Film fanatics and friends Fred Sullivan and Yasser Akram are on a mission to watch 25 of one another’s favourite movies. Each week they will watch one movie each and then get together to discuss what they have seen.So far, they have watched 24 of each others choices and there has been plenty or harmony, but just as much discord. Now the end is in sight and any criticism of the other man’s favourite is unlikely to go down well.
We finish with Fred’s favourite movie of all-time. It was made by the arguably the most famous film director of them all, right in between his most critically acclaimed film and his best known. Starring the ultimate male movie star and with a score to die for, it’s…
You can read the entries from previous week by checking out the archives on the left of the screen.
To have a look at what Fred has picked so far, click here.
Likewise, for Yasser’s choices, click here.
Fred: We come to the last review
Yasser: ‘Tis a sad moment, Fred
FS: It’s a film I’ve watched at least once a year every year since I first saw it when I was probably 15 or 16. Before then, do you know what my favourite film was?
YA: I find it hard to imagine you as a teenager as you act like an old gentleman most of the time. You say shit like “good grief!”
YA: A musical? Or Laurel & Hardy!
FS: No, it was ‘Around the World in 80 Days‘ – a terrific film, but then as I started to take more interest in films, I watched one that I instantly knew was a large cut above everything else I’d seen
YA: And that film is…
FS: ‘North by Northwest‘
YA: There’s something special about Hitchcock
FS: There is. You have seen this ‘wrong man‘ thriller before now…
YA: On your recommendation, yes. What is it about it that makes it your top pick?
FS: If you look at all of my choices it’s pretty clear that 1950s Hollywood is my favourite era of film-making. ‘North by Northwest’ brings together some of the key elements of that era, and the talent involved is universally at the peak of their powers. I don’t know where to start, but when that first rumble of drums begins and the famous MGM logo appears on that bright green – not the usual black – background I feel tremendously excited
YA: Yeah, that green screen was a bit odd, I found, but a welcome change
FS: This might be an odd place to start considering the director, writer and cast involved, but the music is brilliant. Bernard Herrmann’s theme is definitely one of the best ever
FS: Well, yes. Saul Bass – another legendary figure. I think his credit sequence is brilliant. I love it
YA: It’s odd that it’s the first thing we are talking about
FS: It’s because the tingle that the very first moments send down my spine is very, very real
FS: What did you make of the music in general?
YA: It was exciting. It had suspense in it. When I do notice music in movies I try to find all the little emotions in it. There’s a range of things this soundtrack did. It was very adept at keeping up with the many different story arcs – from suspense to comedy to romance
YA: You still haven’t answered my original question – what makes this number one?
FS: (laughs) I think what I’m finding so difficult is this not only set the bar for thrillers, or Hitchcock movies, or MGM Technicolor flicks of the 1950s, or chase films. It set the bar for every film I’ve seen before or since and it’s not been surpassed. When I watch a film now, I often go into it almost hoping that I get the same sensation that I have whenever I watch ‘North by Northwest’, but it has never happened.
FS: I even worry that it’s my favourite because it’s been my favourite for so long, but as soon as I watch it that fear disappears. I just don’t enjoy any other film the way I enjoy this. It give me a different feeling inside. Sorry to be so abstract
YA: Nope, that is exactly what I am looking for. A sentimental attachment to the film
YA: Yeah. That’s how I feel about ‘The Dark Knight‘
FS: Even if people criticise it, I don’t feel strongly as I am so assured of its quality that I don’t need their validation… which may be a good thing (laughs)
YA: We will see how it goes
YA: I want to talk about the director
FS: Where better to start?
YA: Anyone who thinks of themselves as a movie fan has heard of Alfred Hitchcock, and if they haven’t seen any of his films then they don’t really understand cinema at all
YA: He crops up on the cover of new DVD releases of his films. How many other directors could get away with that? If they released ‘Jaws‘ and it had Spielberg on the cover as well as the shark, you’d look at it and think ‘whoever designed that cover is a cock‘
FS: I tend to use Charlie Chaplin as the benchmark for cinematic icons, but I don’t think there is a director as recognisable as Hitchcock. I even think if you showed a picture of Hitchcock, a picture of Cary Grant and a picture of Elizabeth Taylor to 100 people, more people would be able to name Hitchcock than the others
YA: We have looked at some wonderful directors over the fifty films, but Hitchcock… Fred… he’s on another level. He’s one of my favourites, one of your favourites and he’s still gaining fans. He was innovative and fresh and didn’t always fit the norm. I regret not having a Hitchcock film in my 25
FS: You are correct in that he is on a different level to anyone else. His reputation grows as time goes by as his films still look fresh 50, 60 years after they were made
YA: Without CGI too!
