So it’s not the greatest Hitchcock film starring Cary Grant (that would be “Notorious”). It’s not the best Hitchcock film that includes a seduction on a train by a long shot — “The Lady Vanishes” and “The Thirty-Nine Steps” do the boy-meets-girl business much, much better. The mistaken identity business is done much better in “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” too. And Grant’s character’s problems with his mother pale in comparison with those of Norman Bates.
But let’s not be too picky. Grant is terribly charming in this picture and at the top of his form. Eva Marie Saint is lovely, and it’s nice to see her happy and prosperous after “On the Waterfront.” James Mason is delightfully suave as the bad guy. He leaves the sinister stuff to Martin Landau, and that seems exactly right. Landau always struck me as rather sinister in “Mission Impossible.”
Speaking of 60s television, those of us of a certain age get to see a number of favorite spy characters in “North by Northwest.” Mr. Waverly (Leo G. Carroll) from “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” has a nice role as Grant’s C.I.A. handler, and the Chief (Ed Platt) from “Get Smart” makes a cameo too. If you pay attention, you’ll even catch Wally Powers (Edward Binns) from “It Takes a Thief.”
The trailer’s a classic!
You can’t watch this picture without a tremendous sense of loss, knowing that it would be Judy Garland’s last great role. And then there’s the story. James Mason may be playing the part of the self-destructive actor on a downward spiral who is bowled over by Garland’s character’s talent, but his hard-won insights all apply to Judy. “You’re a great star. Don’t let that change you too much,” he tells her. “Don’t let it take over your life.”
Too late, Mr. Mason. Judy was addicted to pills by the time she made “A Star is Born,” and was on her third troubled marriage. For all her talent, and despite her stunning success, beginning with “The Wizard of Oz,” she had no faith in herself. Years of being told she was too plump, that she lacked the right nose, the right eyebrows, years of being stuck in girl-next-door roles, took their toll on her psyche.
But in “A Star is Born,” Judy is allowed to grow up. She’s ready to give up her career for Mason’s character, but he drowns himself in the ocean rather than drag her down with him. She’s got no choice but to carry on, but you see the price she’s paid for her success.
Poor Judy. Watch how she handles the torch song that convinces Mason’s character that she’s a true star, “The Man That Got Away.” It’s all there: the talent, the passion, and the pain. What a loss!
(22 June 2011)