Six Damn Fine Degrees #122: You can be my bad guy any time

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Lock up your daughters (and your sons, quite possibly) – the British are coming! It’s pretty much impossible to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and not be bowled over by the suave charms of its British star. That voice, the confidence, and the man certainly knows how to wear a suit.

But enough about James Mason. Cary Grant is also pretty good in the film.

I’ll just come out and say it: North by Northwest is Alfred Hitchcock’s most fun film. In fact, I think an argument could be made for it being one of the must fun films regardless of who made it. It doesn’t have the queasy depth of Vertigo or the scares of Psycho, but it is infinitely enjoyable, and if charm, charisma and wit could be harnessed to generate energy, this film alone would solve the climate crisis.

A large part of that is obviously Cary Grant, who’s never been better, at least in the kind of role that pretty much defines the actor’s iconic image. When people talk about Charade as “the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made”, they’re likely thinking of North by Northwest much more than of Suspicion, Spellbound or Notorious. And Grant’s chemistry with Eva Marie Saint is unmatched.

But, talking of chemistry, we cannot really forget James Mason. Obviously the dynamic is a different one: Mason’s Phillip Vandamm is the villain of this particular piece, and he repeatedly tries to get Grant’s ad exec Roger Thornhill killed. But there is an almost flirtatious quality to some of the exchanges between Mason and Grant, and while Vandamm famously drawls, “Games? Must we?”, those games are among the elements that make North by Northwest so enjoyable. Nominally, Eva Marie Saint’s character Eve Kendall is what these two men fight over, at least until Vandamm decides that he needs the MacGuffin microfilm more than he wants Eve, but it’s the rivalry that matters; Eve, as much as the microfilm, is incidental to their competition. (Which doesn’t mean that Saint is incidental to North by Northwest – she is hugely enjoyable in the film as well, and her 20th Century Limited flirtation with Grant is among North by Northwest‘s many wonderful sequences.)

However, North by Northwest doesn’t give us only a romantic triangle. Vandamm, like any good antagonist, doesn’t just have heavies – such as the two killers that pour gallons of whisky down Thornhill’s throat and then put him in a car going down a curvy cliffside road – but also a proper, qualified henchman in Leonard, played by Martin Landau. Leonard may not have the chagrined sophistication of his master, but he’s smart, professional and loyal – and he’s on to Ms Kendall before Vandamm is. Hitchcock isn’t altogether subtle here: Leonard puts his suspicions down to his “woman’s intuition”, and Vandamm responds: “I think you’re jealous. I mean it, and I’m very touched. Very.” The dialogue is played as banter, but the queer subtext is practically text at this point – and, intriguingly enough, it doesn’t come across as feeding the kind of homophobia you’d get from Hollywood for decades. Certainly, North by Northwest gives us that old trope that the gay-coded character is a villain, but this doesn’t come across as obviously homophobic, as it does in many other, and even much later, films. (Yes, Diamonds Are Forever, I’m looking at you.)

Compared to the Hollywood thrillers of later decades, North by Northwest seems to have a more relaxed, even impish relationship to gender roles altogether. Men don’t have to be macho to be manly. Roger Thornhill needs to be saved by his mother not just once but twice, and on the train to Chicago it is Eve who is more aggressively flirtatious and arguably takes the lead in seducing him. This is not to say that we don’t also get some of the late ’50s, early ’60s sexism rearing its ugly head, but especially masculinity isn’t defined as rigidly as it is only five years later, in Hitchcock’s Marnie, where Sean Connery depicts a very different idea of manliness than Cary Grant does in what may be his most iconic role.

And arguably this adds to the many ways in which North by Northwest is delightful. Certainly, Vandamm is the villain and therefore is doomed to fail, and Leonard meets with a violent end, but the latter’s sexuality is finally as irrelevant to this as is the former feeling flattered by Leonard’s jealousy. Competition and attraction are handled in what is a surprisingly playful fashion, in a way that few films from the ’50s would even begin to attempt. If the four characters could just overcome their jealousy and rivalry, you could imagine various permutations in which they all could enjoy one another’s charms in more constructive ways than squabbling over some MacGuffin and precariously dangling from the nose of a giant President at Mount Rushmore like a Hitchcockian booger.

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