Spin City – North By Northwest – tape 2368

the tape starts with the end of an episode of Dressing for Breakfast, the little-remembered Channel 4 sitcom.

Then there’s an episode of Spin City. Michael is excited to be named the sexiest man in New York.

This is followed by an episode of Roseanne, rather a pivotal one, because it’s the one where they win the lottery

After this, recording switches, and we’re treated to Alfred Hitchcock introducing his film North By Northwest. It’s the original trailer where Hitch present the movie as a holiday.

Then, the movie itself, one of Hitchcock’s best. Cary Grant plays an advertising executive who is kidnapped by Martin Landau and James Mason, who think he’s someone called George Kaplan. When they tire of questioning him (which doesn’t take very long, frankly) they get him drunk and put him behind the wheel of a car, intending him to crash over a cliff and die. Cue some classic Hitchcock rear-projection driving.

Cary Grant Driving

When Grant tries to explain to the police how he’d been kidnapped, he takes them to the house where he was questioned, only to be met by Mason’s mother, who pretends that Grant had been there for a party, and was a family friend, and how worried they’d been that he left so drunk.

So Grant can’t convince the police that his story is true, so he and his own mother (are mothers a theme here?) go to George Kaplan’s hotel room to investigate. Nobody there seems to have seen Kaplan, but all assume Grant must be him because he’s in his room. Grant tries on Kaplan’s suit, and it’s far too small for him. I love the disgust with which Grant delivers the line “Obviously they’ve mistaken me for a much shorter man.”

The script is very clever, as Grant is trying to find out the truth, he keeps having to say his name is George Kaplan, thus painting himself into a corner with the bad guys.

Then this happens.

Caught red handed

Grant is accused of murdering the man in whose house he had been questioned. So naturally he goes on the run, still looking for the elusive George Kaplan.

Then we get a horribly clunky scene set at the CIA, where they discuss the situation, and explain, in detail, how George Kaplan is a decoy identity, set up to distract the bad guys from their real agent. This really is Basil Exposition of the highest order, delivered by Leo G Carroll (from The Man From UNCLE) but at least it gets the plot mechanics out of the way so we can concentrate on Grant’s travelling plans.

He catches a train to Chicago, where he meets his co-star, Eva Marie Saint, another of Hitchcock’s trademark blonde leading actresses. She’s immediately interested in Grant, and helps him hide from the police when they search the train. But she’s in league with the bad guys.

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint

Once in Chicago, Saint contacts Kaplan and tells Grant he has to go outside the city to meet him, setting up the film’s most famous sequence. Grant is dropped in the middle of nowhere by a bus, then waits to meet Kaplan.

It’s such a slow burn. Grant is alone, on a dusty road surrounded by fields. A car approaches, then drives past. After a minute, another car passes. Neither stops. Then a car comes from behind a row of corn, approaches the road, and a man gets out, and stands on the other side of the road.

Awkward social situation

But this man isn’t Kaplan – he’s waiting for the bus. And just as he’s about to board the very punctual bus, he comments about a crop-dusting plane in the distance. “He’s dusting crops where there aren’t any crops.”

At this cue, the plane turns and starts heading right for Grant, and keeps strafing him over and over, until he flags down an oil tanker, almost gets run over by it, and the plane flies straight into it.

It says something about how visual a filmmaker Hitchcock is that this sequence works purely as a visual thrill, without making a lick of sense. Did Mason want to kill him? Why such an elaborate (and uncertain) method? And why was the pilot so inept that it flies straight into a tanker? Who cares, if it looks great and is exciting.

Exploding cropduster

The action switches to Mount Rushmore for the climax, wherein we discover that Eva Marie Saint has been a CIA agent all along – she’s the agent from whom Kaplan was supposed to deflect attention. She pretends to shoot Grant, thus cementing James Mason’s trust in her, but she then tells Grant that she has to leave the country with Mason as part of the CIA scheme.

William Goldman, in one of his books on screenwriting, discusses the climax. Grant is clinging to the side of Mount Rushmore with one hand, his other hand holding on to Eva Marie Saint who is about to fall to her death. Martin Landau has the statue with the microfilm, and is treading on Grant’s hand to dislodge him.

The following events happen to resolve the story: Landau is shot and killed. The microfilm is recovered. James Mason is apprehended by the CIA. Grant rescues Saint from the mountain. He proposes, and they get married, and go on honeymoon. And Goldman points out that every single one of these events is resolved in the last thirty seconds of the film, thanks to a wonderful cut from Grant trying to pull Saint up from the mountain, to him pulling her up onto a sleeping bunk on a train. She’s in her wedding dress, they’re on their honeymoon, and the film ends with the train plunging into a tunnel. That’s Hitchcock all over.

Following the movie, recording continues. There’s an old B&W short film, The Incredible Stranger, directed by ‘Jack Tourneur’ – an anglicised pseudonym for Jacques Tourneur who directed Cat People.

There’s a ‘Scene Stealers’ feature on a scene from Robert Wise’s The Haunting.

Then, there’s the beginning of The Asphyx, a 1970s horror film about a victorian scientist who believes he can photograph souls leaving the bodies of the dead. There’s about 30 minutes of this before the tape runs out.

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