North by Northwest (1959)—Up from Action

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

In watching North by Northwest, I was struck by how well society functions. At least, society as portrayed in this film.

In the course of this film’s events, we encounter porters, telegrams, comfortable trains, and visitors enjoying a pleasant time in the Mount Rushmore cafeteria. Protagonist Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) wears a gray flannel suit all through the movie and does so happily, a model of conformity to this system that hums along so well.

The film is a thriller based on mistaken identity. Thornhill, a thriving advertising executive, is mistaken for “George Kaplan” by two men looking for this person in a hotel bar. Thornhill simply raises his hand to summon a waiter in seeming response to the waiter calling out Kaplan’s name. The mistake proves harrowing, as “Kaplan” (an identity later found to be fictional, a ruse advanced by U.S. government agents) is the object of the machinations of international spies. Roger Thornhill is kidnapped by the thugs and swept into a drama that his captors and pursuers throughout the movie assume he understands.

Grant’s character is interesting for what he does not do, for the role I have been conditioned by modern movies to expect that he will take, but to which he never succumbs. Within this action movie, which features explosions (well, one explosion), a chase scene on the very faces of Mount Rushmore, and the pursuit of a running man by an airplane in the movie's signature scene—through all of this, Roger Thornhill never becomes an action hero. The character never embraces the action of the events, never relishes it or becomes excited by it as an encouragement to our excitement. Thornhill stands up to his captors more out of indignation than out of becoming a heroic adversary to their aims. There is nothing brash, combative, or dynamic about him. He keeps that gray suit practically all through the movie, shedding it at one point only to get it laundered.

And he does not fight. Today, the routine convention of the action movie has the hero discovering some previously unknown skill or inclination for fighting his antagonists. By contrast, in this movie, we have a scene with Grant in which he judges that he can’t overcome his captors and refuses even to try. The message of the modern action movie is that physical action is a better way, the transcendent way, and the ending of such a movie typically has its hero transformed into discovering he is better and more powerful than the banal and conforming way of his workaday society. Cary Grant discovers no such thing. To the contrary, he doubles down on his everyday world in the end. Once the villain is defeated and his character is free, he not only returns to his old life, but he pulls spy and female lead Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) into that life with him by marrying her.

It wouldn’t last. The time of this movie’s release was just 17 years away from Taxi Driver’s portrayal of the same society as something festering, something in decay. Maybe either portrayal is exaggerated and maybe both are, but why these two portrayals? Why the change, across less than two decades? What did the moviegoers of 1959 believe, or what did they know?

I wrote in a previous post about how World War II casts a long shadow over the films I have been watching.

When North by Northwest was made, did people hold their society in higher regard? Did they appreciate society more than Taxi Driver’s audience did and more than we do now?

It would seem they did. And with reason: In the real world in which this movie was made, as recently as 14 years prior to the movie, the chance to move forward peacefully and flourish by wit within a smoothly humming society was denied to most. Families were separated and careers put on hold as soldiers and sailors served far away. Thus, our action heroes of today—including the violent protagonist of a version of this movie if it had been made today—would offer a transparent fiction to the audience of 1959. Presented with such a character, those viewers would have seen right through him.

For that audience, fighting was not transcendent. Fighting would not have made the movie interesting. The people then knew all about fighting. They knew what fighting looked like and what it could and could not accomplish. Violent action was not exotic, not drama.

Instead, strikingly, the theme of this movie, the predicament that apparently spoke to them and captured their attention, had to do with how to resist action being forced upon them.

The drama of North by Northwest turned on this question: Can the man brought into a dangerous situation against his will—in a way, drafted into that situation—find his way back home safely? And more than that, can he find his way up out of that action into living peacefully and living nobly once again? Living and thriving in society once again? Compared to these questions, the aspirations of our modern fantasies unfortunately point downward, point southerly, aiming the opposite way from this film’s direction.

From Here to Eternity (1953)—Our Principles Fall

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

I neither believe in nor expect a coming apocalypse, an ending of the world by God. Our faith does not require this. The prophecies of the New Testament, whether spoken by Jesus or written by John, do not have to be understood this way. When Jesus hanging on the cross said, “It is finished,” it was truly so. God and humanity would be reconciled, and the new creation was underway from that point forward. We are living—just as the title of the famous movie would have it—from here to eternity.

