Hitchcock-a-thon: North by Northwest (1959)

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It took nearly 30 years of waiting, but America finally had its answer to The 39 Steps. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman set out to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures”. He sure as hell delivered the goods.

Advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant in his last Hitchcock film) is unsuspectingly kidnapped by a couple of goons after they mistake him for a man called “George Kaplan.” After escaping an attempt on his life, Roger finds himself also wanted by the police after a UN diplomat dies in his arms. On the run from the cops and from his would-be assassins, Roger heads across the country in search of answers with the help of his seductive acquaintance Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint).

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North by Northwest might well be the most splendidly uninhibited of Hitchcock’s films. No plot point is too ludicrous, no set piece too big, no innuendo too corny. From the scuffle on top of Mount Rushmore to the much-parodied crop duster chase scene, it’s big and bold fun throughout.

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The banter between Roger and Eve was some Hitchcock’s more risqué yet and he struggled to squeeze a lot of it past the Hayes Code. Yet somehow the censors missed the absurdly phallic final shot that Hitchcock himself called “one of the most impudent shots I ever made.”

Grant’s at his most bumbling in this light-weight lead role, but he’s still immensely watchable as an everyman protagonist. Saint (who’s still acting today aged 89) makes a deceptively cool femme fatale and James Mason has suave menace as the villainous Vandamm. But for my money, the true stand-out is Vandamm’s right hand man Leonard (Martin Landau) whose face displays the kind of villainy straight out of a comic book.

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How does it compare to Hitchcock’s early adventure hits such as The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes? It depends what you’re in the mood for. In terms of large, blockbuster spectacle North by Northwest is unrivalled in the Hitchcock canon. Personally, I prefer the dry humour of The Lady Vanishes to the innuendo-crammed silliness we find here. But it’s not this is an either/or scenario. Why not watch both of them? And 39 Steps too. They’re all great.

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Hitchcock-a-thon: Young and Innocent (1937)

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With Young and Innocent Hitchcock tried to make his 39 Steps lightning strike twice. Once again we have a falsely accused man on the run from the police, trying to track down the real culprit who, once again, has an immediately identifiable physical peculiarity.  Once again a spirited young woman gets caught up in his plight. And, once again, he gives us a cracker of a picture.

No espionage this time, though. Instead, struggling author Robert (Derrick De Marney) comes across the corpse of a lady washed up on the beach. He runs to get help, which is misinterpreted by some other onlookers as running away from the scene of the crime. Under questioning by the police it emerges that she was strangled to death by the belt of Robert’s raincoat. Our hero insists his raincoat went missing weeks before the murder. Do the cops believe him? Fat chance in a Hitchcock flick! What else is a guy to do but make his escape and try to solve the mystery himself?

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“Look! Our competence is getting away!”

The film’s success comes from the chemistry between Robert and the daughter of the police chief, Erica (Nova Pilbeam) who ends up helping him on the run. Unlike The 39 Steps, she’s not handcuffed to him for half the film, so early in proceedings she helps him not because she has to but because she wants to. The subtly erotic dialogue between them, aided by superb performances both leads, makes the relationship between the two feel refreshingly natural as well as exciting.

There’s also plenty of thrills along the way, the most famous of which is a long and swooping tracking shot which finally reveals the film’s villain.

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As well as some merry old japes, of course

Nowadays it’s overlooked more than The 39 Steps, probably because it’s more more low-key. There’s no international spy ring, the protagonist isn’t constantly betrayed and in place of dramatic Scottish highlands we have tranquil English countryside. Even the title sounds a bit placid.

But don’t let that put you off. Young and Innocent is a ton of fun. It’s an excellent mixture of humour and suspense grounded in two profoundly likeable protagonists. Little wonder Hitchcock thought it was the best of his British films. But what do I think is the best? Tune in next time.

