Monday, April 26, 2010

North by Northwest: TCM Classic Film Festival

I really do love living in LA sometimes.  This past weekend, as part of TCM's first Classic Film Festival, I got the pleasure of watching my favorite Hitchcock film "North by Northwest" up on the big screen in none other than Grauman's Chinese Theater.  And not only was that great - thinking of all those other films that have appeared there in the past and the stars who might have sat in the very seat I was sitting in before me - the screening was hosted by Mr. TCM himself, Robert Osborne, with special guests Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau.  As they came out to talk before the film, all three were cheered like rock stars by the hundreds of loving movie fanatics in the audience, me included.

"North by Northwest" (1959) is considered by many to be one of Hitchcock's finest.  The ever-brilliant and charming Cary Grant stars as Roger O. Thornhill, a New York advertising man who is accidently mistaken for a non-existent government spy by bad guy James Mason, sidekick Landau, and the rest of his crew.  Kidnapped, almost killed, and then chased over the US from New York to South Dakota, Grant tries to find out the truth while falling in love with the girl caught in the middle of it all (Saint).  It's a chase filled with some of the most iconic, suspenseful images in movie history, including the crop-duster scene in the middle of nowhere and the climatic perilous chase across the faces of Mt. Rushmore.

Originally titled "In a Northwesterly Direction" by screenwriter Ernest Lehman (who received an Oscar nomination for this), it was later changed to the non-existent compass direction "North by Northwest" when the title was suggested by MGM's head of their story department.  Hitchcock and Lehman planned on changing it again when they came up with a better one, but, alas, that title never came to them.  (Another failed title idea: "The Man in Lincoln's Nose.")

Cary Grant was always Hitchcock's first choice to play the lead role.  However, some have said Jimmy Stewart was his first pick.  That story's actually false.  After working with Stewart in "Vertigo," Hitchcock felt Stewart just looked too old on screen, unlike Grant.  So, his first choice and favorite leading actor got the role.  (By the way, Grant was four years older than Stewart.)

It was such a fun treat to listen to Saint and Landau talk about their experience making this film.  Saint talked about how she got part of Eve Kendall after having a lunch with Hitchcock.  She had been invited to lunch through her agent at the time.  When her mother heard about it, she told Saint to be sure to wear a beige outfit and white gloves, because her mother had heard somewhere that he really liked women who dressed that way.  So, easily enough for her (she "lived in beige" then), she put that outfit together, went to lunch, and got the part.  Working with Hitchcock was a nice experience for Saint, because he was the kind of director who really let the actors interpret their roles themselves.  Hitchcock only gave her three things to remember - "lower your voice, don't use your hands, and always look Grant directly in the eyes."

Saint, of course, had already established herself in Hollywood before "North by Northwest" thanks to her Oscar-winning performance in "On the Waterfront."  Landau on the other hand was still trying to make a name for himself at the time.  He was performing in a stage production of Paddy Chayefsky's "Middle of the Night" with Edward G. Robinson, when one night, Hitchcock came to see the show.  (In a funny coincidence, Saint pointed out that she did a production of "Middle of the Night" with Robinson as well, for "The Philco Television Playhouse" in 1954.)  After seeing his performance, Hitchcock invited Landau to the studio for a meeting.  He walked Landau around all the production offices, showing him the entire storyboard, and then finally turned to him and said "You're playing Leonard."  And thanks to the freedom Hitchcock gave his actors, Landau made a bold choice about his character that made his performance simply classic.  Because of the way he interpreted one of his lines, "call it my woman's intuition," Landau decided to play his character as gay.  It's a subtle performance that was the start of a great career.

This screening was truly an experience I'll never forget.  The bigger-than-life stars, the loving fans, the atmosphere.  It reminds me why I love movies so much.  If you ever have a chance to see your idols ten stories tall and in person, do it!  It's why movies were made, to magically sweep you away into another world.  Til Friday, everyone.  Have a wonderful week!

(Post-tidbit:  Hitchcock wasn't able to get permission from the UN to shoot at their buildings in New York City, so in one of the first versions of guerrilla film-making, Hitchcock hid a camera in a van across the street so he could shoot Grant and his pursuer getting out of their respective taxis to enter the UN.)


  1. Neat! Those are awesome pics. You were sitting right up front! Did they sign autographs afterwards?

  2. Unfortunately, no, they didn't stick around for autographs after the film. And, sadly those aren't my pictures. Mine didn't turn out as well so I found these online. :(