Saturday, September 25, 2010

East by Eastern: Intentionally Creating a Nuisance so that a Police Inquiry will lead to a Wider Inquiry

North by Northwest is a 1959 American suspense film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason, and featuring Leo G. Carroll and Martin Landau.

North by Northwest is a tale of mistaken identity, with an innocent man pursued across the United States by agents of a mysterious organization who want to stop his interference in their plans to smuggle out microfilm containing government secrets (a classic MacGuffin).

A Madison Avenue advertising executive, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), is mistaken for a Mr. George Kaplan when he summons a hotel attendant who is paging Kaplan, and he is kidnapped by Valerian (Adam Williams) and Licht (Robert Ellenstein). He is taken to the house of Lester Townsend on Long Island. There he is interrogated by a man he assumes to be Townsend, but who is really Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Thornhill repeatedly denies he is Kaplan, but Vandamm refuses to believe his men picked up the wrong man. He orders his right-hand man Leonard (Martin Landau) to get rid of him.

Thornhill is forced to drink bourbon in an attempt to stage a fatal driving accident. However, he pushes one thug out of the car and drives off. After a perilous drive, he is arrested for drunk driving. He is unable to get the police, the judge, or even his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) to believe what happened to him, especially when a woman at Townsend's residence says he got drunk at her dinner party; she also mentions that Townsend is a United Nations diplomat.

Thornhill and his mother go to Kaplan's hotel room at the Plaza Hotel, but cannot find anyone there who has seen him. While in the room, Thornhill answers the phone; it is one of Vandamm's henchmen. Narrowly avoiding recapture, Thornhill takes a taxi to the General Assembly building of the United Nations, where Townsend is due to deliver a speech. Thornhill meets Townsend face to face and is surprised to find that the diplomat is not the man who interrogated him. Valerian throws a knife, striking Townsend in the back. He falls forward, dead, into Thornhill's arms. Without thinking, Thornhill removes the knife, making it appear to witnesses that he is the killer. He flees.

Thornhill (Grant) on the run, attempting to travel incognito.Knowing that Kaplan has a reservation at Chicago's Ambassador East Hotel the next day, Thornhill sneaks onto the 20th Century Limited train. On board, he meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who hides Thornhill from policemen searching the train. She asks about his personalized matchbooks with the initials ROT; he says the O stands for nothing. Unbeknownst to Thornhill, Eve is working with Vandamm and Leonard, who are in another compartment. Upon arriving in Chicago, Thornhill borrows a porter's uniform and carries Eve's luggage through the crowd, eluding police. Eve (who is Vandamm's lover) lies to Thornhill, telling him she has arranged a meeting with Kaplan. She gives him directions to the place.

In an iconic sequence, Thornhill travels by bus to an isolated crossroads, with flat countryside all around and nobody in sight. A man finally arrives, but then takes the next bus. Before he leaves, the puzzled stranger observes that a biplane is "dusting crops where there ain't no crops." The plane soon flies towards Thornhill, and the pilot starts shooting at him. He flees to the cover of a cornfield, but the plane dusts it with pesticide, forcing him out. Desperate, Thornhill steps in front of a speeding gasoline tank truck, which stops barely in time. The plane crashes into it and explodes. When passing drivers stop to see what is going on, Thornhill drives away in a stolen pickup truck.

Thornhill returns to the hotel, where he is surprised to learn that Kaplan had already checked out when Eve claimed to have spoken to him. A suspicious Thornhill goes to Eve's room to question her. She lets him get cleaned up as she leaves. From the impression of a message written on a notepad, Thornhill learns her destination: an art auction. There, he finds Vandamm, Leonard, and Eve. Vandamm purchases a pre-Columbian Tarascan statue and departs. Thornhill tries to follow, only to find all exits covered by Vandamm's men. He begins placing nonsensical bids, making such a nuisance of himself that the police have to be called to remove him. 

Thornhill identifies himself as a wanted fugitive, but en route to the police station, the officers are ordered to take him instead to the airport (where a gate for Northwest Airlines is seen, playing on the film's title). There, he meets the Professor (Leo G. Carroll), an American spymaster who is after Vandamm. The Professor reveals that George Kaplan does not exist; he was invented to distract Vandamm from the real government agent—Eve, whose life is now in danger. To protect her, Thornhill agrees to help the Professor.

They fly to Rapid City, South Dakota, where Thornhill (now pretending to be Kaplan) meets Eve and Vandamm in a crowded cafeteria at the base of Mount Rushmore. He offers to let Vandamm leave the country in exchange for Eve, but is turned down. When he tries to keep her from leaving, Eve shoots Thornhill and flees. He is taken away in an ambulance. At a secluded spot, however, he emerges unharmed, having been shot with blanks. To his dismay, he learns that, having proven her loyalty, she will accompany Vandamm. To keep him from interfering further, Thornhill is locked in a hospital room.

He manages to escape. He goes to Vandamm's mountainside home and slips inside undetected. He learns that some microfilm has been hidden inside the Tarascan statue. While Eve is out of the room, Leonard fires the gun she used at Vandamm, demonstrating how the shooting was faked. Vandamm decides to throw Eve out of the airplane once they are airborne. Thornhill manages to warn her by writing a note inside one of his distinctive matchbooks and dropping it where she can find it.

On the way to the airplane, Eve grabs the statue and joins Thornhill. Leonard and Valerian chase them across the Mount Rushmore monument. Valerian lunges at the pair, but falls to his death. Eve slips and clings desperately to the steep mountainside. Thornhill grabs her hand, while precariously holding on with his other hand. Leonard appears and treads on his hand. They are saved when the Professor has a police marksman shoot Leonard. Vandamm is taken into custody.

The scene transitions from Thornhill pulling Eve to safety on Mount Rushmore to him pulling her (the new Mrs. Thornhill) up onto an overhead train bunk. The final shot shows their train speeding into a tunnel.


Gary Freedman said...

Yes, I played "The Two Gentlemen from Verona." Was that so wrong?

Gary Freedman said...

The phrase "north by northwest" also alludes to Shakespeare's Hamlet.

If it weren’t for Hamlet’s insanity, the King (Claudius), would have obviously known that something was up with his nephew, and surely have him killed. If Hamlet didn’t act so he made his uncle believe that he was insane, then the King would have seen it in Hamlet’s eyes that he knew the truth. Think about it... in today's society, if someone thinks you’re crazy, you can say anything and get away with it. For example, someone can notion the slightest bit of sexual harassment, and get in a lot of trouble. Whereas someone who seems obviously insane, can say a hundred things that suggest sexual harassment and get away with it. Look at all the trials today! Murderers are constantly pleading in court to experiencing temporary insanity, and getting away with it! If you are believed to be insane, you can get away with anything. That is what was on Hamlet’s mind. It was truly an ingenious plan.

“...[I am only] mad north-by-northwest.” Anyone that would hear that, would instantly say, he’s a nut. However, there is logic to this quote. North being straight ahead, or up, meaning normal. Saying that it is “north-by-northwest,” means that he is only insane slightly off to the side. Hamlet seemed to be somewhere along the line of southwest, meaning really crazy, (south being the opposite direction of north, hence the opposite direction of normal). Since he states this, he can’t be truly insane. Also the way that he went from character to character exploiting his insanity, being very careful going to this person first, and acting this way with this, all to make everyone think he was insane, including the most important character, Claudius. Once Claudius thought he was insane, he was safe, and then he could carry out the rest of his plan.

Gary Freedman said...

As I like to say: never appear too sane or too crazy.