One of the most important elements in a film lover’s education is a good introduction. If you show someone the right Chaplin or Kurosawa film they’ll be a fan of either or both of those directors for life. In that spirit, I’d like to recommend my own introductory film for a legendary director: Alfred Hitchcock.
There are many films of his that you could show to introduce someone to Hitchcock’s brilliance. Psycho is one of the most influential horror movies of all time, and Vertigo beat out Citizen Kane in a 2012 Sight and Sound poll of the greatest movies ever made. But those films only capture certain aspects of Hitchcock’s technical style and themes. You don’t get the light entertainer of The Lady Vanishes in Psycho, or the explorer of international espionage in Vertigo. If you want the textbook example of who Hitchcock is as a director, you have to watch North by Northwest.
North by Northwest tells the story of Roger Thornhill, an emotionally stunted advertising man. He gets mistaken for a spy named George Kaplan, and an enemy agent named Phillip Vandamm tries to kill him. Thornhill is forced to go on a cross-country journey to find Kaplan and prove his innocence, only to make a shocking discovery.
Hitchcock directed some of the most memorable set pieces in film history. At least two of them — Thornhill getting chased by a crop duster and the climax on Mount Rushmore — are in North by Northwest. In every scene, Hitchcock uses the camera to convey information, establish relationships, and even tell jokes. As a whole, this film features the technical mastery that Hitchcock brought to so much of his work.
North by Northwest is also full of themes that Hitchcock returned to again and again throughout his career. It contains such Hitchcockian motifs as mistaken identity, espionage, a controlling mother, and a beautiful blonde love interest. This collection of some of his favorite things allows Hitchcock neophytes to feel like they are sampling a buffet of everything that he returned to again and again.
Most importantly, North by Northwest features the two sides of Hitchcock as a film artist. Most prominently, it shows the side of him that led people to call him a “light entertainer” throughout most of his career. That side of him is the one that serves up the elegant mis-en-scene and snappy spy shenanigans. But there is also the serious commentary on human behavior that would play a part in French New Wave directors reclaiming Hitchcock as one of the greatest directors of all time. The plot of this movie is a turn or two from a Kafka novel, and Thornhill’s journey from selfish apathy to committing to help another person is still a good model for other writers and filmmakers to follow.
You could probably watch any of Hitchcock’s movies and fall in love with his body of work. But if you want a little taste of what he worked with throughout his career, and be thoroughly entertained at the same time, you’re going to want to check out North by Northwest.
You can learn more about Hitchcock and his genius during the upcoming IU Cinema series Alexandre O. Philippe: A Filmmaker’s Filmmaker. In addition to screening and attending his acclaimed documentary 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene on December 6th, Philippe will also be doing a Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker program in the form of a Hitchcock masterclass on December 7th.
Other events during Philippe’s visit will be a screening of The Exorcist on December 4th and a showing of his documentary Doc of the Dead on December 7th. Philippe is scheduled to be present at both films.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest.