Published on March 23rd, 2021 | by Kim Kurtenbach0
Duck Confit and Red Herrings – Revisiting Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest
I’m all for new experiences, but I often return to favourite meals, books, movies and albums when I’m trying to assure myself a level of comfort and quality. One such movie, and the topic to today’s piece, is my recent revisit of North By Northwest (1959). There is a lot to debate when it comes to Hitchcock movies, but this one remains my narrow favourite and the inspiration for the long-standing habit I have acquired when it comes to booking reservations. It also turned my eye sharply towards a fine looking suit, a beautiful blonde, appreciation of architecture, the way smoking used to be sexy and why I think train travel is the best mode of transportation when you’re in love with your life.
A dining-out favourite of mine, when I can find it, is duck. Dining-out because I’ve never met anyone who eats duck at home. When my dad was still an avid hunter, he would prepare it in the backyard smoke-shack after a fall trip with his brother and their friends. I don’t recall if it was any good, but it stands out in my memory because I’ve yet to hear anyone ever exclaim; Hey, we’re out of duck again! or Don’t forget to add more duck to the grocery list!
It must have been on my mind the last two or three weeks since I saw a box in the supermarket freezer called (I kid you not) You’ve got to try the Duck! – exclamation point and all. I’ve had incredibly rich and luxuriant portions of duck in my travels, most notably in France. It’s not an easy dish to plate with perfection, so the type of restaurant that would do so usually requires a reservation. And I did just that at a recommended spot in Calgary. A friend called to say they are acquainted with the chef and told him I would be in the restaurant. It was a real connector move by someone in the habit of making introductions, so I quickly and sheepishly explained that the reservation wasn’t under my name. My friend was rightfully puzzled: what name did you use? George Kaplan, I replied dully. I beg your pardon? Who is George Kaplan?
Yes. Who indeed is George Kaplan?
Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a busy man. He is a successful Manhattan advertising executive that you would recognize today as Don Draper with a playful side. He strides briskly through life with purpose and ability. Drinking with clients and associates in a hotel bar, Thornhill signals for a telephone just as there is a call-out for George Kaplan and onlookers conflate the two men. From this point forward Roger Thornhill is, ostensibly, George Kaplan. The problem with this mistaken identity is that Roger Thornhill is not a spy, he’s a smarmy office executive. Conversely, George Kaplan is a highly trained agent, and the company Kaplan associates with are a little too dangerous for Thornhill’s dapper cologne and designer sunglasses. From here we enter what is basically the first James Bond movie. Danger, excitement, suave romance, charmingly sinister villains and skin-crawling henchmen. And, like the Bond movies, there is constant movement, impressive locations, colour-popping scenery, guns, cars and aircraft.
North By Northwest was released just one year after Vertigo (1958), staring Jimmy Stewart, and a year before Psycho (1960) with Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. Clearly, Hitchcock was simply taking a break between two movies with much weightier themes and subtly crafted symbolism. I couldn’t call either Vertigo nor Psycho ‘fun’, but I guess that’s just the way I consider motel murder, mental health issues, or the haunting loss of love. North By Northwest is none of those things. It’s fun without being silly, light without being farcical, and thrilling without gloom or horror. In the 1990s, it would be the perfect vehicle for Harrison Ford. Ford stared in many a movie where he would play the everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The Fugitive (1993) and Frantic (1988) come to mind first, even though Ford, for all his strengths, could never be as smooth and cool as Grant. But I think Leo DiCaprio could do it just fine, and it would take that kind of star power to manifest a picture of this size and scope. After all, Cary Grant was almost Beatles-level famous. An interviewer once commented to Grant that “Everybody would like to be Cary Grant”, to which Grant replied, “So would I!”. Cary Grant the movie star was a heavy and perplexing burden on Cary Grant the man.
But what a man he was on the silver screen! Let’s start with the suit I mentioned earlier. To me, it’s a tie between Thornhill’s suit in NxNW and Bond’s two-button, three piece grey suit from Goldfinger (1964). But in 2006, GQ Magazine voted NxNW “the most stylish film in history” as well as stating that Grant’s suit was “arguably the most legendary in the history of American cinema”. You can see the unmatched influence proven as time has gone on, from men such as Sean Connery, Steve McQueen and, later, Tom Cruise and Ben Affleck. The suit is so magnificent, I doubt there has been a moment since 1959 that it wouldn’t have been perfect to distinguish any man.