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Although this one has funnier hats

The King of Monsters – A farewell tribute to Ray Harryhausen

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Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013)

Hollywood’s greatest Special Effects wizard, Ray Harryhausen, passed away yesterday aged 92. There’s very little to be said in praise of The King of Monsters that hasn’t been said before, but I want to take the time to say why I believe his monsters were some of the best in cinematic history.

Born in Los Angeles in 1920, Harryhausen became obsessed with stop-motion animation after seeing King Kong in the cinema the age of 13. In his words it “changed his life”. He named his first dog Kong and set about fanatically studying the special effects technology used by Willis O’Brien to bring great gorilla and the dinosaurs to life.

His first major Hollywood project was as an animator on Mighty Joe Young (1949) where he got to work alongside his hero, O’Brien. But his break-through hit came with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) where he designed and animated a ferocious prehistoric reptile.

From there he worked on many fantasy films such as One Million Years B.C. (1966), Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981), just to name a few. A wonderful chronological montage of every Harryhausen monster can be seen here:

It was his personal dedication to his monsters that made them the best. He worked alone on all his sequences – making each monster a personal achievement.

It would perhaps be better to call him the Father of Monsters, rather than King. Like any good creator, he had a love and affection for his creations, even if they were brutish fiends. He preferred to see his “monsters” as “victims of circumstance” rather than flat-out evil.

His fondness for his creatures is best encapsulated when he was asked which one was his favourite: “It would be Medusa,” he replied, “but don’t tell the others.”

In tribute to the man and to his pantheon of monsters I’d like to list off my top 5 personal favourites.

5) Rhedosaurus (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms)

Harryhausen’s first major monster is also one of his best. From the way the Rhedosaurus paws the wreckage of a car to the bit where he snaps up a wiggling policeman, he’s always a joy to watch. Much like Kong, you’re firmly on the Rhedosaurus’s side as he smashes up the city.

4) Talos (Jason and the Argonauts)

The Awakening of Talos has to be the most famous shot in all of Harryhausen’s work. As the bronze statue’s slowly creaks into life it’s truly awesome to witness.

True to Harryhausen’s tradition of giving his monster a degree of pathos, it’s hard to not feel a tang of sympathy for Talos when he meets his demise: clutching his throat as the ichor drains out of him.

3) Medusa (Clash of the Titans)

She’s Harryhausen’s favourite for a good reason. From the moment she slithers round the corner in the dim, red lighting you know she means business. If you saw her glowing green eyes as a kid it was piss-your-pants scary.

Clash of the Titans was Harryhausen’s last film and by the end of his career it’s safe to say he’d fully mastered stop-motion animation. From the tip of her rattling tail to the top of her seething head, she moves with an eerie fluidity that sets her apart from the more jerky movements of his earlier monsters.

2) Cyclops (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad)

We’re treated to several different Cyclopses through this adventure flick. All of them show an angry humanity to them which makes them scary as well as endearing. One of my favourite moments is when the first Cyclops gets a spear embedded in him. He pulls it out at looks at with a “Dude, what the Hell?” look upon his face before going ape.

Other Cyclopses uproot trees to use as clubs, lick their lips as they roast sailors on spits and have a climatic final battle with the fearsome dragon, Taro. Although I always wondered why Taro didn’t just torch the Cyclops with his fire breath, it still makes for thrilling monster brawl.

1) Skeleton Army (Jason and the Argonauts)

Nothing else on this list ever really had a chance at the number one spot. The Skeleton Army is indisputably Harryhausen’s greatest achievement. Born from the Hydra’s teeth, they’re called upon by King Aeëtes to kill Jason for stealing the Golden Fleece. And They. Are. Awesome.

The fight itself is jaw-dropping in its speed and detail, but it’s build up that makes them so memorable. They slowly burst out of the ground and stand motionless until the order of attack is given. As they start marching in slow union, getting gradually faster and faster, you’re pumped as hell for the fight when it finally breaks out. Arguably the greatest monster fight of all time.