In the movie From Here to Eternity, two men are stuck in the “here.” They are stuck in the positions in which they find themselves in the Army, at their posting at a not-yet-famous location in the Hawaiian islands just before the United States has entered World War II. Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), who has recently transferred to this base, finds that his reputation has transferred ahead of him. A talented middleweight boxer, he refuses to join the company boxing team—the pride and passion of the commander, Captain Holmes (Philip Ober)—because of Prewitt’s determination not to risk repeating a tragedy, his once blinding a man by injuring him in the boxing ring. The private’s refusal to add his talents to the company team brings the ire of Holmes and his boxers, who inflict punishments on him including forced marches and menial duty.

Lancaster and Clift
Prewitt’s commitment to his principles and his endurance in the face of suffering draw the attention of First Sergeant Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), who competently runs the Army base on Oahu in the vacuum left by the neglect of the boxing-obsessed (and philandering-obsessed) commander. Warden falls in love with the commander’s neglected wife Karen (Deborah Kerr), who promises to divorce her husband and marry Warden if he will become an officer. But in this she has come to the point of Warden’s principles. Whatever his gifts, whatever his leadership, the sergeant is determined that he is an enlisted man. Remaining true to himself and his dignity requires this. He refuses to repudiate his status for the sake of becoming an officer and obtaining authority over other men.

The wonderful thing about this movie, and the profound truth it expresses that gives the viewer pause, is found in the way the story has no care for the principles of either man. Our principles do not necessarily matter, in part because our principles do not necessarily express a commitment to morality or truth, even when we find high-sounding ideals to attach to them. Our principles can express our pride even when they are wearing morality or truth as raiment. The conceit of both of these men in the movie who are standing on their principles is that they are making a claim to know the future. They insist they know exactly what effect their decisions will have and where their choices might take them.

The most brilliant scene in this movie is not the iconic scene of Lancaster and Kerr kissing on the beach as the tide comes in. That scene was just a special effect, a trick of timing. The most brilliant scene in the movie is when Lancaster’s Sergeant Warden walks out from behind his desk, the desk at which we have seen him sitting from the viewpoint of only one camera angle throughout the movie so far. As he leaves his desk, the camera pivots for the first time to follow him, and thus we learn something about the office we have never seen before. The office has a calendar on the wall facing the desk. Perhaps illogically (the detail only bothered me when I thought about it later), it is a daily calendar like one that might be used in a bank. A single large number announces the day’s date. Lancaster’s character walks over to this calendar as he is speaking on the phone and, still talking into the receiver, he happens to lean on the wall beside it. Though he is naturally oblivious to the date, we see it and cannot help but take note. We learn that the day’s date, for these two men who are stuck, for everyone else at this base on Oahu, is December 6, 1941.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor comes the next day. Warden is surprised, Prewitt is surprised, the entire base is surprised and thrown into confusion, until the soldiers begin to understand, begin to rally, and even begin to fight back, thanks in no small part to the leadership of Warden.

The base’s new commander (Captain Holmes’ abuses having been found out by this point) is not to be found at the moment of the attack. Events therefore give no regard to Warden’s principles; he is thrust into the role of an officer even if he does not formally hold the rank. It is he to whom the men look, it is Warden who hastily organizes resistance against the Japanese, and it is even he who has the ammunition storage shed torn open when he is told that an officer’s key is needed to unlock it.

The events are equally callous toward Prewitt’s principles. He could have joined the boxing team anyway. Because of this attack and because of the war it will bring, there would never have been any intracompany boxing championship for him, or even a single match to fight. All of that would have been abandoned.

It is a surprising moral, but one the story invites us to contemplate. Our principles are our pride, or they might as well be. Our principles—the codes we write for ourselves—are not necessarily the codes to which we are called.

An error we make in choosing these principles, or choosing these boxes that we dignify to be principles, is that events are not constant. The time and the season are not constant. Things change, as you know. The circumstances around us will shift or dissolve, and the next instance of this dissolution could happen any moment. It could happen tomorrow. (What is today’s date?)

I neither believe in nor expect a coming apocalypse, but that doesn’t mean much. It might come anyway. At the very least, God has all manner of small apocalypses in store. They are terrible and total while they are happening, and the pain and loss are consequences of the fact that Death still has its way. Yet the work of Jesus is finished, and one consequence of this is that Death has been routed and its rule has been deposed. Thus, life awakens past every such apocalypse. The new creation brings freedom, including shedding the shackles of what we thought would happen, and dropping the burden of that person we had thought ourselves to be.

