The last year has seen much discussion of Alfred Hitchcock, between Gus Van Sant's eccentric Psycho reenactment and the 100th anniversary of the master's birth. Much of the focus, rightly enough, has been on the far-reaching effects of the 1960 Psycho, but the film Hitchcock made the year before, the comic chase thriller North by Northwest, was almost as influential; it was one of the main progenitors of the genre now known as "action comedy."
Now the film is getting a theatrical rerelease, in a nice, spruced-up print, for its 40th anniversary. Anniversaries are becoming almost as useful a marketing tool for movie exhibitors as they have been for greeting-card companies.
The film is all headlong narrative and lighthearted, self-conscious directorial flourishes, driven forward by Bernard Herrmann's ironically tense, feverish score. Cary Grant, in one of his subtlest comic performances, plays a swanky Manhattan ad exec who is marked for death when some spies mistake him for an enemy agent. Framed for murder, the New Yorker has to take it on the lam into the hinterlands.
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Somehow he ends up strafed by a crop duster in the Midwest, chased by killers across the face of Mount Rushmore, and sharing a sleeping car with Eva Marie Saint. The lead villains, James Mason and Martin Landau, are just as urbane as Grant, and the juxtaposition of these cosmopolitan types with the provincial locations is the overriding joke of Ernest Lehman's script, and of Hitchcock's visuals. It's Hitchcock's madcap tour of Middle America, and it's also Middle America's affectionate revenge on Cary Grant for setting an unattainable standard for suavity.