usually murder

Film There’s a wonderful moment in the lifelong interview between Truffaut and Hitchcock in which the young director points out to his hero that he always tells the same story. And it’s true – nearly every Hitchcock film is about mistaken identity of one form or another most often with someone being accused of a crime they did not commit, usually murder and often the hero is aided and abetted by a blonde foil. And here it is again in North by Northwest. But what makes Hitch the great director is that with all of the fireworks, the performance and funny dialogue, we simply don’t notice, helped by the fact that each time he increases the complexity in some areas whilst simplifying others. Eva Marie Saint is effectively the same figure played by Priscilla Lane in Saboteur, Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps and Nova Pilbeam in Young & Innocent; but this being late Hitchcock, the ‘companion’ is apparently working for the opposition and none of her actions can be taken at face value. Yet the mcguffin, the reason for the adventure, why Cary Grant is on the run, amounts to little more than ‘some plans’ or whatever, underscoring just how uninterested the director was in such things by this stage.

Psycho is wrong, just wrong. The reasons are well documented already but it’s worth listing them again. Spoilers ahead. Janet Leigh’s character is presented as being the main character then Hitch has her murdered by Anthony Perkins’s Oedipal hotel owner Norman Bates, knocking the chair out from under the audience’s expectations and the language of cinema. When she is killed, we’re given the impression of a stabbing even though the blade never punctures her skin in a scene which took days upon days to film, risking Leigh’s mental health. Whilst the rest of the cast still betray the signs of the very formal acting style we expect from old Hollywood cinema, Perkins’s performance is shockingly naturalistic and about ten years ahead of the curve, precalling a young Jack Nicholson. Shot on a budget of fourth-fifths of a million dollars, miniscule in comparison to the director’s other work, it has a spare, deliberate style in which every shot has meaning, and you’re constantly aware that you’re being fed expositional red herrings in which items and dialogue which in other films would be vitally important are purposefully ignored to show what happens when a life ends. And Perkins’s final look into the character, which with its superimposed skull gives the impression that he’ll be wanting to have a chat with us next.

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