FS: Exactly! His hit-to-miss ratio is well above any other director I can think of
YA: Even now he is a breath of fresh air
YA: Hitchcock does what he does best. I noticed how many elements of most espionage movies, particularly the James Bond movies, are very much like ‘North by Northwest’. The investigation in the hotel room, the distinctive suit, the tall, dark and handsome lead, an attractive female who puts the lead at odds and helps him
FS: The first time we ever discussed this film I was surprised to hear you say it wasn’t a typical Hitchcock movie. Have you changed your opinion?
YA: Yes and no. It’s odd. It doesn’t have that typical air of suspense like the grittier Hitchcock movies, but you do feel the Hitchcock magic. It’s a brighter Hitchcock film
FS: I think all of his best films prior to this have a light touch to them, with the exception of ‘Vertigo‘. I think ‘North by Northwest’s evolution began back in the British Hitchcock movies of the 1930s like ‘The 39 Steps‘, ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much‘ and ‘Young and Innocent‘. They all deal with ordinary men plunged by mistaken identity or a twist of fate into a whirlwind situation
YA: The man is Roger Thornhill, played by one of the greatest
FS: Cary Grant. What a man
FS: The perfect movie star and the perfect person for this role
FS: It was so nearly James Stewart, who would no doubt have been great, but Grant is just so right. He worked with some great directors but it was Hitchcock who brought out his dark side, like he did with Stewart
YA: Well, both were favourites of Hitchcock and both are amazing actors. Hitchcock brought out some sides of them that you only saw hints of in other roles. You see James Stewart getting frustrated and angry in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life‘, but have you seen ‘Rope‘?
FS: That’s right. It’s like watching ‘Penny Serenade‘ and then watching ‘Suspicion‘. Both show a side of Grant that we don’t see in the romantic comedies, but there is no comparison between them. Grant wasn’t the greatest actor in the world, but I don’t think there has ever been a more charismatic star. He’s perfect in this whether he’s trying to make light of his predicament and trying to charm his way out of it, or he’s getting angry or desperate. You believe him
YA: When I first watched it I thought he was too old for the role. He looked a bit tired at times, I thought, but having seen it again I can’t say that
FS: He was all too aware of his age, which is why he stopped making films in the end, but I think a younger man wouldn’t have been quite right. Cary Grant can be charming and resourceful without coming across as cocksure. His slightly advanced years gave him more vulnerability, if you like
FS: Jessie Royce Landis’ role was only small but she was great fun. You sound as if you liked her
YA: I liked their relationship. I think Grant brings the best out of his colleagues most of the time
FS: I’d agree with that in the case of Eva Marie Saint. He really helps her shine, as I don’t like her in much else I’ve seen
YA: I’m gonna say what I feel about Saint. When you first meet her she is charming and easy to like – a strong woman who goes for what she wants. But there’s one scene that really made me cringe
FS: Which was…?
YA: When Eve and Thornhill meet up in the woods and have that… romantic moment… if you could call it that. It was so terrible on her part. She turns into a soppy, fake mess. It felt like a bad advert where a couple say goodbye to one another at a train station
FS: Last time out, the discussion was dominated by the hero-villain relationship. The villain here, Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), is not a super villain like ‘The Joker’ but he’s not a nice man either. What did you think of the character and of Mason?
FS: Not really
YA: There wasn’t something significant about what he did that made him stand out, especially over Cary Grant. Actually, when you see him in the auction scene or in the cafeteria scene I like him the most
FS: I think James Mason is the equal of Grant in this. He’s another actor I love and I think the suave and urbane Grant needs an equally suave and urbane villain… and he gets one
YA: In the last act of the film, I think that Martin Landau is better than Mason
FS: Landau is another brilliant actor, but I don’t agree that he’s better than Mason. Creepier? Yes, but Mason has this ‘seen it all before’ air that is sensational. Nothing phases him. They are two very accomplished performers
YA: I’d agree with that
FS: When we watched ‘Anatomy of a Murder‘ the ensemble cast didn’t really ‘wow’ you, but James Stewart did. I get the feeling it’s the same here, with Cary Grant providing the majority of what you liked
YA: Quick mention for Leo G. Carroll as ‘The Professor’. He was ace
FS: Like Mason, he had an almost weary outlook on the whole thing, like he’d been through it a hundred times before
YA: Let’s talk about the story. What is it that brings you back time and time again?
