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05 December 2023

Why Hitchcock still resonates with audiences


By Peter Rainer

When asked to name my favourite movie, my answer is usually North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock's exhilarating 1959 thriller. Warner Home Video recently marked the film's 50th anniversary by releasing a re-mastered two-disc collection with oodles of extras.

The title may derive from Hamlet, but this is one of the least stage-bound movies ever made.

As a debonair Madison Avenue executive mistaken for a US intelligence agent by James Mason's gang of murderous foreign spies, Cary Grant is hunted across a compass-spinning array of locations. He scurries from New York's Plaza hotel and United Nations headquarters to Indiana, South Dakota and, most memorably, Mount Rushmore, where he and Eva Marie Saint, playing a blonde Mata Hari, cling for dear life from what appears to be Abe Lincoln's nostril.

Compared with other Hitchcock masterpieces of trauma such as The Wrong Man (1956), Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), North by Northwest is relatively lightweight.

The film showcases Hitchcock's abiding obsessions: The horror of the innocent being mistaken for the guilty, the fascination with cool blondes, pathological fear of police and nightmare of losing your identity.

In one of the documentaries produced for this DVD, the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) remarks how Hitchcock filmed murder scenes as if they were love scenes. To illustrate, we are shown examples from Dial M for Murder (Grace Kelly knifing her strangler) and Strangers on a Train (Robert Walker pursuing his prey through the tunnel of love in an amusement park).

In an insulting corporate move, the DVD documentaries only reference Hitchcock movies owned by the Warner library. No mention is made of Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho or The Birds.

It surely would have been useful to cite Hitchcock's famous quote about Psycho: "To me it's a fun picture." And even though Camille Paglia is interviewed – she talks incisively about Hitchcock's affinity for silent-movie storytelling – you'd never know that she once wrote a terrific short book on The Birds.

There's still plenty to savour. William Friedkin says North by Northwest epitomises Hitchcock's view of cinema as life with all the dull parts cut out. Hanson, singling out the film's famed crop-duster scene, talks about how the shots feel inevitable – there can be no other shot.

Out now on DVD from Dh145


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