Grant has style, but so does the movie’s heroine, Eva Marie Saint. Hitchcock had made his rounds during casting and was leaning towards Grace Kelly who is…*sigh*…I have no words, except to say that when I watch Rear Window (1954) or To Catch a Thief (1955), I can clearly see that she is the most beautiful woman to ever light up a movie screen. But, by 1958, Kelly was the Princess of Monaco, a mother of two, and out of Hollywood. Other suggestions included Kim Novak, Cyd Charisse and Sophia Loren, but Hitchcock went with Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront, 1954). She’s perfect as Eve Kendall. Thornhill lights her cigarette, she blows out the match, and the sexual tension is almost unbearable. It smoulders beneath a thin veneer. She says, “I never make love on an empty stomach” (watch her lips), which was dubbed over in post production so we hear “I never discuss love on an empty stomach”. The change was at the behest of censors and it was like a cup of water on a towering inferno.
They share a berth on the train from New York to Chicago. He drinks a Gibson and wears Oliver Peoples sunglasses. She sips coffee and wears an outfit with accessories from Bergdorf Goodman. The trees along the sun-kissed dusk by the lake flash past the windows of the train. All of the other incredible time-capsule fashion of the passengers are barely capable of diverting the viewer’s eyes from our immaculate stars.
Travelling by train is for people in love with their life. It moves slower than a plane and maybe even a car, but passengers can drink, daydream, see the countryside and enjoy the viewing car, the dining car and, in some cases, the privacy of your own room. Every person aboard is a possible character to interact with. The thump-thump heartbeat of the tracks as you gaze out the window romanticizes the journey in ways other transportation cannot. It also makes pretty boxes all in a row to form a stylish backdrop for cat-and-mouse games.
Along with the endless eye-candy, the dialogue dances with elegance and a charming frivolity, much of it coming from Grant. As Thornhill begins to feel manipulated by Eve, he says: “Tell me – how does a girl like you get to be a girl like you? Ever kill anyone? Because I bet you could tease a man to death without half trying. So stop trying.” At the train station, under suspicion and hunted by police, Thornhill attempts to purchase a ticket, with only his sunglasses to protect his identity. I imagine that in the 1950’s, talking to someone while wearing sunglasses would be similar to wearing a hat in church. When the man at the window asks, “Something wrong with your eyes?” Thornhill retorts: “Yes, they’re sensitive to questions!” And perhaps my favourite line is when Thornhill tries to explain why he’s not willing to continue the spy-game charade he’s fallen into, so accidentally. “I’m an advertising man, not a red herring! I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders dependent upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed.”
This also couldn’t be a true Hitchcock movie without some aspect of challenging the norms and boundaries of the time. In his next movie, Psycho, Hitchcock would successfully lobby against studio and censor restrictions to have the first American movie show a toilet, as it was an integral part of the plot. In NxNW, Hitchcock worked to allow (a very young) Martin Landau play his right-hand henchmen role as a homosexual who was in love with his employer, Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). This was risky business in 1959! But the sheer genius of the risk was the way it complicated the relationship between Vandamm and Eve, who may have just been as much of a beard as a lover. This interpretation by Landau, encouraged by Hitchcock, created a valid and palpable tension between Leonard and Eve which, in turn, created a danger that fuelled Thornhill’s uncharacteristic confrontation with his fear and bravery.
It’s now exactly the time for you to discover or revisit North By Northwest. From the opening title sequence – the first extended use of teletext in a movie – to the final fade, you’ll be hard pressed to find another movie with as much style as this. Yes, in any era. Enjoy your attempts to distinguish the faux sets from actual buildings. The splendiferous recreations are simply hard to believe. Smile when you finally put a pin in the realization that you now know where the famous crop-duster scene originates. Gasp at the 1959 presentation of drunk-driving as hilarious. Remember to reserve your next dining table under the name of George Kaplan and, seriously, you’ve got to try the duck confit.
**North By Northwest is now streaming on Crave TV**