north by northwest


A number of New York subway trains currently have posted in them an advertisement for a suspense novel (Brad Meltzer’s Book of Lies) said to be a combination of The Da Vinci Code and North by Northwest. We know about the huge success of the former, especially in its book shape, but it’s reassuring news that a 50-year-old film is still taken to be a household, or rolling stock word. But what about the combination? Meltzer’s novel will tell us how and if it works, but we could still be left puzzling over the intended meaning of the ad, the sign value of the two titles. The Da Vinci Code is pretty easy: murder story with roots in ancient times and entangled in religion. And North by Northwest? Witty, stylish thriller where a man can almost get killed in the middle of nowhere and later scramble about the face of Mount Rushmore? Film where the notion of real-life probability is not just abandoned but lampooned, Hitchcock’s finest attack on the very notion of cause and motive? ‘Here, you see’, he said to Truffaut, speaking about this movie, ‘the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!’ He is saying that the espionage that drives the plot does just that: it drives the plot. We don’t have to know what the spies are after or what’s at stake, even if there is a flicker of a mention of the Cold War in the movie. Do the stolen secrets matter? In the world of actual espionage that would probably be a secret too, but in Hitchcock the answer is a revelation. Of course they matter, even in the entire absence of any content for them. They are the way the film pretends it’s about something.

more from Michael Wood at the LRB here.