The Wild Bunch (1969)—Tactics Alone Provide Nothing

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

“Let the dead bury their own dead,” said Jesus.

A scene from the 1969 western The Wild Bunch portrayed a perverse caricature of this very principle. Fleeing on horseback after their attempted railroad office robbery had turned into a gun battle, a group of outlaws led by Pike Bishop (William Holden) are slowed by the members of their band who had been wounded in the fight. One rider falls and can no longer continue. Bishop shoots him dead. Another senior member of the outlaw gang, Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine) looks on. When two others in the band want to pause to bury their fallen companion, Engstrom objects to the risky and unnecessary delay, saying:

“I think the boys are right. I’d like to say a few words for the dear, dead departed. And maybe a few hymns’d be in order. Followed by a church supper. With a choir!”

Engstrom’s mocking rejection advocates the same action and logic as the call from Jesus, though of course the parallels end there. Jesus’ command had to do with letting go of the burdens of obedience to this world for the sake of the kingdom already moving and transforming the world. “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and spread the news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60). By contrast, the bandits wanted to get away with their loot. (And fitting to the comparison I am making here, that loot in this story proved illusory. The thieves stole a decoy cash box full of steel washers rather than coins.)

The point I am offering in describing the scene this way is this: The tactics contained within the commands of Christ have power and efficacy apart from the way of Christ. That way—the way of “Take up your cross and follow me,” the way of “If you love me, obey my commands”—consists of something other than effective tactics or wise strategies. Improvements to tactics can come to anyone over time. Wisdom will also come over time, and a clarifying of values or purpose might come as well. But a life or a mind that sees changes such as these, that becomes more mature and effective, might still be a life or a mind that is directed toward futility. The tactics of Jesus’ teachings about living for him can also be applied to aims that are pointless and deathly, so without him, we might resemble Jesus now and again as we are heading all the more effectively toward oblivion.

The Wild Bunch is the story of a group of characters who are appealing to us in their fellowship to one another, and in the fact that the story offers them as protagonists, but who otherwise do not merit our sympathy. The robbery in the opening scene was confounded by an ambush by bounty hunters, leading to a shootout in which not only robbers and bounty hunters were lost, but also innocents caught in the crossfire. We see no remorse; the movie is about the aging Holden and Borgnine’s desperate attempt to pull off one more daring and lucrative robbery to overcome the failure of this attempt before the end of their luck or abilities brings an end to their career.

I said fellowship. There is a certain code this group of bandits lives by. Or, at the very least, they believe there is such a code. Confronting a warlord general who brutally rules a small community in Mexico, Borgnine declares, “We’re not like him.... We don't hang people!” But as the viewer of this scene, I don’t know whether I am being asked to take his word for this. Borgnine’s character had never been in a position of autocratic power. Given the distance he had already gone in his chosen work to rationalize violent death, wouldn’t he be able to go farther still to rationalize hanging as well? (Indeed, how much of any of our success at adhering to a code is the result of simply the opportunities we have been given? Not for nothing does the prayer say, “Lead us not into temptation.”) We then see the same murkiness around the men’s seeming loyalty to a companion—their seeming fellowship—in their attempt to assuage the general’s anger over a murder this companion committed. The men end up not rescuing their companion from this enemy, but accepting a job in the general’s service.

The one clear aspect of the men’s code to which they remain committed is what drives the story of the movie: determination toward the goal. Bishop, Engstrom, and the remaining survivors of their wild bunch will not relent in their pursuit of gold. “These are men,” says Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a former member of their crew who pursues them throughout the movie, having been caught and turned by the authorities. These are men, he says, meaning they have the strength that comes from mature self-knowledge, even character. Yet all of that power is directed toward an elusive aim that can only come to nothing.

At the start of the movie, we see children watching a scene on the earth at their feet: a swarm of ants overwhelming and devouring a pair of scorpions. The scorpions are more powerful, but the ants are ravenous, and in the end numerous enough to destroy them. The children watching this scene from above are watching with—God’s viewpoint? The children choose no winners in this particular contest, they just watch the event unfold. And at the end of the movie, we are given something like the same view. The general kills the member of the gang who has angered him, and the gang kills the general. Mexicans authorities who had been under the command of the fallen general overwhelm the gang. It becomes clear in this fight that there is no outcome for the Wild Bunch except for their lives to end. Which, it needs to be said, was their predicament all along.