Intrigue! Espionage! A killer crop duster! BQB here with a review of this classic Hitchcock film.
I’ll admit I’m no expert when it comes to classic cinema. However, from what I have seen, I have to assume that this film must have been a stunner when it came out. It seems way ahead of its time and likely inspired a whole generation of baby boomer action film directors. Without it, you would have never had flicks like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, etc.
The plot? A case of mistaken identity leads to the cross-country trip from hell for Madison Avenue publicist (Mad Man) Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant.) When poor Roger, twice divorced from wives who found his lifestyle rather dull, raises hand to flag down a bellhop while lunching at a ritzy hotel with work associates, henchmen in the employ of dastardly Cold War info broker Phillip Vandamme (James Mason) mistakenly believe Roger answered to a page for the elusive “Mr. Kaplan,” a CIA spy they believe is hot on Vandamme’s trail, ready to undo his villainy at any moment.
From there on, it’s a whirlwind ride that takes Roger to Long Island, the United Nations and aboard a train bound for Chicago, all culminating in an epic battle on the face of Mount Rushmore with Thornhill fighting evildoers atop the stoney faces of the ex-presidents themselves.
Along the way, he befriends Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint, who I believe may very well be the last star of this film to still be alive), a fellow traveler with some intrigue of her own.
All the while, goons lead by head goon Leonard (Martin Landau in one of his creepier roles) are always in hot pursuit.
For a 1950s film, there are scenes that are broad, epic and sweeping. Well-choreographed extras moving to and fro in the background make you really believe you are in Manhattan, or a train station, or at the UN and so on. The fight scene on Mount Rushmore must have made a few 1950s film techs think that Hitchock was out of his mind.
Don’t even get me started on the iconic crop-duster scene. Look away if you don’t want a SPOILER, but in one scene, Roger is lured to an open field, wide swathes of farmland everywhere. As he waits for promised help that never arrives, a seemingly harmless biplane sprays crops off in the distance. Slowly it gets closer and closer until it opens fire on our heroic adman, making several passes until it crashes into a conveniently located fuel truck in a magnificent fiery explosion. Was this one of the first of its kind on film? Better film historians than I can tell you but it has to rank high on the list of early spectacular film wrecks.
STATUS: Shelf-worthy. Psycho and The Birds are often thought of as Hitchcock’s most memorable works, but an argument might be made that this is his best picture. There are some bits that don’t quite stand the test of time, namely that a 26-year-old hottie swoons for a 50-something man though I suppose we have to remember that in that time, young women were taught that marrying a rich old dude was the path to success. To my surprise, there is a lot of out and open sexual talk in this film, which likely scandalized moviegoers of the day. I suppose later films that actually showed sex wouldn’t have happened without films like this talking about it.
SIDENOTE: Yes, I suppose there is plenty of room for debate as to whether films laden with sex and violence are a good thing. This one is tame by modern standards, though films like it arguably began to wedge the door open. Whether or not Hitchcock would approve of modern flicks is anyone’s guess.
DOUBLE SIDENOTE: There is a classic goof in the Mount Rushmore visitor center scene. A little kid at a table, apparently aware that a blank gunshot fired by Saint’s character, was about to go off, plugs his ears way ahead of time. Apparently, no one who cutting the final film noticed or cared or they didn’t want to go to the trouble of reshooting the scene.