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Alfred Hitchcock, seen here in 1972, made films that were of their time, but stood out even then.
Alfred Hitchcock, seen here in 1972, made films that were of their time, but stood out even then. Central Press/Getty Images
I saw North By Northwest on a big screen this weekend, hunched in a seat in a dark theater the way nature intended, and many things stood out: the perfection of Cary Grant, the henchman-for-boss love that perhaps dare not speak its name, the long silences in the crop-dusting sequences, and Eva Marie Saint's breathtaking navy dress with the red flowers.
On the way out, I heard this, sighed contentedly by someone near me who sounded like he would have been quite a few years away from being born when the movie was released in 1959: "That's the way films were back then."
That is most certainly not the way films were back then. That is the way this film was. And this film was one of the greatest movies made by one of the greatest directors of all time starring someone who would be on any list of contenders for the title of Most Flawless Movie Star In Hollywood History. So, yeah. It's pretty good.
I like film nostalgia as much as anyone. If I didn't, I wouldn't have been at the theater on a Saturday night seeing North By Northwest in the first place. And when I saw that navy dress, I did briefly think, "Why did women ever decide they should dress in any way other than that?"
But it's very important not to let it run away with you. Yes, 1959 was the year of North By Northwest, but it was also the year of Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space. Whatever campy adoration the latter now enjoys, there is certainly no single method or manner of 1959 filmmaking that embodies the creation of both — some particular way that films were made back then.
It's true of furniture, films, books, and buildings: What's still around in 50 years is not a representative sample of what was originally produced. In 50 years, it will be easy to think of 2010 as the year of The King's Speech, because nobody is going to remember When In Rome. (Do you even remember it now?) (It had Josh Duhamel and that nice girl from Veronica Mars.) You can argue all day long about the number of good films then and now and the relationship between giant-studio filmmaking and indie filmmaking and alternative distribution channels and so forth. But you will never make 1959 a year in which routinely, easily, like falling off a log, people turned on a camera and made North By Northwest.
Not only does this kind of misdirected nostalgia overestimate the degree to which Everything Is Terrible These Days — an attitude that tends to make people incurious and lazy and less likely to discover what is new and good — but it tremendously undervalues the artistry that goes into a classic film.
It was never easy to be Alfred Hitchcock, or everybody would have done it. It was never easy to be Cary Grant, or Eva Marie Saint. The crop-duster sequence wasn't always an iconic piece of filmmaking; it began as someone's idea. Filming the long, largely silent sequence that leads up to it wasn't simply a product of the time; it was a product of creative effort that can't be reduced to a dusty recollection of when people magically knew how to do things better than they do now.
You learn nothing about film unless you attribute the greatness of something you enjoy to specific artistic choices. That's true of studying the work of people who make inscrutable independent art-house dramas, and it's true of studying the work of people who make enormously well-executed popular entertainment — people like Hitchcock. The interesting questions are so much more complicated than tracking the supposed decline of culture: Why does his slasher movie survive? Why is his slasher movie generally regarded as art? Why is this thriller about a debonair man caught in a terrible web so ageless when so many others are utterly disposable?
It's by remembering the art that goes into a film that you start to figure those things out. And if you assume that during some magic time in the past, it was easy to be Alfred Hitchcock, then watching his films teaches you nothing except that when you've finished watching them, it's all over.