Calendar Movies: North by Northwest (1959)

north by northwest movie poster

This was originally written and posted on April 27, 2006.

Recently, I had lunch with the human resources director at my place of employment. Both she and the chief operations officer were down to my office for the day and I invited them out to Cracker Barrel (it was a cheap maneuver as my boss was out of town, and I knew they’d pay for the food.) I needed the COO as a buffer between me and HR because last time I had lunch with Human Resources I got drilled on my opinion on everything from our company values to how the janitorial staff is doing.

It worked perfectly, I got a good meal paid for, and the COO kept us distracted by trying to win that little triangle peg game all Cracker Barrels leave on the table. It’s quite a thing to see your boss’s boss’s boss cursing at a children’s game because it says he’s an “ignoramous.”

The toughest question I had to field from HR was about my favorite movie. I chose Casablanca much to the surprise of my questioner. Now, at 30, I’m not anywhere near a young whippersnapper, but I guess I’m still pretty far removed from an ancient classic like that.

The thing is, I really dig the old movies. I’m the kind of guy who goes to Blockbuster and heads for the center rows, not the outside aisles with new releases. I suppose this is a strange thing, where kids today haven’t even seen Star Wars much less The Third Man.

Seriously, the first time I found out someone at work had never seen Star Wars I nearly fell out of my comfy office chair. It is as bewildering to realize that a film that means so much to me and my generation could be a relic to a new generation.

But maybe this is just me. I prefer Turner Classic Movies to HBO. I’d rather watch Humphrey Bogart than Tom Cruise. Black and white is much sexier then high definition super color.

Watching a movie like this month’s Calendar Movie, North by Northwest I’m struck by the notion that it’s not so different from your summer Hollywood blockbuster these days.

You’ve got one of the biggest stars working at the time, Cary Grant, working with an A-list director, Alfred Hitchcock; that’s like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg working together. The story is full of big action, lots of laughs and brimming with sexuality. It would play perfectly in today’s multiplexes

It’s the sex that struck me in this viewing. No, there isn’t any nudity, or hard core action. There isn’t even any soft core action, or anything more than some kissing. But the dialogue is boiling over with innuendo and double entendres. And if you’re going to have double entendres, who better than Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint to do it?

Beyond the sex there is more action and twists than a porno staring Gumby and Pokey. The famous crop duster scene still excites beyond what most CGI adventures can muster in an entire film.

So I ask myself again, why do brilliant, solid pieces of filmmaking like this get left on dusty shelves to be replaced by boring, repetitive, unimaginative showcases of mediocrity? Is the movie going public so stuck on adrenaline pumping, computer generated eye candy, that the classics are above their threshold of understanding?

Partially I think that it is part of our cultural existence to get the newest, freshest product. We buy the new models of cars even though our old one rides just fine. We purchase the top of the line, brand new computer products because our 6 month old lap top is “outdated.”

No one stands around the water cooler talking about Hitchcock or Billy Wilder. We talk about box office receipts, and the new weekend releases. Hollywood asks us to. They can’t afford for an audience to sit around watching worn out VHS copies of Ninotchka when they just spend 100 million dollars on the new Vin Diesel picture.

Kids don’t get hip credibility by wearing t-shirts with Peter Lorre on them. That’s not the kids fault, for if they had the chance to watch Lorre in M his picture would be right out there like Al Pacino in Scarface.

I can’t help but think if more people were exposed to classics like North by Northwest there would be no surprise when a young man stated his favorite movie was Casablanca.

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