Sunday, 11 January 2015

North By Northwest: the Bond connections

Scenes from North By Northwest (left) and From Russia With Love (right)
As I was flicking through the novel of Thunderball (1961) the other day, I was reminded about the small but influential role that Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 film of North By Northwest has in the world of James Bond. The film, starring Cary Grant as advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill on the run from a group of sinister agents – and the law – owing to a case of mistaken identity, is a classic thriller, whose combination of edge-of-the-seat action, amorous encounters, and sardonic humour would inspire both Ian Fleming and the producers of the Bond films.

The film had on its release an immediate impact on early attempts to bring James Bond to the screen. According to correspondence reproduced in Robert Sellers' book, The Battle for Bond, Ivar Bryce, Ian Fleming's friend and, effectively, producer and financier of those initial efforts, was so impressed by North By Northwest (“the best film of his life”, he wrote) when he saw it in September 1959 that he urged Fleming to see it. In Bryce's view, the film closely followed the style of Fleming's Bond adventures and represented a model for their proposed Bond film.

By October 1959, Fleming had seen North By Northwest. Robert Sellers reveals that Fleming had enjoyed the film, though complained about the humour, which he felt undermined the suspense. Still, the film must have stayed with him, because he referenced the film in the novel of Thunderball, which he wrote at Goldeneye over the winter of 1960. Chapter 9 sees SPECTRE agent Giuseppe Petacchi on board the Vindicator aircraft preparing to hijack the plane. “Five more hours to go,” he muses. “Rather a bind missing North by North-West at the Odeon. But one would catch up with it at Southampton.”

The following year, when the task of producing the first Bond film had passed to producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, North By Northwest may have been in the producers' minds as they considered the casting of Bond for Dr No (1962). In his autobiography, Cubby Broccoli recounts how he tried to persuade Cary Grant to take the role. Broccoli doesn't mention North By Northwest, but the film, as well as Grant's earlier spy film, Notorious (1946), provided the ideal screentest.

The plot of North By Northwest is a cat-and-mouse game setting an Everyman – albeit one that is suave and self-assured – against charming, sophisticated, vaguely European, villains. The plot's MacGuffin allows the characters to move seamlessly across iconic American landscapes by means of plane, train and automobile. Like Bond, Thornhill must rely on his wits and quickly form an uncertain alliance with a mysterious and seductive femme fatale. Grant’s physicality is impressive, particularly in the famous crop-duster scene, which sees Grant hit the deck time after time and sprint in between.

But Grant could also provide Bond's darker shading. As Jeremy Duns argues in his book, Rogue Royale (2013), Grant’s character in Notorious, T R Devlin, is closer than Thornhill is to the character of Bond. Devlin is morally ambiguous; his complicity in placing Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia Huberman in danger underscores his determination to serve the greater, patriotic, good. Alicia accedes to the mission for Devlin’s sake, but receives little reassurance in return. Devlin is in love with Alicia, but he must appear cold and unyielding in order to make her play her role convincingly.

Cary Grant's answer to Broccoli's offer was, of course, no. Grant never did sequels and Broccoli and Saltzman were offering a three-picture deal. Broccoli doesn't record his views on Grant's proto-Bond films, but the follow-up to Dr No, From Russia With Love (1963), probably the most Hitchcockian of Bond films, paid tribute to North By Northwest by alluding to the film's crop-duster scene. Just as Thornhill escapes the biplane, Bond flees from the path of a helicopter piloted by SPECTRE agents, and is forced to dive to the ground as it swoops down.

While the early James Bond films were reasonably straight adaptations of Ian Fleming's novels, there were other influences, including Hitchcock's North By Northwest. But then, North By Northwest had also impressed Ian Fleming, whose reference to the film in Thunderball is the most obvious sign that the film had had a degree of impact on his writing.

References

Broccoli, C, with Zec, D, 1998 When the Snow Melts: the Autobiography of Cubby Broccoli, Boxtree
Duns, J, 2013 Rogue Royale: the Lost Bond Film by the 'Shakespeare of Hollywood', JJD Productions
Sellers, R, 2007 The Battle for Bond: the Genesis of Cinema's Greatest Hero, Tomahawk Press

4 comments:

  1. Another brilliant spot-on piece of writing, Edward. I enjoyed reading that very much!

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  2. Glad you liked the post. Really appreciate it!

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  3. Great write-up! Notice also some of Bernard Herrmann's score sounds like the Bond Theme. I'm sure that Messrs Broccoli, Saltzman and Young looked at Hitchcock's classic carefully when they were considering the overall tone of the early Bonds.

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