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Posts Tagged ‘Cary Grant’

Alfred Hitchcock, in addition to his many other innovations, came up with the notion of fridge logic: by which he meant the way that a story can hang together just well enough to entertain the viewer, at least until they get up and go to the refrigerator to get a beer – at which point they say ‘Hey, waiddaminute…!’ and the whole spurious narrative edifice comes tumbling down. Or, to put it another way: if you keep things really, really entertaining and go really, really fast, most viewers won’t notice the plot holes first time round.

How well this principle still stands up in the DVD age, where some directors almost seem to design their films to need multiple viewings to become wholly comprehensible, is debatable. However, it also seems to me that Hitchcock also came up with – or at least made use of – the related idea of ‘fridge titling’, where the name of a story bears no obvious connection to anyone or anything actually mentioned in it. This idea has also had a long and reasonably noble history, and no doubt it will stay with us, assuming the cinema industry recovers from the current unpleasantness. (As a tribute to Hitch I have given this review a fridge title.)

A movie which has a fridge title and relies somewhat upon fridge logic is Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North by Northwest. (The title seems to allude to Hamlet’s declaration he is ‘but mad north-north-west’, but if so quite what the link is remains impenetrably obscure.) This is a film which came towards the end of Hitchcock’s 1950s imperial phase, slotting into the gap between Vertigo and Psycho – and it hardly suffers in comparison to either of them, which just goes to show what a roll Hitchcock was on at this point. However, where Vertigo is a self-referential, dream-like psycho-drama, and Psycho essentially raises the curtain on the modern American horror movie, North by Northwest is something from a wholly different part of Hitchcock’s register – and while it may not be quite as revered as either of those other two films, in a way it may be the most enduringly influential of the three.

The story opens in New York, and proceeds to crack on with great economy. We are swiftly introduced to advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), perhaps a bit of an amiable rogue in a very domestic way. Through sheer bad luck, Thornhill gets himself mistaken for the mysterious and elusive George Kaplan, who appears to be an agent of the security services, involved in pursuing members of a communist spy ring. Two members of the gang bundle Thornhill into the back of a car and whisk him off to meet their leader, Vandamm (James Mason) and his henchman Leonard (Martin Landau). Thornhill, understandably, can’t give them the information that they want, and so they decide to arrange his death – needless to say he manages to avoid dying in the first twenty minutes of the movie.

However, this lands him in trouble with the police, and in order to prove his story Thornhill tries to track down Kaplan, with no success – and indeed only manages to make his enemies even more convinced he is the man they want. Very soon Thornhill finds himself framed for a murder he did not commit, fleeing across the country and desperately trying to locate Kaplan, who may have the answers to what is happening. It seems like his only ally is cool young blonde Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) – but can Thornhill afford to trust anyone…?

One of the brilliant touches about North by Northwest is that, having set all this up, the film very sensibly takes a step back and explains (for the viewer’s benefit, if not Cary Grant’s) what’s really going on. In one of a small number of scenes not to feature Grant’s character, we find ourselves at some sort of FBI committee meeting where exposition is briefly provided, mostly courtesy of Leo G Carroll, playing a donnish spymaster known as the Professor: Thornhill is chasing a phantom, as Kaplan doesn’t exist – the evidence of his existence has been created to act as a decoy and distract the gang, without placing a real agent in danger (and hopefully distract attention away from the real informer they have in Vandamm’s ring).

This scene doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it clarifies the plot enormously and means that most of the rest of the movie can proceed slickly, with a minimum of pipe-laying. Also, it comes at the end of the first act, when the viewer is ready for a brief break from the action. One of the things about this movie is how immaculately paced is it, and another is the way it switches flawlessly between its various modes: understated romantic comedy between Grant and Saint, moments of tension as Grant finds himself having to pull off another unlikely escape, and what these days we would call action set-pieces, include two of the most iconic sequences in cinema history – the one where Grant is menaced by a crop-duster while out in the middle of nowhere, and the climactic chase across the face (literally) of Mount Rushmore.

While all this is happening, something else slightly more subtle is going on in the story, too. One text on story structure describes the journey of the protagonist as being that of ‘orphan, wanderer, warrior, martyr’, and that journey is happening here as well – Thornhill starts the film as a clueless innocent, baffled by everything happening to him, but his efforts to unravel the mystery only make things worse and he finds himself cut off from his old life, searching for Kaplan. Finally he begins to take steps against his enemies, even to the point of willingly risking his own life against the Professor’s orders. By the end of the film, Thornhill has effectively become the daring and effective spy that he was mistaken for at the beginning of the film – and when films with this kind of structure are made today (for example, The Spy Who Dumped Me, or – less recognisably, perhaps – American Ultra), they usually end with a coda showing the protagonist has embraced this new career. (Hitchcock chooses to end with a naughty visual pun instead.)

Watching Grant glide through the movie as a suave, resourceful, womanising secret agent, and considering the film’s mixture of glamorous, iconic locations, well-handled action, witty dialogue, and slightly outlandish characters, I can’t help but think that it would only take a couple of spoonfuls of extra grit for North by Northwest to be instantly recognisable as what it is: the proto-Bond movie, and, as such, the ultimate progenitor of every other film ripping off or positioning itself in opposition to the Bond franchise, from Our Man Flint to Enter the Dragon to Austin Powers to The Bourne Identity. It’s not surprising that Cary Grant was top of Eon’s wish-list when it came to casting Bond for Dr No, though the actor’s refusal to sign on for multiple films (and quite possibly his salary demands) led to them going down a different path. (Mason was also offered the part, while the TV series The Man from UNCLE, one of the Bond franchise’s small-screen imitators, likewise acknowledges the influence of North by Northwest by essentially getting Leo G Carroll to reprise his role as the Professor as Alexander Waverly, head of UNCLE.)

