Viewer Guide: North by Northwest and Lovely, Still with Richard Peña

July 6, 2018 | Chris Mather

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.

REEL 13 CLASSIC | NORTH BY NORTHWEST

North by Northwest

This week’s classic is North by Northwest, the iconic 1959 comic thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Released between the haunting Vertigo and the revolutionary Psycho, North by Northwest was far more than an excellently crafted diversion between two indisputable masterpieces. Working with screenwriter Ernest Lehman, the film’s premise allowed Hitchcock to re-visit a number of his favorite themes, from the “wrong man” conceit to the treachery of everyday places.

In a role as tailor-made for him as his sleek grey suit, Cary Grant stars as Roger O. Thornhill—the “O” stands for “nothing”—a Madison Avenue advertising executive hurtling through another busy day. But life for this harried “Madman” suddenly takes a U-turn when he is quietly abducted by a pair of strongmen who mistake him for someone named George Kaplan. Deposited before the crafty Phillip Vandamm and his sinister sidekick Leonard, brilliantly played by James Mason and Martin Landau, Thornhill finds that no matter how hard he tries, he simply can’t prove that he’s really not Kaplan. Before you know it, Thornhill winds up on the front page of every newspaper with a bloody knife in his hand and a dead body at his feet. Framed for a crime he did not commit, he goes on the run with his life at stake.

Luckily for Thornhill, he finds tender loving assistance from the alluring Eve Kendall, played with quintessentially Hitchcockian blonde finesse by Eva Marie Saint. With Eve’s suspiciously generous help, Roger embarks on a “North by Northwest” trajectory to find the real George Kaplan and extricate himself from what seems increasingly like a surreal waking nightmare.

With “identity theft” becoming an increasingly frequent reality in our digitized societies, North by Northwest continues to resonate in unexpected ways—what do you do when you can’t prove who you are? Introduced to each other by film score composer Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman first began working on adapting the novel The Wreck of the Mary Deare for MGM. The duo enjoyed working together but quickly tired of Mary Deare.

After weeks of discussing anything but the movie they were supposed to be working on, the pair returned to a story that Hitchcock had optioned several years earlier, one that bore more than a passing resemblance to The 39 Steps. Together, they began to devise their intricate, at times tongue in cheek tale of mistaken identity, evolving the plot from pre-War espionage to cold war skullduggery, and in keeping with relaxing social mores adding in as much unapologetic non-marital sex as the censors would allow. After the box-office disappointment of Vertigo, everyone felt Hollywood’s “master of entertainment” was back on track. There are multiple wonderful scenes—the disrupted art auction, climbing Mount Rushmore—but North by Northwest will be remembered forever for the marvelous and marvelously creepy crop duster sequence, which allowed Hitchcock to create a terrifying scene of suspense in open spaces and broad daylight.

Although the final script was ultimately written with Cary Grant in mind, Jimmy Stewart, Hitchcock’s other go-to leading man, badly wanted the role of Roger Thornhill, but Hitch felt Stewart wouldn’t be right. Reluctant to disappoint one of his longtime stars, Hitch dragged his feet on starting production until Stewart was contractually forced to begin shooting Bell, Book and Candle instead.

For his leading lady, Cary Grant wanted Sophia Loren, with whom he had become enamored with while shooting The Pride and the Passion. MGM wanted Cyd Charisse, but Hitchcock surprised everyone with his against-type casting of Eva Marie Saint, whose most important role up to that point had been in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. Interestingly, the film’s immediate critical and box office success did not translate into much Oscar love with only three nominations, but no wins for screenplay, art direction, and editing. Regardless, over the years the film’s reputation has steadily increased to secure its place as one of Hitchcock’s greatest career triumphs.

REEL 13 CLASSIC | LOVELY, STILL

Lovely, Still

This week’s indie is Lovely, Still, a 2008 romantic drama directed by Nik Fackler.

Martin Landau stars as Robert Malone, a solitary senior rattling around in his Midwestern suburban house and counting down the days to Christmas. Although there’s a small Christmas tree in his living room, there’s only one present to Robert underneath it, and it’s from Robert to himself. Robert doesn’t seem unduly depressed by his loneliness, although you get the feeling it’s a way of life he’s also grown accustomed to, keeping himself occupied with a job packing bags and stocking the shelves at a local grocery store.

One day Robert is intrigued to notice a moving van across the street. And coming home from work later that day, he is startled to find his front door wide open with an attractive older woman named Mary standing in his living room. Played by the ageless Ellen Burstyn, Mary explains she’s moved in with her daughter. She had stopped in to check on Robert when she noticed his car had crashed into his garage door. Explaining the circumstances behind his fender-bender, Robert finds himself warming to Mary’s kindness and relaxing his guard, and is astonished further still when Mary invites him out for a dinner date. Suddenly, Robert’s holiday season becomes a lot jollier. So maybe after so long on his own, it might really be a Merry Christmas after all. But is this world we’re experiencing alongside Robert actually the world as it is, or might we be actually watching something else?

The wonderful performances by Landau and Burstyn, two great veterans of our cinema, are beautifully complemented by the work of Elizabeth Banks as Mary’s watchful daughter Alex, and Adam Scott as Robert’s self-important boss Mike.

Utilizing a selective point of view technique similar to suspense thrillers like The Sixth Sense and The Others, Lovely, Still employs its subjective narrative structure in the service of an everyday human drama that is a heartbreaking fact of life for countless families around the world. It’s an intriguing choice that effectively turns the tables on a familiar situation. Instead of objectively watching Robert’s decline from Mary’s perspective, we’re inside Robert’s head for most of the film, joining him on his emotional rollercoaster. Anyone who has watched a parent, grandparent or friend gradually slip away into a consciousness all their own will appreciate Martin Landau’s depiction of the terror such a person feels when they realize they can no longer truly distinguish what’s real and what’s not. Yet ultimately, Lovely, Still concludes on a note of acceptance, offering a wise illustration of the importance of living life in the moment.

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