Wednesday, December 1, 2010

TV Bites: North by Northwest

Bourbon Cured Steelhead Trout

Well, currently I'm stuck in bed with an upper respiratory infection which means it hurts to talk and I've been on a liquid diet for the last 48 hours. And I'm contagious. But the show must go on and I'm hard at work trying to knock out the special Christmas and New Year's editions of this blog. So, in the meantime.....

I hope you will believe me when I say that I have no grand master list of films I'm choosing, but rather selecting them as the urge strikes. So it's as much of a surprise to me that in the few films I've chosen so far, this is now the third film that was made in 1959 (along with Some Like it Hot and Rio Bravo). Why this year has such a pull on me for this "adventure," I'm not sure. But here we are, number three.

When people ask me what is my favorite movie, I always have to preface the answer by saying, we're not taking here about "the greatest movie ever made" nor "the most important" nor "the most influential movie on my life," but to answer the question if I have to name a film that has served to give me the most pleasure over the years, I would have to say one that I return again and again to is North by Northwest. The film is one memorable sequence after another and there's never a dull moment. And this is the second film I'm doing that features Cary Grant, but I promise you there's more of him to come. He is so enjoyable to watch on screen. He always looks like he's having the best time making the movie.

Now sure Hitchcock called it a movie of "a nightmare," but it's a hell-a fun nightmare. I think we've all had nightmares of being pursued, trapped, and terrified, unable to understand why we this is happening (it's #1 on this list of universal dreams). Hitchcock certainly wasn't the first - Kafka did a fine job working in similar territory. But no one had mastered the technique of filming suspense as well as Hitch did for the first 65 years of cinema (if not of all time). Certainly today, there are slews of suspense thrillers, made all over the world. Most are crap, a few are excellent. But all of them share one thing in common - they all reference and are indebted to Hitchcock.

You can watch N/NW on Demand @ Amazon and it will be on TCM Dec 08, 01:15AM/EST & Dec 31, 05:30PM/EST.


"Now you listen to me - I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders dependent upon me and I don't intend to disappoint them by getting myself killed!"

When I first dreamed I wanted someday to make and write films as a kid, it was to Alfred Hitchcock whom I glommed on to most to learn from. I studied his work, his art, and his person as deeply as I could. Perhaps it was my grandmother giving me all those magazines. But what fascinated me most was that while his work seems on one level, and especially this film, to be nothing more than a trifle, an entertainment, there is an awful lot going on below the surface if you begin to pay attention... though Hitchcock himself would take great pleasure in disavowing any slight of hand going on.

"There are no symbols in North by Northwest," Hitchcock famously said in an interview in Cahiers du Cinema. "Oh yes. One. The last shot, the train entering the tunnel after the love scene between Cary Grant and Eva-Marie Saint. It's a phallic symbol. But don't tell anyone."

Yet one could fill up an entire warehouse with books and theses with titles including: "Hitchcock: Suspense, Humour and Tone," "Hitchcock's Cryptonymies, Vol I," "Dial "M" for Mother: A Freudian Hitchcock," and "Hitchcock and Homosexuality: His 50-Year Obsession With Jack the Ripper and the Superbitch Prostitute : A Psychoanalytic View." (I guess if you study film in college, you're apparently required to write a paper on Hitchcock.) But then there's "Alfred Hitchcock: It's Only a Movie." And to me, that is the most important thing. You can pick it apart frame by frame, and while that's fun, you gotta remember to be able to sit back, munch some popcorn, and dig the film as Hitchcock intended.

Hitchcock wasn't a dark soul, though he certainly had a dark side. He was quite the joke teller, believed humor had to be utilized to balance suspense, and was renowned to get giddy knowing he'd scared the hell out of an audience. He was also a master of marketing his own image. Beyond his movies, there was his television series, a mystery magazine (which my grandmother read monthly and would pass on to me), and even a series of young adult mystery novels that had his name imprinted on them. There was no director who came even close to being as recognizable of a brand in his day, and even today there are only a handful of directors who command such instant recognition by name and face as Hitch continues to.

The film’s main theme is identity. Roger Thornhill can easily be confused with George Kaplan because he is, at the start of the film, shallow and so lacking in character that he has invented a middle initial for himself “O” which "stands for nothing," as he says. And indeed, Thornhill does “stand for nothing” but as he takes on the persona of George Kaplan, he begins to develop a strong moral sense. For example, in the beginning of the film, he scams some people out of a taxi. He recites as an excuse for this action his “advertising credo” - “In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only the expedient exaggeration.”

Author Todd McEwen wrote in an essay: “North by Northwest isn't a film about what happens to Cary Grant, it's about what happens to his suit.” And indeed, Cary Grant begins the film as man defined by his suit, the one suit he wears for days until the end, when he finally embodies Kaplan, gets a new set of clothes and becomes the hero by rescuing Eve and stopping VanDamm. Telling, he tries to imagine Kaplan by examining his clothes hanging in the Plaza hotel room. Like Mark Twain, he believes that "clothes make the man." In fact, Cary Grant supposedly contributed to the design of the suit by the famous London Savile Row haberdasher, Kilgour.

