North by Northwest (1959)
D. Alfred Hitchcock
For a Few Dollars More (1965)
D. Sergio Leone
I’ve seen these many times, but never in tandem. I snuck out to the multiplex to catch a screening of North by Northwest last night and for some reason woke up this morning in a Sergio Leone mood.
They do kind of speak to each other.
One thing Hitchcock and Leone had in common was a belief in “the language of film.” The term might have been developed by critics, but plenty of filmmakers believed in it first–who needs a story when you have great scenes!
Certainly not these two.
Hitchcock wasn’t entirely adverse to story. Only when it got in the way of his Visual Imagination. And as his career ripened, it got in the way more and more. By the time he made North by Northwest–a straightforward commercial pictured designed to make up for his failure to rope in audiences with the Art of The Wrong Man and, especially, Vertigo–he had no more use for continuity than he had for brunettes. Hence, the most famous scene in the movie, with Cary Grant being chased by a crop duster, isn’t even internally cohesive. There’s no reason for a plane to fly into the side of a semi-truck, even if there’s a reason for bunch of killers to use a plane to chase down a solitary, unarmed man they’ve drawn into the middle of nowhere when pulling up in a car and popping him with a couple of well-placed bullets would be much more effective….just not as Cinematic.
Of course, all of that pales next to the movie’s real message, which is an early assurance from the Security State: Trust Us.
Oh, we may get a few details wrong now and again but you must admit we are well intentioned and, what with not being able to keep you properly informed about all those things that wold only worry you and make our job of protecting you even more difficult, you must admit it isn’t easy to keep you from putting yourself in harm’s way every now and then, perfect innocent that you are.
Nobody says those words exactly, of course. But, seen from this distance, the paternalism not only can’t be missed, it lend the whole enterprise a whiff of badly needed sulfur. If only Hitch’s famous paranoia had extended to the Real Enemy–or if Cary Grant had been able to develop a more than professional interest in a lightweight like Eva Marie Saint, the way he was with Audrey Hepburn a few years later in the crackerjack Hitch imitation Charade (the first of many that have proven more durable than all but his half-dozen best)–I might have kept from nodding off a time or two.
I fell asleep twice during A Few Dollars More, but that was just because I was tired. The one night stand between Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef is way more compelling than the romance in North by Northwest. Comes to that, it’s the only thing holding the picture together. Where will whichever one isn’t on screen at present show up next?
In between it’s standard Leone. Great scenes held together by location, location, location and a fierce, principled commitment to sadism. Taken in the abstract, I love every stylized moment. Watching Leone’s films, one never need worry about nonsense, because his dreamscapes are honestly presented as such.
But as I get older, I can’t escape the feeling that I’m participating in an act of destruction.
See, you start by not caring whether the movie you’re watching makes any sense, as long as you get a thrill from either giving in to it or resisting it.
You end by…
Well, you see the news.
You know how it ends.