David Thomson on North by Northwest

I’ve been devouring Thomson’s Have You Seen, and packed with gems as it is, the highlight so far, for me has been his page on North by Northwest. North by Northwest deserves a writer such as David Thomson, and David Thomson deserves films such as North by Northwest to write about.

You can buy this superb book here.

“What I realised was that North by Northwest is only pretending to be a suspense thriller, an action-adventure picture or a road movie. It’s actually a screwball comedy – and one of our greatest. And I have reached that time in life where I’d rather have a great screwball comedy than a profound tragedy. After all, tragedy is all around us and screwball is something only the movies can do.”

“Here’s one demonstration. Don’t you love the stupidity – the fond, yearning craziness – of a nation that will take an innocent lovely mountainside and carve in it, larger than houses, the solemn faces of presidents? The mixture of authority over nature and childlike impulse! And then along comes a strange genius of another American form – movie – and he sees that this daft monstrosity can be employed for a desperate chase sequence where someone hides in Jefferson’s nostril or a high heel trips on Washington’s proud lip. Had I been a Soviet leader in ’59 – cold going on frigid – I’d have looked at North by Northwest and told my commissars, “Sorry, guys, the jig is up. They’ve take the acme of patriotic realism and turned it inside out!” And isn’t that a pretty good definition of screwball?”

“Ernest Lehman wrote it, and for a talented writer who got himself into some awkward pictures, this must have been grace and reassurance: Just write Cary Grant against a rising disorder, and you have a film. Bernard Herrmann is laughing to himself and saying, I knew I always wanted to do music for a comedy!”

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