But Grant’s character isn’t alone in taking on other roles. Each of the main characters at some moment wears a different mask : VanDamm/Townsend, Thornhill/Kaplan, Eve - though her name doesn’t change has 3 distinct masks to wear (helpful stranger, seducing villainess, spy for justice - though we could say the 4th is at the finale, as Mrs. Thornhill - more on that below).

North by Northwest takes its title from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “I am but mad north-northwest; when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” But “north-northwest” is apparentlya cartographical impossibility” - it doesn’t exist. So when Thornhill, to mix literary references, falls down the rabbit hole, it is into the real world, not Madison Avenue. If the wind cannot travel “north-northwest” then Hamlet is never mad, but the world may be nightmarish.

If you want to get your compass out, the movement of the film travels mostly (except for a few detours) on a northwest trajectory (to the point of Thornhill traveling on Northwest Airlines). Although some locations we’re cheated, such as the crop dusting scene which was actually shot just north of Bakersfield, CA.

And Speaking of “mad,” almost everyone who has written about the TV Series Mad Men mentions, at some point, the debt the series has to North by Northwest from the title sequence (which not only pays homage to N/NW but also Hitchock’s Vertigo) to its fashion sense, including creator Matt Weiner.

And then there's Martin Scorsese's odd little commercial he did for Freixenet Champagne. It's an advertisement tribute to a movie about an advertising man, or something like that. Maybe it was just a paycheck for Marty?

Being that this is another film shot in 1959, like Some Like it Hot, Hitchcock also had to contend with the censorship of the Hays Code (see Background & Context to that film's post). Perhaps the most riduculous, was adding the last line in post-production, “Come along, Mrs. Thornhill” as Grant lifts Saint into the compartment bed on the train. This was needed to assure audiences that the two wouldn’t consider having sex unless they were married, which we are told by the line they are now. Phew! The lack of that line might have caused girls around the country to allow themselves to become impregnated out of wedlock.

"Our big problem today," Hitchcock said in 1960 when he released Psycho, "is trying to make the censors understand that the young people are much more sophisticated than they used to be."

Another change demanded by the censors was a line Eva Marie Saint said during the dining car sequence which also had to be overdubbed in post-production. "They felt the dialogue [in the dining car scene as a whole] was too suggestive," remembered screenwriter Ernest Lehman, "and after the scene had been shot, they insisted that the studio, somehow, take care of the line in which Eve says 'I never make love on an empty stomach.' And if you look carefully, you'll see that her lips are saying 'I never MAKE love,' but they made her dub in the word, 'discuss' - 'I never DISCUSS love on an empty stomach.'"

But as Hitchcock himself joked above, he managed to sneak, what might be the most obvious sexual metaphor in film history as the final shot of the film, having the last laugh at the censors. And as Eva Marie Saint recalled when she saw the final shot during the film's premiere, "I said to my husband, ‘that’s a little Freudian, isn’t it?’ And my husband whispered back, ‘You got it honey, you got it!’" But in just a few years from then, the Hayes Code and the Legion of Decency would be history and movies for more mature audiences were able to be made and widely seen.

Let's end with this. According to Patrick McGillian, “In publicity articles timed to coincide with the release of North by Northwest, Grant for the first time revealed that, in addition to hypnosis, yoga, and mysticism, after working with Hitchcock he had begun taking [LSD]... for psychotherapeutic reasons - and he assured interviewers, it was working.”

At this site, they claim to publish an autobiography of Cary Grant that was supposedly in some magazine, but they don't say which magazine. I emailed the site for their source, but never heard back. This made me a bit suspicious, so while there is a long section where supposedly Grant discusses his LSD experience, I'll just offer the link, not the quotes directly. However, in an article in Vanity Fair, they quote Grant about life before LSD: “I know that, all my life, I’ve been going around in a fog. You’re just a bunch of molecules until you know who you are.”

The film received Oscar nominations for Best Editing, Best Art Direction, and Best Original Screenplay, but won none.


Although trains ran between New York and Chicago on New York Central's 20th Century Limited began in 1902, it was in 1938 when the railroad inaugurated the streamlined train we've come to associate with the journey. It was designed by Henry Dreyfuss, also known for designing, among other items, the classic Bell telephone, the even more classic Trimline phone, the Polaroid SX-70 camera, and before the 20th Century, had designed the Mercury streamliner for NY Central. The streamlined 20th Century Ltd., took only 16 hours. The NY Times noted on its final run in 1967 that it was "known to railroad buffs for 65 years as the world's greatest train."

