North by Northwest: Perhaps the most Surreal Film Ever to Come out of Hollywood

After watching North by Northwest the other night, I was struck by the sheer physicality of Cary Grant's performance. For instance, in the crop duster scene, those studio shots of Grant diving into ditches and into thickets of cornstalks and sliding into the gravel road reminded me that he really earned his pay! How many miles did he run just to get that sequence? At other times he is rudely manhandled (the library scene in which he is forced to drink bourbon; the following scene in which he is hauled before the judge; when he is "escorted" out of the art gallery), he is cramped to comic effect in the elevator and in the back of the limo. And then there was the physical comedy of his drunken drive. Grant had gotten away from that kind of slapstick on which he had built his career and had built a more sophisticated screen persona. Now, here he was, with an eye on retirement, reprising all of those old comedy tricks. Hope he had a good massage therapist.

Vertigo, of course, is another great surrealist film. There is so much going on here, and much of it has been identified as Expressionistic. There is plenty of overlap between the two artistic movements, and it's probably unwise to compartmentalize any of Alfred Hitchcock's (or just about any other artist's) work into one or the other "ism," as if sorting fish into a series of buckets. Still, it's useful to note that surrealism and Expressionism both came out of the same wellspring of existential crisis in the post WWI era. Expressionism deals more with the raw emotions of such, whereas surrealism focuses on the psychology of alienation etc.

In Vertigo, I see the two blended perfectly in the (surreal by definition) dream sequence that is replete with such expressionistic touches as its lurid color pallet; stark, off-kilter light and shadows; and helter-skelter, discordant soundtrack. Yet, the dream imagery, with its freighted symbolism, is all surreal.

Scottie and Judy's hallucinatory final kiss is also, right down the line, both expressionistic and surreal.

Joel Gunz