When I was a little girl, the only director whose name I knew was Alfred Hitchcock. Though I didn't see any of his signature films of the era in a theater - Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) - I must've seen the trailers, because I was well aware that he made exciting, colorful and glamorous movies.
Psycho (1960) was the first Hitchcock film I watched on in a theater. I saw Psycho (a far cry from his elaborate VistaVision/Technicolor creations of the 1950s) second-run (I was finally old enough) at the local movie house, the Ritz Theater, with a friend who'd already seen it. Pal that she was, she nudged me just as Arbogast, the detective, reached the staircase landing of the Bates home and a figure with a knife darted toward him...naturally, I shrieked long and loud...
I was fortunate enough to see Rear Window when it was re-released into theaters in 1984, but have seen most of Hitchcock's films on television. There's no question that his work comes through powerfully on TV, but his films were made – carefully - to be seen on full-size theater screens.
|The Rafael Theatre, San Rafael, California|
Six weeks later, at noon on Sunday, September 5, the Rafael presented North by Northwest, free to the public, as part of its quarterly "Everybody's Classics" series. At 11:40 a.m. the line was long, but good seats were still to be had. By show time Theater 1 was packed and anticipation ran high.
Then Bernard Herrmann's pulsing score began and the crisscrossing lines of Saul Bass's title sequence filled the screen. North by Northwest was upon us and in just a few exhilarating moments I was whisked into the adventure.
|Cary Grant - the adventure begins|
North by Northwest has been linked to two of Hitchcock's earlier classics, The 39 Steps (1935) and Notorious (1946), but by 1959 the director, at the height of his powers, was in a position to control just about every aspect of his films, much more so than he had been 10 and 20+ years earlier.
He was able to cast his favorite actor/star, Cary Grant, in the lead. And though he was unsuccessful in enticing Princess Grace back to the screen as his leading lady, he transformed Academy Award-winning method actress Eva Marie Saint into a stunning and complex femme fatale. James Mason, Martin Landau, Leo G. Carroll and Jessie Royce Landis rounded out his first-rate cast.
|Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, hands on|
All of these ingredients plus glorious VistaVision and Technicolor added up to produce one of Hitchcock's most successful and exciting films.
I'd seen North by Northwest countless times and felt I knew the film well, but to finally see it on a movie screen was akin to seeing it for the first time.
To begin with, Cary Grant's starpower was almost overpowering - his screen presence was that commanding. What grace, what confidence…and how impossibly handsome he was. It's not surprising that Bernard Herrmann adjusted his score to match what he described as Grant's "Astaire-like agility."
As might be expected, the suspense seemed magnified on a theater screen, and so did everything else - the humor was more direct and the seduction scenes more intense in their intimacy and erotic implications. The film’s pacing is acutely precise – with suspense building to an exquisite pitch, then, at just the right moment, relief - via wit or romance. Then, once more, the suspense begins to build…
|Climax of a classic chase scene|
Afterward, I couldn't help wishing I'd been able to see North by Northwest back in 1959 at the Ritz. The kid I was then would've come out of that theater exhausted and elated, convinced she'd just been on the greatest rollercoaster ride of her life.
|Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau|
As with all Hitchcock films, North by Northwest has a few things going on beneath its slick surface. But last Labor Day weekend, inside a darkened theater filled with laughing, sighing, cheering people, I was a child again for a while. Happily immersed in a suspenseful, clever, sexy adventure, I didn't really notice that, from the first note of Herrmann's score to the final shot of a darkened railroad tunnel, I was being swept along as if aboard a sleek 20th Century Limited under the command of a very crafty locomotive engineer.