FS: When I was young it was the big Hitchcock set-pieces that grabbed me, but on repeated viewings I realised it is a really clever thriller and the way Thornhill gets himself involved deeper and deeper is brilliantly done. It’s classic Hitchcock – an ordinary guy getting involved in something way outside his comfort zone. He’s not a cop or an action hero or a spy
YA: I love the story. Some elements are far-fetched but most movies are. I must confess though that this wouldn’t make my top 5 Hitchcock movies
FS: That’s either very bad for me or very good for Alfred
YA: I’ve already spoken about the worst moment. Most of the time I’ve dropped a point for a leading lady who isn’t strong enough for the role but, bar that one scene, Saint was ace. I especially liked how Eve Kendall was introduced as a promiscuous, independent girl
YA: There’s always something about the Mount Rushmore scene that doesn’t fit. Why the fuck are they on Mount Rushmore?
FS: Quick word for the best moments? I think you know what I’m driving at here
YA: The crop-duster scene?
FS: Yep! Just magic. A wonderful example too of how having no music in a scene can be so effective. You just hear the hum of the plane’s engines in the background. The whole scene is a work of genius. When I watched this on the big screen last year there was a buzz around the cinema when it started. Everyone sat up a little straighter in their seats
YA: It’s iconic and very well done, but to be honest I was more impressed with the film’s dialogue. The auction scene for instance. How he manages to escape is great, as is the scene where Thornhill’s plastered in the police station
FS: The script is fantastic. Lots of good lines and the auction scene is probably my favourite section of the whole film
FS: Here is my last shot at selling this film to you. We have a cast made up of a talented actress, two incredible actors as the villains, memorable supporting players, and the ultimate male movie star. They all touch their best and the two leads – Saint and Grant – have probably never been better. The music from the legendary Bernard Herrmann is spine-tingling. Ernest Lehman’s script is packed with terrific lines, and you have Saul Bass’ outrageous, visually assaulting title sequence. Finally, no matter how much I think I prefer other directors, Alfred Hitchcock is really my favourite. The number of true classics he made is astounding, and in ‘North by Northwest’ he’s taken all the best elements of his films and packed them together
YA: Interesting. I think it’s sum-up time
FS: Go for it
YA: It’s rare to find a director whose name can grab a movie lover’s attention, but Alfred Hitchcock was such a man. His talent goes far beyond the norm, placing him above all others. Why I didn’t include my own favourite Hitchcock film, ‘Vertigo’, in my list still baffles me. The look and feel of ‘North by Northwest’ is not as dark as ‘Vertigo’, ‘Psycho‘ or ‘Rope’ but that is not to say the film should be taken for granted.
YA: Cary Grant is, in my estimations, one of the screen’s greatest actor. His charm, charisma and suave debonair character bring out the best in his co-stars. Throughout the film he is flawless. James Mason as the main antagonist is awesome, and perhaps I didn’t speak enough about him, but it’s difficult when another star like Grant excels with such minimal effort in comparison. Eva Marie Saint has a wobbly moment where her performance felt forced, but the rest of the time she is also up there with her co-stars. The supporting cast of Carroll, Royce Landis and Landau didn’t have as much screen time but made their parts memorable.
FS: This is good…
YA: There’s technical brilliance throughout, some of which still hold its own nearly 55 years later, and the score helps everything along nicely. The stunts like the crop-duster scene are amazing and I believe all the majority of Bond films and other espionage movies take inspirations from this. It’s timeless and that is because of Hitchcock. However, does it deserve 10/10? From Fred’s list, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, ‘Way Out West‘ and ‘Back to the Future‘ all captured my imagination and I built an emotional connection to the films, Unfortunately I didn’t feel that here and for that reason it’s a 9/10. An amazing achievement and a film I respect, but there are other films, and other Hitchcock movies, I love more
FS: Super. It’s a good score. I’m a little disappointed but if you’d said before we started that my top 10 would average 8/10 I’d have been happy
So there we have it. ‘Film Club’ is over…. for now at least. Check back next time were we have one final chat and look back over the 50 films we watched.