BFI THRILLS WITH ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S NORTH BY NORTHWEST

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*Review may contain spoilers.

Hitchcock returns to UK cinemas with arguably his most entertaining film, North by Northwest. BFI re-release the classic romantic thriller UK-wide on the 20th October.

Combining an exhilarating femme fatale, Eva Marie Saint, a “big girl in all the right places”, according to a heroic and lovable advertising executive who takes himself far too seriously, Cary Grant, and a fascinating villain with a penchant for smooth-talk, in the company of James Mason, this charming film is coated in an immaculate web of lies and intrigue, whisked into an almighty suspense caper by the hot-boiled master of cinema and suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.

The story follows Grant as he is mistaken for a certain “Mr. Kaplan” by Mason’s foreign espionage organisation and framed for a knife murder committed in the U.N. Building, which sends him running for his life on the transcontinental express where he encounters the marvellously sympathetic blonde, Marie Saint. He is wholeheartedly seduced by her intelligence and beauty. She even goes as far to imply that she might not find it objectionable if a man was to explicitly state his desire to make love to her, which Grant assures her he’d never be so rude as to infer.

Hitchcock knows very well how to seduce a spectator on more than one level. And his screenwriter Ernest Lehman was equally a master at writing flirtatious dialogue for awry chuckles, such as when Grant criticises Marie Saint for “using sex like some people use a flyswatter.” Or a more subtle line like “How does a girl like you get to be a girl like you?” suffuses wit with adoration and speaks of the perils that are to be revealed in her character, albeit with an ethereal quality.

After evading the Chicago police disguised as a porter in a red cap, Grant is lured to an Indian prairie in the middle of apparently nowhere, the iconic scene where he is blasted by a crop-duster biplane, surviving to discover Saint Marie is Mason’s partner and dearest love. This is the first big emotional blow, setting in motion a dramatic climax that revels in a few big plot twists and a very fashionable showdown aboard Mount Rushmore. The direction the action takes feels very Bond, except Hitchcock’s pretty pictures fully appreciate the art of dramatic suspense. He preserves good taste by complimenting logic with enough good use of the imagination and turmoil.

The whole picture is deliciously entertaining and thrilling on a level of political intrigue/conspiracy, erotica, obsession, adrenaline, and pure ‘Hitchcockian’ inspiration, which feels as contemporary today as it must have in 1959.

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A MAN CALLED OVE – COMEDY THAT BREAKS YOUR HEART

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“Whatever we do in this life, no one gets out of it alive.” This witty utterance, from a man who’s simply had enough of everything, referring to his own mortality, sets the morbidly fascinating tone of this exclusively brilliant Swedish film.

Ove is a character who has accepted his fate. Life’s portrait has lost its colour, and everyone in it has turned into an “idiot”. Ove wants to commit suicide. But the tender side to death’s ambition is a strong will to reunite with his recently deceased wife. Life began with her presence and ended with her passing. So why go on living? He is also a very ill-tempered and bitter old man. So it doesn’t take long to realise that the odds for living are really not stacked in his favour. That is until a new family arrive in the neighbourhood; a shock at first, but a family with two young daughters brings vital new energy and perspective to Ove’s life. The film turns into a heartwarming story of a man who slowly begins to realise that if we aren’t living as human beings then we might as well be dead (or surrender to death). Ove learns to how to live again.

This is not to say that Ove didn’t once play a more active part in life. The film tactfully cuts back to his childhood and early adulthood to show a graceful person who once fell deeply in love and had a great deal of ambition as an engineer. Ove loves to build things: houses, engines; he’s a man who lives for infrastructure and obeying the way things are done best, which also means you’re a fool if you don’t drive a Saab. It’s seems a stubborn characteristic from a millennial’s viewpoint, but in the tradition of Ove, rules are in place to make the world run more efficiently and therefore life is just better for it. When somebody dares to puncture the system by, for example, driving down the path that should not be driven on, it threatens to not only rupture Ove’s temper, but to destroy his entire equilibrium and cause a mental catastrophe. He’s one of those men whose admirable levels of sensitivity to their way of being allow for an occasional forgiveness toward their equally extreme mannerisms. You’ll certainly need some patience getting to grips with him.

A Man Called Ove is ultimately a microscopic character-study candidly crafted by the director, Hannes Holm. Thankfully, the material and Rolf Lassgard’s performance are both deserved of the time spent. Holm has managed to pick apart every detail of Ove’s world, which becomes more comical beat by beat. It’s an absurd world to most, no doubt about that, but the film reaches a level of uniqueness that all comedy needs in order to flourish. It cannot be defined, but it can be asserted as a miraculous achievement.

WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR – DOOM IS MARTIN SCORSESE’S VISION OF A MODERN ROMANCE

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Martin Scorsese comes knocking with a BFI re-release of what is perhaps his most personal and autobiographical film. Shot for pennies over the duration of four years (1964-68), the film stars Harvey Keitel as a Marty alter-ego college dropout who falls terribly in love with a middle-class blonde girl, played by Zina Bethune. Keitel’s character is confused by his feelings and spends the entire picture in turmoil over his ethnic and Catholic background versus the liberation involved in riding up to Greenwich village and making-love in a bedroom instead of mating meaninglessly with “broads” on the streets.

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In part, the film acts as a prequel to Mean Streets, where Scorsese would again realise his incipient vision of a protagonist brought together by two opposing forces of sainthood and recklessness. It is the image of a man whose core values are pure, but who relies on audacious behaviours to get from A to B. And thematically, there is no hiding from the fact that Scorsese’s young male protagonists from the 60s and 70s are rooted in chauvinism and psychosexual tension; rape is viewed as a male crisis etc. The main storyline in Who’s That Knocking At My Door surprisingly has nothing to do with a crime narrative, it is simply about man’s dilemma as to whether or not a woman can love him who is no longer a virgin, as she is therefore able to sleep with any man she pleases, but here it is the case of a woman who has also been raped, an additional dilemma for the character.

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It is shot in the landmark locations of Little Italy and tiny local clubs where unemployed youths play poker and act out on the fringes of society. Every scene bleeds with the vision of a filmmaker learning his craft and exploring inventive camera-work and blocking. The scene where Keitel meets the girl is spectacularly shot with a single camera turning a two-shot dialogue sequence into an entirely spherical playing field. The dialogue is also on fire – it feels improvised and yet is actually carefully scripted and the shots even storyboarded (as per Scorsese’s commentary). No doubt, the film has many imperfections, but with Scorsese, stylistic error manages to equate with innovation and poetry. A lack of professionalism does not mean the film lacks orchestration in mind of a cohesive whole. The hallmarks of the great auteur are there, in detail and in subject matter. His talent is fledging. It is definitely a debut “picture” worth revisiting.