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman has spoken of how his desire to make ‘the ultimate Hitchcock movie’ was central to the origins of North by Northwest; it also seems that many of the film’s most memorable elements originated with the director – the crop-duster scene apparently sprang from Hitchcock’s desire to find out if he could produce an effective suspense sequence in broad daylight, in a wide open space. Is this the ultimate Hitchcock movie, though? Well, as noted, it is somewhat less revered than the two films made on either side of it, and it certainly possesses fewer of the darker and more complex psychological elements that sometimes bubble to the surface in Hitchcock films. However, as a slick piece of escapist cinema it stands up fantastically well even sixty years on. A superb entertainment and an immensely influential film.

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Nice to see a sizeable turnout for the latest vintage showing which I went to at the Phoenix in Jericho; almost but not quite cheery enough to offset the news that the current poll on whether or not to retain the trial policy of assigning designated seating at weekends is currently running at more than 50% in favour. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Phoenix is still my favourite cinema in the Oxford area, but it seems like every refurbishment and renovation they’ve had in the last year has had the effect of making it less characterful, less quirky, less welcoming and less like an actual independent cinema, and the switch to allocated seats is only another part of this. Then again, the whole world seems to have accelerated its drift towards a state of consisting entirely of dismayingly irritating pointless faff, so I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised.

Hey ho. At times like this a joyous movie from yesteryear is more cherishable than ever, and on this occasion it was George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, first released at Christmas 1940, long since ascended to timeless classic status. Simply naming the main players – Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart – is almost enough to give you a warm glow inside, and you almost wonder if any film starring these three together can be good enough to live up to expectations.

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Needless to say, the tale unfolds amongst the upper echelons of east coast society. The society wedding of the year looms, with the nuptuals of Tracy Lord (Hepburn) as she marries aspiring politician George Kittredge (John Howard). She was previously married to whiskey-loving shipwright CK Dexter Haven (Grant), and he is still nursing something of a grudge against her. To this end, he agrees to participate in a bit of skulduggery where two reporters are infiltrated into the wedding party, on the pretext that they are old friends of the bride’s absent brother. (Yes, this is a slightly complex set-up, but films back then were prepared to credit the audience with a little intelligence.) The reporters are Mike Connor (Stewart) and Liz Embrie (Ruth Hussey).

Connor is initially dismissive of the whole proceedings, affecting to despise people whom he sees as the idle rich, and wanting to get back to being a writer of substance. Nevertheless he find himself making an undeniable connection with the bride to be, somewhat to the chagrin of his own girlfriend, Liz. Meanwhile, Dexter realises that his own feelings towards his ex-wife are not entirely unambiguous, and nor are hers for him. She’s bound to marry someone in the end – but whom?

Not everything in the past is quite what you might expect it to have been. These days, for example, everyone knows that Katherine Hepburn is a bona fide Hollywood legend, unassailable star of peerless popular classics like Bringing Up Baby. Except… at the time, Bringing Up Baby was just one of a string of flops, leading to Hepburn acquiring a reputation as box-office poison, and finding it very hard to get roles. Her response was to pay someone to write a play for her to star in, and then retain the film rights in order to guarantee she would get the lead role when it was adapted for the screen.

This was as shrewd an investment as one might expect from a legendarily smart cookie like Hepburn, and it may explain why there are many scenes of the male characters singing her praises most fulsomely and at great length – and, quite possibly, also why the other characters spend much of their time talking about her even when she isn’t on screen. Not to suggest that this is entirely a vanity project: everyone gets a chance to shine, and Hepburn’s character is as flawed as any of the others.

The opening sequence of the film promises an effervescent farce, with the reporters attempting to pass themselves off as house guests, not realising the family are fully aware of their mission and intent on feeding them an entirely false impression, while – for reasons too bizarre to go into – Tracy Lord’s father and uncle are obliged to impersonate each other. This is as smart and genuinely funny a comedy as anything I’ve seen in the last six months.

However, soon the film becomes more measured and thoughtful, as the deeper personalities of the main characters become more apparent. This really is a romantic comedy, albeit a fairly peculiar one by modern standards: the modern rom-com is almost certainly as predictable a film genre as any in history, but here, for the uninitiated, it is very difficult to predict just who it is that Katherine Hepburn is going to end up marrying in the final reel. Comparisons with the modern rom-com are perhaps a little unwise, as this apparently is one of the defining examples of a very 1930s subgenre entitled the comedy of remarriage, a product of extremely strict regulations curtailing the use of extramarital shenanigans as a plot driver – hence the device where Grant and Hepburn are conveniently divorced after a very brief opening scene, thus leaving her technically available to flirt with all the other male characters.

There are a few other ways in which this is clearly a film of a different era: some jolly jokes about smallpox and domestic abuse strike a somewhat startling note, for instance. But while the film’s sensibility is that of another era, its themes are universal: what it means to be a good person, what someone’s responsibilities are to their loved ones, snobbery, privacy, the thin line between love and hate, and so on. The script alone would be a lovely thing, even if it weren’t brought to life by three of the greatest performers in screen history – to say nothing of some very striking supporting turns, particularly Ruth Hussey’s rather wistful performance as Stewart’s long-suffering girlfriend.

To be honest, it’s very difficult to identify the particular elements which make The Philadelphia Story such an outstanding film, because it genuinely doesn’t seem to have a weak link: every element of it exudes class, polish, wit, and charm. It always seems a bit fatuous to me when someone says they don’t make them like they used to – but then again, as this film shows, they really don’t.

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