Wednesday, May 25, 2016
The Idea and the Execution
In 1942, Alfred Hitchcock made a movie called Saboteur. It starred Robert Cummings as an ordinary guy framed for a crime in California, who had to flee across the country to establish his innocence, and it ended with a fight to the death atop the Statue of Liberty.
It was maybe the 20th best movie Hitchcock ever made, and is seldom seen today, except at Hitchcock film retrospectives.
In 1959, 17 years later, Hitchcock made a movie called North by Northwest. It starred Cary Grant as an ordinary guy framed for a crime in New York, who had to flee across the country to establish his innocence, and it ended with a fight to the death atop Mount Rushmore.
It’s widely regarded, half a century later, as a masterpiece, one of the best movies Hitchcock ever made.
Same Idea; Different Execution
The discerning reader will no doubt have noted that Saboteur and North by Northwest were essentially the same movie. Except that they weren’t, and the contrast between them shows the difference that the execution of an idea makes.
As a mystery novelist, I’m often asked where I get my ideas. My standard reply is that ideas are all over the place and any idiot can find one. The hard part is turning ideas into a coherent story, with lively and interesting characters and details.
In a book, the author has to get everything right without much assistance. In a movie, the actors can make a huge difference. Robert Cummings was no Cary Grant, and while he did a capable job, he didn’t hold the screen the way Grant did. Similarly, the villains in the first film were not particularly memorable, whereas James Mason and Martin Landau in the latter gave such vivid performances they immediately come up in the mind’s eye, when you think about the picture.
A Matter of Tone
North by Northwest had a better script, too, credited to Ernest Lehman. The script for Saboteur was nothing to sneer at (Dorothy Parker worked on it, for crying out loud), but about the only line I remember is Cummings’ “Who’d listen to me? I’m just an ordinary guy from Glendale, California,” which was the inspiration for the title of this blog.
The really big difference between the two was the tone. Saboteur was released when America had just entered World War II, and the outcome was far from certain. It dealt with enemy sabotage, and the tone of the picture, despite several engagingly pleasant light moments, was pretty serious. At that point in time, a light-hearted espionage thriller would have been neither appropriate nor well received by audiences.
North by Northwest, on the other hand, is a sure-handed, light-hearted romp from start to finish. The villains are simply villains, the situations are more over-the-top (think of Grant being attacked by a crop duster in the middle of a cornfield), and no one seems surprised by anything. It’s as if Hitchcock saw the story anew and realized, “Ah, this is the way to handle it.” Moviegoers everywhere are delighted he decided on a do-over.