say…on the installment plan.  She will gargle in the rat-race choir.  Until Devlin comes with his pointed threats to bluff with scorn and Claude Rains is left like a groom standing at the altar…except it’s not his wedding, it’s his funeral.

It’s the way they killed Sindona in Voghera.  Poison in the coffee.  C.A.B.A.L.  It’s not a Fleming invention.  Far older than that.  And I.G. Farben…not a fanciful name plucked from Hitchcock’s imagination.

Mata Hari.  Theda Bara.  Arab Death.

MacGuffin.  Mackintosh.  Scotland Yard.

This was the first time Hitchcock was really in charge.  Byb-bye David O. Selznick.

Ben Hecht.  Clifford Odets.

This is really loose crap.

That’s a quote.  ” ”

This is a puzzle, dear friends.  This is your dossier.  Jigsaw.  Fragmented.

It is Vivre sa vie.  The back of a head only.  Cary Grant’s black hair.  A man, as yet, with no name.

Susan Sontag was on a different mission.  We defer to Cahiers du Cinéma.  To Henri Langlois.

These are our agents.  Our “Wild Bill” Donovans.  Our O.S.S.

She may not sniff it through a cane on a supersonic train, but it still makes me laugh.  Murnau more now than ever.

A full 360°.  The subjective, drunken camera.  We have suspicion of Grant from the start–is that fizzy aspirin or a glowing glass of milk?

The con man exploits your trust.  What was the bait?

It is like Dostoyevsky.  We feel sympathy for Norman Bates just as we do Raskolnikov.

Yes, sometimes…Mother Sebastian, we are protected by the enormity of our stupidity.  Forrest Gumption.

The key was stolen.  The key brought such luck.  The key was passed on.  And now, Mr. Hitchcock, the key has been returned.

Thank you.

 

-PD