north by northwest

Old movie night again at the Stanford Theater! This time it was North by Northwest, one of the best. I have a hard time picking a favorite Hitchcock film but this one’s in the running for sure.

It also contains the scariest scene from any Hitchcock film: Cary Grant in a towel! Okay, the man was 55, so the skinny arms, droopy pecs, curved spine, and overall tawny man-glow just came with the territory, but yikes. And then that cleft chin on top — it looks like some tabloid Photoshop job. I’ll never understand how that was considered irresistible.

rebecca & suspicion

It’s funny. You grow up pre-internet in the suburbs and in small towns where a trip to the library or the mall is your only chance to make contact with a larger culture. You go to college in a modest city with not one but three or four art museums, a couple of arthouse theaters, and collective grocery stores. Eventually you move to a suburb of San Francisco, and you figure, well, this must be the place. This is the apex of culture. You find yourself on the Stanford Theater’s mailing list and you find out they’re doing a Hitchcock festival. You take your girlfriend to a double feature.

You find out that here at the apex of culture they think Rebecca is a comedy.

At first it seemed like the usual pretentious noisemaking you get in any arthouse theater — those stupid little grunts and “hmm”s and chuckles people make to let you know they’re in tune with what’s happening in the movie, that they’re a smart perceptive audience and this stuff is not going over their heads. And there are some fairly funny lines in those first few scenes, when Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine are going through the motions of falling in love. And maybe if you don’t already know the film, you don’t yet realize what it means that Olivier treats her like a doll or a puppy (it’s not just because he’s kind of a stiff), so those moments don’t seem quite as sinister to you. And it was made in 1940, so it probably seems a little melodramatic to modern audiences; soundtracks are just as intrusive today, but back then the sort of flourishes marking the dramatic moments weren’t yet clichés.

But come on. There’s a scene when the truth about Rebecca and Maxim is finally coming out, and Joan Fontaine’s never-named character is asking Maxim desperately, “But we’re happy, aren’t we? Terribly happy?” and Maxim turns away from her, sick at heart. Maybe if you walked into the movie at exactly this moment with no idea of the emotional context of this line, you might find his expression funny. But I don’t see how you could have been watching the whole movie and still roar with laughter at this point, as this cultured Palo Alto audience did. Did the whole thing just seem totally camp to them, so over-the-top? I can’t figure out how you could actually enjoy watching the movie if you’re so unsympathetic to both Fontaine and Olivier that you find their anguish funny.

Luckily the movie deserved its Oscar, and even the audience-supplied laugh track couldn’t totally ruin the treat of seeing it on the big screen with someone you love. Like de Winter’s palace itself, the movie’s larger than life, and just as sublime to get lost in. People talk about how it’s not “pure Hitchcock” because of producer Selznick’s influence, but what difference does it make? It’s a perfect marriage of their styles.

I thought at the time that Fontaine was playing young surprisingly well, but thanks to IMDB I found out that she really was 23 at the time. That helps explain why I kept seeing flashes of Scarlett Johansson when I was watching her; something in the eyebrows, the hair, the chin. Fontaine was the better actress, obviously, but if they ever did a remake (it sounds like sacrilege, but part of me thinks it’d be pretty fun) I don’t think Johansson would be an awful casting choice.

There’s not nearly as much Johansson about Fontaine in Suspicion, where she plays a much more sophisticated and high-born young woman who is still infuriatingly naïve. I had a hard time swallowing her instantaneous crush on Cary Grant, who is from the beginning a cartoonish rake, well beyond charmingly naughty and almost into rapist territory. They get back from the honeymoon and she instantly discovers he’s not only broke but deep in debt from gambling, and the film almost lost me right then when she didn’t drop him like a hot potato. I can easily explain it to myself, but I had a hard time empathizing with her. Anyway, what follows is perhaps much more Hitchcockian than Selznickian, an unrelenting sequence of is-he-or-isn’t-he (…a murderer, that is) that keeps us guessing right up to the end and then beyond it. Hitchcock wanted it to end more violently and unambiguously, but I can’t figure out how his preferred ending would have worked; the filmed ending just feels right, and the very last shot is perfect. It’s not a movie I’d eagerly watch again, but I’m glad I saw it once.