Monday, July 28, 2014

Mistaken Identity Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

"In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only the expedient exaggeration."

Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant)

"Everyone wants to be Cary Grant," Cary Grant once told an interviewer. "Even I want to be Cary Grant."

It always seemed to me that that was especially true of Cary Grant in "North by Northwest." Oh, I know, he had some run–ins with some not–so–nice folks who tried to kill him, but no one was as suave as Cary Grant, even when someone was trying to kill him.

I guess his identity was quite a dilemma for him, on screen or off. Like most of the folks in Hollywood, his screen persona (and name) differed from real life. He was born Archie Leach in England and came to the United States in his teens. He legally changed his name to Cary Grant when he became a naturalized citizen.

(The Cary part came from a character he once portrayed in a play. He chose the surname Grant from a list of options the studio gave him — because the CG combination had already proven successful for stars like Clark Gable and Gary Cooper.)

I suppose he always felt torn between his roots and his professional persona.

Combine Grant with Alfred Hitchcock in a movie about mistaken identity.

Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors, and I have seen most, if not all, of his movies. He is remembered as a master of suspense, and that was certainly an element of his style — he said he preferred suspense to surprise — but there were certain themes he explored more often than others. I suppose one of the most prominent was the one of mistaken identity. Offhand, I can think of at least half a dozen movies Hitchcock made that dealt with mistaken identity.

I'm inclined to think that the one that premiered 55 years ago today, "North by Northwest," was his best.

A pretty good case could be made for "Vertigo," I suppose. The same could be said for "Shadow of a Doubt" and "The Wrong Man."

The case is weaker for some of Hitchcock's other mistaken identity motif efforts of which I am aware.

But stacked up against "North by Northwest," everything else comes up short — in my opinion, anyway.

I have mentioned Hitchcock's famous cameo appearances on this blog before. At first they came well into his movies, but, as audiences became increasingly aware of them, there was a tendency for viewers to focus too much on spotting Hitchcock before they gave their full attention to the plot.

Consequently, Hitchcock began having his cameo appearances earlier and earlier. Late in his career, it was a sign of just how much he wanted his audiences to follow the story; if he was eager for viewers to concentrate on the story — and he usually was — he got his cameo out of the way very early.

Only three of his movies had quicker cameos than "North by Northwest." In fact, the cameo came while the opening credits were still rolling. Hitch didn't want the viewers to miss a thing.

Come to think of it, rolling is probably a pretty good word for "North by Northwest" because it hit the ground running and kept charging along until the end.

I guess that is why Hitch was in a hurry to get down to business. He must have felt he had no time to waste.

As much as I like "North by Northwest," though, I will readily admit that it isn't perfect.

Probably the most famous image from "North by Northwest" was of Grant running from the crop–dusting plane that was intent on killing him.

Frankly, I didn't think that was too sharp of ol' Cary. I mean, the plane was dusting crops where there were no crops. I never did find out exactly what his character was thinking.

After all, enough strange things had already happened. If I found myself standing out in the middle of freakin' nowhere and I saw a crop–dusting plane dusting crops where there were no crops — and I knew that some bad people had been trying to kill me — I do believe I wouldn't keep standing there.

But that's just me. Hitchcock's movies sometimes had a logic all their own.

And then, of course, there was that iconic chase across Mount Rushmore. It was great, nothing else like it on film, but I had to admit that the ending was rather ambiguous.

I mean, just how did Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint manage to get off whichever president's face that was?

I know that movies, both then and now, often require the audience to believe whatever it sees on the screen — but that really was asking a lot of the viewers. They really deserved to know more than Saint was in a perilous predicament and managed to get out of it — somehow.

Isn't that asking a bit much?

Well, I guess you can get away with it if you're Alfred Hitchcock.

Oh, and Grant and Saint must have gotten married in the interim.

This was 1959, after all. Ike was still president. Married couples couldn't even be seen in the same bed together on TV for another decade or so, and here were Grant and Saint about to get it on just as their train went into a tunnel.

You didn't have to be Fellini to figure that one out.

But perhaps I am being too picky.

"North by Northwest" was only nominated for three Oscars in the year of "Ben–Hur" — and lost all three.