Sunday, March 15, 2015

Film Watch: The fact is, there are a lot of people who've never HEARD of "North by Northwest"!


The start of the crop-dusting scene from North by Northwest.

by Ken

You can watch more of the crop-dusting scene here, but be warned that the yutz who posted it has, incredibly, added music to the scene, explaining, "When I first saw it I thought there'd be music but it never came so, I added my own." Yikes!

The Blu-ray of North by Northwest includes, among a cornucopia of special features, an hour-long one on Alfred Hitchcock called The Master's Touch, featuring comments by a fascinating array of observers, among them many filmmakers, and I think it's William Friedkin (the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection, among many others) who talks in detail about the master's use of sound, including the absence of sound, in the crop-dusting scene. (Among the commenters there's also a movie sound engineer who talks about Hitch's masterful use of sound.

That said, it's awfully hard to imagine the film without Bernard Herrmann's music.

HERRMANN: North by Northwest: Prelude

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Bernard Herrmann, cond. Decca, recorded 1969

I'm writing now in a brief interval between a fabulous NY Transit Museum tour of the almost-brand-new Mother Clara Hale Bus Depot in Harlem and the North by Northwest screening I mentioned at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. As it happens, our Transit Museum tour group reached the bus depot by piling onto a pair of "vintage" buses summoned to the museum in Downtown Brooklyn, one of which appeared was bus #3100, a Model 5106, a Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transportation Operating Authority bus that sure looks awfully like the one that Alfred Hitchcock tries unsuccessfully to board in his signature cameo appearance in North by Northwest!

Why, there's good old bus #3100, a star of the NY Transit Museum's small fleet of "vintage" buses (with "New York City Transit Authority" painted over the name of its original operator, Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transportation Operating Authority), from the days when the poor fellow in the upper photo was shut out of an MaBSTOA Model 5106.

Let's not mince words: When my North by Northwest Blu-ray arrived -- finally replacing an ancient VHS edition -- for a number of days I didn't sleep a lot, not just compulsively rewatching the film itself but attacking that abundance of special features. Most of them are sensational, and taught me fascinating things I never knew about a film I've seen I-don't-know-how-many times and already thought of as one of the supremely great movies I've seen.

The nice thing about the filmmakers included in the remarkably diverse bunch of commenters featured in that Master's Touch feature is the glimpse their comments give us into the way Hitchcock's films influenced their thinking about filmmaking. Martin Scorsese, for example, mentions that he often watches Hitchcock films with the sound off, because so much is built into the rhythm of the visual images. And among the observations from William Friedkin is this: "It's very hard to frighten an audience, because they know it's a movie."

I felt better when I heard Friedkin say (either here or in another feature he's included in on the Blu-ray) that he's seen North by Northwest a hundred times. (It doesn't sound like he's being hyperbolic.) By this standard, if I've seen it 10 times, or even 15, I'm still a relative novice.

The MoMI screening that, as I mentioned, I have to leave shortly for, is part of the museum's celebration of Mad Men and its creator, Matthew Weiner, which includes the film series "Required Viewing: Mad Men's Movie Influences." And it's not hard to see the link between North by Northwest and Mad Men. NbNW came out in 1959 came out a hair's breadth before the start of the era of MM, and centers around a suave advertising executive, played of course by Cary Grant. The world from which Roger Thornhill is suddenly wrenched obviously is Don Draper's world!

When I mentioned in an e-mail to my colleague Gaius Publius that I was going to this screening, I got back a note that he loves the film. Which gave me the idea that rather than e-bending his ear interminably about it, I'd make a post of it.

It seems only natural to hear that someone loves North by Northwest? How could anyone not?

Well, one way is by never having seen it. When I was shopping for the Blu-ray, I dug into some of the Amazon comments in search of useful observations about the technical quality of the versions on offer. And I got some of that. What I wasn't expecting was the number of commenters who'd not only never seen the film but never heard of it. Yikes!

Which, as I noted yesterday, was one of the things on my mind when I encountered John McPhee's new New Yorker piece about writers' "frames of reference." After all, North by Northwest is 56 years old now, which for many people, emphatically including Amazon commenters, places it roughly in the Age of the Dinosaurs.

I had planned to talk about some of the things I've learned from the Blu-ray features, like the casting of Roger Thornhill (as Matthew W reminds us, another advertising exec named Roger!). I don't know that Hitch ever thought of anyone except Cary Grant, one of his two favorite leading men, for the role. What I didn't know was that his other favorite leading man, Jimmy Stewart, wanted the role very badly. I know there are people who think how unfortunate that would have been, noting (correctly) that nobody else could have done what he does with the part, which is not only the best thing he ever did but one of the best things any actor has done in a movie. That said, I don't have a lot of difficulty imaginging the kinds of things Jimmy Stewart could have done with the role. In its very different way, I can believe it would have been just as terrific. It's a shame the picture couldn't have been made both ways!

Then there's the fact that the movie began with basically nothing more than two images in Hitch's head: a murder at the United Nations, and Mount Rushmore. That was it. Out of it he got screenwriter Ernest Lehmann (who died as recently as 2005, and lived long enough to record an audio commentary for the film, which I still haven't watched) to concoct the story that became North by Northwest!

But anyway, I have to get going. It's a long trip for me to Astoria, but I can't wait to see what's at the other end.

EPILOGUE: I didn't make it to the screening

It's my own fault, I guess, for cutting it so close that I left myself hardly any margin for time error. If I'd left even two more minutes earlier, I would have made a slick connection for the first of the two trains I had to catch, on Sunday schedules -- in good enough time to cut me some slack for the second train connection. At that point, alas, NYC Transit took over, announcing on top of the 13 minutes I was originally supposed to have to wait for the next train a brand-new delay of 23 minutes! Which left me not a prayer of making it. Oh well.

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At 5:37 PM, Blogger SeanInInwood said...

Thanks so much for this post! I don't have the Blu Ray, but my DVD still looks gorgeous, and I've seen this movie, oh, about 50 or 60 times. If I win the lottery, I'm going to build the Van Damm House!


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