26 September 2011

21. North By Northwest

"I just happen to be one of those irrational persons who think that a film cannot be any good if it isn't well written." - Ernest Lehman.

In analyzing and then writing about the films on this list, I've realized that the best stories are those that are primal and touch a very basic nerve. Often, this takes the form of the story being about survival, life and death.

With NXNW, it starts early. We are introduced to Grant, an ad man, who is led to a car at gunpoint around minute 6. He's in danger and we're curious about why. This is a perfect example of Mamet's dictum (from BAMBI VS. GODZILLA) that the audience can only undergo the journey the MC does: he's confused, and so are we. We only know what he knows, which is nothing, and this is what makes us wonder what happens next.

Also, in accordance with Mamet's rules, we notice there is no backstory, no characterization. We only know Grant through what he says, and, more importantly, how he acts in these extreme circumstances.

He's taken to a mansion and they call him Kaplan, but he is Thornhill. It's a case of mistaken identity; they got the wrong guy.

The plot-heavy set-up continues: he's given a mickey and is supposed to drive off a cliff, but he survives. He gets the cops to accompany him to the mansion, but the residents claim they don't know him. And finally, he is framed for a murder while investigating at the UN, which makes him have to go out on the lam.

And that was Act 1, and now we are locked in. They key here is that we've set up the main character, the problem, the villain (James Mason, who was the one who had him brought to the mansion), and the stakes: the people who are after him have no problem murdering people, and he could easily be next. Survival instincts kick in.

Here we get some explanation: the CIA made up a person, so now Grant must find the REAL Kaplan. He gets on the train and travels.

Subplot: meets Eva in the dining cart, she covers for him (she's running a con, sticking her neck out for him gives him her trust), she seduces him.

Here's the twist (which happens exactly at 1 hour in): we see, visually only, that she's actually in cahoots with Mason and co. And we realize that she can fall in love with him fast like she is because she knows he is no threat.

They arrive in Chicago and he gets a call to meet out in an Indiana cornfield, to wait for a car. Thus begins the chase against a plane. This sequence works for at least three reasons: 1) we were expecting a car, so the plane comes as a cool surprise. 2) most chases in mystery stories happen on city street, at night, in the darkness, through alleys. This one happens in a vast open space, in broad daylight. 3) the use of diegetic sound, with no music.

This is the midpoint. The stakes have been raised to a fever pitch -- he is being double-crossed by a woman he is falling for, and they will stop at nothing to kill him.

Now the auction scene. Eva is with James Mason, and Grant carries on like he fucked her when he hasn't, which upsets Mason. Mason has his goons block the doors. There is no way out for Grant. So, he becomes a drunken bore at the auction and makes them arrest him. The twist is: why would a wanted man try to get arrested? Because being arrested is a better fate than being in the hands of Mason's men. Again, we are talking life and death situations.

The CIA comes to collect him, and again we get exposition, which works because it is for both Grant and us as the audience. Eva is in fact a double agent, is now in grave danger. He cares for her, which is why he agrees to help.

Thus begins Act 3, where the new goal is to save the girl. We go to Rapid City, he fakes a shooting in a public place, tricking the audience and the other characters.

He escapes the CIA's controls, goes to Mason's mansion to find the girl. They've discovered that she's an agent as well, plan to kill her. There's a chase at Mount Rushmore, and, in an amazing bit of economy, Grant saves the girl, marries her, fucks her, and goes home, all in the course of about 10 seconds and 3 or 4 shots.