Inside the train, it had all the creature comforts of a swanky hotel. In addition to the lounge car for drinking & smoking, the dining car, which after dinner was converted into a nightclub with piped in music. There was also a valet service, barbershop, and telegraph office. A "train secretary," who acted like a concierge service, was aboard to arrange reservations at hotels, restaurants, and theaters, as well as performing business services, like dictation. The Pullman company built the cars, as well as operated the sleeping cars (they operated sleepers on most railroad lines in the US). In addition to male porters, there were maids who would take care of needs like manicure services for the ladies and baby-sitting children. Some of the maids were also registered nurses.

According to the Smithsonian Institute: "In the 1920s, the Pullman Company was the largest single employer of African American men. From the 1870s through the 1960s, tens of thousands worked for Pullman as sleeping-car porters. The feeling of sleeping-car luxury came from the porter. He 'made down' berths at night and 'made up' the berths into seating in the morning, helped with luggage, shined passengers' shoes at night, and answered passengers' calls at any hour. Working 400 hours a month, porters earned better wages than most African Americans, but degrading conditions helped lead to the founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925."

"[T]he earliest civil rights groups were black railroad unions or attempts by blacks to form their own unions," said Ted Kornweibel, Professor Emeritus, African-American History, San Diego State University. Many former porters and members of the union later became leaders in the growing Civil Rights movement in the 1950s.

Some of the railroad car scenes for North by Northwest were shot in a studio, and as typical of Hitchcock the interiors were replicating to near perfection, but the dining room scene was actually filmed in a real 20th Century railroad dining car (though stationary). As well, all the exteriors of the train, as well as the passing scenery seen out the windows from within the cars were taken along the train's actual route.


Thornhill: You recommend anything?
Eve: The brook trout.... A little "trouty" but quite good.

The above exchange is from when Eve & Thornhill first meet in the dining car. I recently got a collection of recipes, published by Cahiers du Cinema, inspired by Hitchcock movies, including a nice recipe for a baked trout with potatoes and lots of butter - very French.

So initially, I was going to go with that, but I kept thinking that I wanted to do something of my own, and with bourbon and trout. Bourbon, as in the early scene at the Long Island mansion, Thornhill is forced to drink an entire bottle of it before being sent on his death ride.

While searching the Interwebs for an idea, I stumbled on a company in Kentucky (of course) that sells a bourbon-smoked trout and I thought I might be able to replicate it at home. I usually make cured salmon with this recipe, minus the bourbon, and so onwards and upwards.

According to Wiki: "Trout is the name for number of species of freshwater and saltwater fish belonging to the Salmoninae subfamily of the family Salmonidae." Steelhead trout, is a rainbow trout that has spent a part of its life in the sea. Rainbow trout are found throughout the Pacific Coast of the US, as well as have been introduced worldwide. Like most wild animals, there has been a severe decline of Steelhead trout population in the Pacific Northwest in the last few decades. Global warming is also a factor in their decline. The Monterey Aquarium Seafood Watch suggests avoiding wild trout from the Great Lakes area, but recommends farmed rainbow trout, which have their own set of issues, sadly, as well. There are efforts to help these fish return to healthy-sized populations, such as one in Santa Barbara, California.

I think these appetizers go very well while watching the film. So, as always, cook, watch, eat and enjoy....

Bourbon Cured Steelhead Trout
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

makes 1 pound

1 lb. Steelhead Trout fillet (or other variety)
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup smoked sea salt
2 1/2 tablespoons Jack Daniels (or your preferred bourbon)

Clean and remove pin bones from fish.

Mix sugar & salt together.

Lay out plastic wrap on counter, enough to wrap fish tightly.

Make a thin bed of sugar & salt mix on the spread out plastic wrap to lay fish on, then do so. Then cover the top of the fish with a thick layer of sugar & salt mix. Sprinkle bourbon over the fish.

Wrap the fish up in the plastic wrap. Place in baking dish and place a weight on top (I use a red brick I bought @ Home Depot). Put in refrigerator for 2-3 days. Liquid will be released from the fish - you can drain the liquid daily or not, doesn't much matter.

After 2-3 days, thoroughly wash off sugar & salt from fish, pat with paper towels, then slice thinly for serving. Remainder can be wrapped in (new) plastic wrap and will hold for a week or more in frig.

Serve on crackers or french bread, with some cream or goat cheese, or creme fraiche, some chives or scallions.

Shooting Script for North by Northwest
TCM's North by Northwest Page
North by Northwest Featurette @ TCM
Destination Hitchcock: The Making of N/NW @ Google Video
20th Century Limited @ American
A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum
Monterey Aquarium Seafood Watch

North by Northwest DVD, 50th Anniversary Edition
North by Northwest OST
The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures, by Donald Spoto
Hitchcock (Revised Edition), by Francois Truffaut
Hitchcock's Films Revisited, by Robin Wood
Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation, by Robert Kapsis
Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, by Patrick Mcgilligan
La Sauce était presque parfaite, 80 Recipes Inspired by Alfred Hitchcock, by Cahiers du Cinema

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