Since movie theaters are closed I’ve spent recent weeks streaming classic movies on the big screen in the living room.
This is one I’m always happy to watch again. It involves a New York advertising executive caught in a case of mistaken identity that goes horribly wrong.
I’d seen this movie several times, but it was only this time that I saw how the lead character, advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) comes to be mistaken for a CIA spy named George Kaplan. (My previous viewings of this film were in theaters, and so it is entirely possible that I was getting popcorn during this early scene, to my regret.)
Anyway, here it is. Thornhill meets friends in the bar at the Plaza and realizes he needs to send a telegram. Listen to what the bellhop is saying as Thornhill tries to get his attention.
The film is a 1959 period piece, and not just for the telegram business or the old cars with tail fins. Its Cold War premise is that a team of spies, presumably from the Communist Bloc, are willing to do anything to get some purloined microfilm out of the country.
First they try to kill George Kaplan/Roger Thornhill by pouring a bottle of bourbon down his throat and putting him behind the wheel of a car aimed into Hempstead Bay, which gets him arrested for car theft and drunk driving. Then Thornhill tracks down the UN official who Thornhill believes has set him up, and alas, the official is stabbed and the police take out after Thornhill for the murder. Thornhill eludes capture and meets a mysterious blonde, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint,) on a train.
And things just keep going from there.
Arguably the film is over-plotted, with some notable rabbits pulled out of hats and with an unusual dose of pre-Vietnam cynicism toward the CIA, whose officials understand Thornhill’s problem but care more about frustrating the other team’s spies.
Cary Grant is great in this one, and not least because of the way he rocks a fine gray suit. He manages to get himself out of one jam after another, sometimes with Kendall’s help and sometimes not. The plot takes him to Chicago, to an art auction, to a Midwestern cornfield (the famous crop duster scene) and, finally, to South Dakota. The final resolution occurs, of course, on Mount Rushmore.
Through it all, Thornhill/Grant has lighter moments of humor that don’t interrupt the action.
If you haven’t seen it, cue it up now. If you have seen it, cue it up again.
Alfred Hitchcock often made cameo appearances in his films. In this one, he is seen missing a bus on Madison Avenue as Thornhill steps out of his office building.
Hitchcock had a real thing for icy blonde actresses — Eva Marie Saint here, Janet Leigh in Psycho, Tippi Hedren in The Birds, Kim Novak in Vertigo and Grace Kelly in Rear Window.
I seriously considering watching that last movie the other day, but then I thought that the story of a guy confined to his apartment — not for social distance but with a broken leg — just didn’t sound all that appealing.