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Hitchcock's North by Northwest: The Birth of The Modern Action Film

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1959 was an exciting year in the history of filmmaking. An extraordinary conjunction of talent throughout the globe existed. In France, Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, and Resnais all directed their first films, thus establishing the French New Wave. In Italy, Fellini created the elegant La Dolce Vita, and Antonioni gave us L'avventura. Most importantly, though, in America, famed British director Alfred Hitchcock gave us the classic thriller North by Northwest, the father of the modern action film.

Throughout the history of filmmaking, many different genres have thrived such as the romantic comedy, giving us such classics as Bringing up Baby and His Girl Friday. The war film gave us All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory. The western gave us Stagecoach and The Searchers. Film Noir gave us such films as Sunset Boulevard and Chinatown. The one modern film genre not existing prior to 1959 was that of the modern action film whose entrance as a genre was inaugurated with the release of Hitchcock's psychopolitical thriller North by Northwest, starring Cary Grant.

North by Northwest is your basic espionage thriller involving mistaken identity and a government conspiracy. Cary Grant plays advertising executive Roger Thornhill, who, one evening at his usual club calls over the page boy when his is paging a Mr. George Kaplan. Two mysterious men observing Grant get the idea that Mr. Thornhill is Mr. Kaplan, not simply a man talking to a boy who is paging him. Believing him to be Mr. Kaplan, the two men kidnap Thornhill at gunpoint and whisk him away to a beautiful mansion somewhere outside the city.

An important discussion point is that as to which type of hero Roger Thornhill is. The action hero created through North by Northwest is that of the everyman, only man attractive and witty. He is a reluctant, yet brave, hero. Thornhill is unafraid to make an attempted escape while he is in the captive of these two men.

Thornhill is confronted at the house by a vaguely European fellow who demands answers from him. This usage of the seemingly upper class Eurotrash villain will permeate throughout the action film genre from the Die Hard movies to The Fifth Element. Thornhill, of course, has no answers for the man. While being held captive in a library, Cary quips, "I'll catch up on my reading." When they believe his as simply being uncooperative, they intoxicate him by forcing him to drink a glass of bourbon. Placing him behind the wheel of a car, they expect him to drive the car off a cliff. This begins the first of the film's many action sequences. Thornhill's car, hanging off a cliff realigns itself with the road and Thornhill, intoxicated, swerves all over the road, attempting to avoid the two men chasing him.

Endangering the lives of others and his own, Thornhill escapes the two men following him, but causes an accident with a police cruiser. He is brought into the police station for DWI. At the police station, a man asks to smell Thornhill's breath. "You better stand back," he warns.

The following day in court Thornhill tells his story of being kidnapped, only no one believes him. When Thornhill leads police to the house where he was held captive, there is a woman there claiming that Thornhill attended a party the previous evening and was "a bit tipsy" when he left. With not a single person believing his story, Thornhill goes to a hotel where this so-called "George Kaplan" is staying. While there he obtains a picture of the man who was demanding "answers" of him at the house the previous night. The maid working at the hotel also mistakes him as Kaplan.

Discovering that the man in the photo, Van Damme, works at the UN, Thornhill proceeds there. While at the UN, a man lands in Thornhill's arms. The man has a knife in his back. Thornhill grabs the knife and the people surrounding the incident immediately mistake Thornhill as the murderer. At this point there is one of the most economical and beautiful transition shots in the film. Hitchcock segues from his striking overhead shot of an antlike Thornhill running away from the UN to a nameplate for the CIA in Washington. Hitchcock has the foresight to use a mirrored surface for the sign reflecting the Capitol building, thus identifying the city as well as the "company" and neatly saves an extra shot. He then dissolves to the newspaper headline "Diplomat Slain at UN" with an accompanying photo of Thornhill. The newspaper is being held by the head of the intelligence agency and Hithcock pulls back from the paper and goes on with a conference scene at the agency.

At this time, however, there is some extraordinary metaphorical information in this elegant little dissolve for, if we analyze these still images we can see that the CIA imposes itself on the UN, that the Capitol is a reflection of the CIA (or that intelligence agency has superimposed itself over the seat of government), and finally, that the CIA gives birth to the newspaper headlines that include, in addition to the one conveying the necessary information: "National Fears Tieup" and "Nixon Promises West Will Remain in

Berlin." It is also at this point where Hitchcock's film begins to show political affiliations. The CIA is depicted as a ruthless government agency that will "do nothing" even though Thornhill is being mistaken for a phony CIA operative.

After fleeing the UN, Thornhill goes to the nearest train station wearing a disguise of sunglasses. When Thornhill is asked why he's wearing them by one of the ticket sellers, he responds, "My eyes are allergic to questions." Thornhill sneaks onto a train and in the hallway of one of the cars meets Eve Kendall, played by the beautiful Eva Marie Saint. At this point in the film is the only flub with the plot. Thornhill was being chased by police and boarded the nearest train just in the nick of time. Eve Kendall has been placed on the train for she is an accomplice of Van Damme's. How would Van Damme's heavies have known that Thornhill



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