"North by Northwest"

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman talks about his plan to write "the ultimate Hitchcock movie."



Bill Wyman
September 25, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

"North by Northwest"
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason
Warner Home Video; widescreen (1.85:1)
Extras: Writer commentary, making-of documentary, two amusing trailers, more

In 1958, writer Ernest Lehman told Alfred Hitchcock that he wanted to write his next film -- "I want to make the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures. Something that has wit, sophistication, glamour, action and lots of changes of locale." And that was the beginning of "North By Northwest," Lehman says, on the commentary that accompanies the long-awaited DVD release of what may be indeed the ultimate Hitchcock movie.

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The DVD reminds one again how unfulfilling it is to see inherently cinematic movies like this in the boxy, panned-and-scanned versions most VHS tapes contain: The proper VistaVision version offered here captures the horizontal sweep of the film, as Cary Grant, a somewhat decadent but otherwise innocent New York ad executive, is abruptly whisked out of the bar of the Plaza Hotel and propelled across the country on the tale of someone -- a phantom? himself? -- in a giddy whirlwind of intrigue. In classic Hitchcock fashion, we never find out what the secret microfilm is, or even where it's going; instead we just watch Grant, after a cartoony but serviceable set of motivations, fleeing New York on a Chicago-bound train. On board, he bumps into Eva Marie Saint, and -- well, if you don't know what happens next, you have an absurdly enjoyable two hours and 15 minutes ahead of you.

The superb extras are led by a making-of documentary, "Destination Hitchcock," by Peter Fitzgerald, who does a meticulous job of walking us through scene by scene, efficiently parsing the movie's dizzying filmic moments. In Chicago, for example, Grant gets off the train disguised as a red-capped porter; the police discover the ruse minutes later. The next scene is a wide shot of the bustling train station. Police fan out to grab porters, and in an instant we see dozens of red hats bobbing amid the crowd like buoys in the ocean. In his commentary, writer Lehman, acclaimed at the time for his uncompromising work on "The Sweet Smell of Success," is a fine guide to pleasures like these, as in his nice examination of the scene in which the ominous James Mason pulls down the shades in a living room and then goes around it turning on lamps -- essentially serving as an on-camera lighting grip for Hitchcock.

Lehman, a wry Hollywood raconteur, notes closely what the director did with his script. "I was writing for a star, and the star is named Hitchcock," he says. In one scene, Martin Landau tries to convince Mason that Saint is a plant. "Call it my woman's intuition," Landau says; in those crueler days, the line added just a whiff of homosexual jealousy to Landau's murderous (and, incidentally, accurate) sixth sense of betrayal. "I never did find out how that crept in," Lehman says dryly. He says something similar at the end, as a kiss jump-cuts into a shot of a train coursing into a tunnel. "I didn't write the tunnel," he says. "I never discussed it with Hitch." He's pointing out the touches that turned a plan for the ultimate Hitchcock movie into the reality.

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Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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