December 14th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY A myriad transformations effected by one birth

VICTORIAN POLITICS Andrews hacks away at another way of life and source of jobs

CANBERRA OBSERVED Labor must own up to why it took the thrashing it got

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Hong Kong voters reject Beijing and its proxies

LIFE AND FAMILY On the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, how are we doing?

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Brexit: Quintessentially British party politics

OBITUARY Fr Paul Stenhouse: The thoughtful editor for the 'ordinary' reader

OBITUARY Vale David Milne, paragon of loyalty and perseverance

ASIAN AFFAIRS Taiwan and Hong Kong: Pawns in a bigger game

U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS How and why the U.S. should stop financing China's bad actors

HUMOUR You can't stop the music, Paddy

MUSIC 2020 foresight: A musical odyssey

CLASSIC CINEMA North by Northwest: The immaculately produced nightmare

BOOK REVIEW Truncated truths for post-truth times

BOOK REVIEW Food for a summer immersion program



THE QUEEN V PELL: A blight on the whole of the criminal justice system

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Johnson to take UK out of the EU on January 31

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North by Northwest: The immaculately produced nightmare

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, December 14, 2019

There is something ominous, and yet comic, about an impeccably dressed man standing on the side of a dusty road in the middle of nowhere. More so if the man in question is Cary Grant and the man responsible is Alfred Hitchcock.

The effortless, and masterful, mixture of urbanity and roughness, of light-hearted humour and breath-holding suspense is the hallmark of many a Hitchcock film. In this case it is the hallmark of the film that screenwriter Ernest Lehman wrote to be “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures” – the exceptional, and exceptionally entertaining, North by Northwest.

2019 is the anniversary of many fine films. Frank Capra’s first film with Jimmy Stewart, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, came out in 1939, as did Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh’s Gone With The Wind and the yellow-brick road of The Wizard of Oz. Billy Wilder’s noir classic, Double Indemnity, came out in 1944, and his comic masterwork with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot, came out 15 years later in 1959, as did the sword and sandal epic, Ben Hur.

1959 is also the year of North by Northwest, a movie so sharply scripted and well put together, so movie-like and fun, that it might actually achieve its writer’s stated goal.

Cary Grant plays the suave adman Roger Thornhill, a man with, as he says, “a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me”, wearing what has been called the greatest suit in the history of cinema. After he’s mistaken for a spy by a couple of heavies in the employ of James Mason’s menacingly genteel villain, he’s thrust into a world of intrigue and danger he never knew existed.

But this world also has its charms, like Eva Marie Saint’s luminous Eve Kendall, all arched eyebrows and immaculate attire, a smirk underlying every sentence.

The charm of the film itself, and it is nothing if not charming, comes from how well everything comes together. The script is full of wit and action, beautifully balancing the need to explain just enough to know what’s going on, with the need to “show not tell”, allowing audiences to enjoy the frisson of double meanings and allusions and to use their brains while they eat their popcorn.

The audience’s heart is engaged by the acting, all understated and sophisticated, while their more visceral emotions are spurred into overdrive by Bernard Herrman’s score – which, like all his scores, may not be subtle but is undoubtedly effective, especially so when counterpointed with scenes of silence.

While a Madison Avenue executive is not an Everyman, and nor for that matter is Cary Grant, the leisureliness and gentlemanliness of Grant’s Thornhill makes him instantly relatable and immediately likeable. His is an aspirational likeability – a man may not be Cary Grant, but Cary Grant is not only someone a man wants to be like, he seems like someone a man could be like.

Thornhill may be a bit better off than the ordinary Joe but he is just as woefully underprepared for what happens to him. Throughout the film Hitchcock emphasises that Thornhill is just one man in the crowd, and yet, he holds his own.

The same goes for Miss Kendall. Her role in the proceedings is one she initially fell into and has to do her best to navigate. In presenting this, Hitchcock suggests not only that there are all manner of things happening that we know nothing about, but that we too could, maybe, do as well as his heroes.

It is this ability to tease the audience that makes Hitchcock such a wonderful and entertaining filmmaker. His films are immaculately produced daydreams and nightmares. They take someone an audience can connect to and put them in a situation thrilling and seemingly possible.

The audience buys the setup and, since the rest of the film grabs their attention and doesn’t let go, remains entranced for the rest. Hitchcock himself remarked that the crop-duster scene in North by Northwest was a bit unbelievable, but that no one notices because they’re so swept away with the action.

Moreover, Hitchcock’s films deal in themes and images so primal and uni­versal that they have perpetual resonance and appeal. Sin is punished and goodness rewarded. Redemption is possible, but it comes at a price.

There are forces, be they government or otherwise, outside of an individual’s control that will affect that individual, but the individual can still act. There is no need for Hitchcock to go into detail about any of this because his films show these things playing out dramatically so we can see cause, effect, and aftermath.

But above all, Hitchcock was an entertainer. Like Shakespeare or Dickens, he specialised in the good tale well told. And we are all the better for it.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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