The BFI Southbank has been something of a revelation for me recently. Here you can enjoy films from yesteryears that you never imagined you would be able to see on the big screen all in a civilised, comfortable and popcorn-free environment. You can even bring a drink in from the bar! (Although squidgy cups are involved… may have to smuggle a Glencairn glass in next time…)
It is currently The Genius of Hitchcock season and I simply could not turn down the opportunity to go and see one of my all-time favourite films: North by Northwest.
“I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders depended [sic] upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself ‘slightly’ killed.”
– Roger ‘O’ Thornhill (Cary Grant)
This film is simply brilliant. A gripping espionage thriller with terrific dialogue, humour and even some sauciness that undoubtedly influenced the Bond movies (Hitchcock was even asked to direct an original version of Thunderball shortly after North by Northwest was released in 1959) revolving around the ultimate case of mistaken identity.
It is, amongst other things, also a film about booze. Thornhill’s fondness for a drink or two (like his attitude towards the truth, being an advertising man) is spectacularly turned against him within the first quarter of an hour of the film but at the start we find him on his way to have a few Martinis in the Oak Bar at the Plaza, New York.
What follows must be the most anybody has been forced to drink in a film ever (let alone one that was made in the 1950s and is rated ‘PG’) made all the more serious by the fact that it is intended to set poor old Thornhill up for an overly elaborate (although escapable) death. (Wow, this film really did influence Bond!)
“Assault with a gun and a bourbon and a sports car!”
– Roger Thornhill (or is that George Kaplan?)
Following another overly elaborate attempt on Thornhill’s life later in the film it is not immediately apparent which scotch Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) pours for them – possibly Haig Gold Label with the old diamond-shaped back label? Product placement, refreshingly, was not such a major consideration in the 1950s!
The best thing about these dramatic attempts to kill him, which is made more difficult to appreciate having grown up with twenty odd Bond films and countless other more recent movies, is that they were far from clichéd when North by Northwest was being made. This, along with Thornhill’s status as a regular guy (albeit a well-tailored one) who has been thrown into this extraordinary situation, make lines like “I could use a drink” all the more believable.
Cary Grant’s (or is that Archibald Leach’s?) greatest drinking moment in North by Northwest however, comes when he manages to order a pre-dinner Gibson in the dining carriage of a train with few places to hide despite the fact that he has been identified in every newspaper as a murderous fugitive whilst simultaneously breaking the ice with his new and rather attractive female acquaintance.
Similar to a Martini but garnished with an onion as opposed to an olive, the Gibson is an underrated variation that has been somewhat eclipsed by “the meteoric rise in classic Martini’s” and “the trends for olives and lemon zests” (69 Colebrooke Row blog).
More recently the Gibson has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been seen in Mad Men – after all, Roger O. Thornhill is the original Don Draper. Other nods to North by Northwest in the series include the stylised skyscraper opening (along with it’s Vertigo-style Hitchcockian falling man), Don Draper’s use of an alias and the fact that his father’s name is Archibald (Cary Grant’s real name). In Mad Men it is Roger Sterling who is the Gibson drinker however.
As the credits roll in a cinema where you could hear a pin drop during the more tense moments of the film and where everybody laughed together during the many humorous and witty moments, applause spontaneously broke out for a thoroughly appreciated motion picture.
If however we had all raised a glass instead then that would have surely been equally if not more appropriate.