I sometimes wonder whether the reluctance of film professionals to acknowledge the artistic seriousness of comedy has something to do with the fact that their medium, popular though it is, has yet to be fully accepted as co-equal with what highbrows still persist in referring to as the “legitimate” theater. (Obviously, they haven’t been to Broadway lately.) As has lately been pointed out by Roger Ebert, there is no Pulitzer Prize for film, and the Nobel Prize for literature, though it has gone to playwrights often enough, has yet to be awarded to a full-time filmmaker. Could it be that the men and women who make the movies suffer from a collective inferiority complex? Could that be why they insist on awarding Best Picture Oscars to such bloated truckloads of pompous rubbish as Gandhi and Dances With Wolves?
If so, it would also explain why Alfred Hitchcock never received an Oscar for best direction—he simply wasn’t po-faced enough—and I suspect it also has much to do with the fact that North by Northwest, his finest and most characteristic movie, has yet to be widely recognized as such. Even those Hitchcock scholars who know how good it is feel obliged to swaddle their praise in a thick blanket of symbol-snuffling. Hence Donald Spoto, writing in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, reassures us that North by Northwest “leavens the gravest concerns with a spiky and mature wit….Never has the entire hierarchy of unprincipled political expediency been so ruthlessly dissected.”
The only truly illuminating thing I’ve ever read about North by Northwest is a 1970 essay by the late Charles Thomas Samuels, who spoke admiringly of its “contentless virtuosity.” [emphasis added] That’s exactly right, and it is for this reason that North by Northwest, which turns forty this year, has stayed as fresh as this morning’s paint.
The only thing wrong with Hitchcock’s dream is that it came true, more or less. I have a sneaking suspicion that North by Northwest was the inspiration, acknowledged or not, for the decerebrate big-budget thrillers that blight the movie screens of America each summer. From Die Hard to Speed to ConAir, they’re all North by Northwest, only dumbed down, larded with four-letter words, and ruthlessly stripped of charm and wit. This is how far we’ve come since 1958: we started out with Cary Grant and ended up with Keanu Reeves. Yet it can hardly be denied that the first led to the second, for mindless thrills, be they cheap or costly, are still mindless thrills.
It is for this reason that any fully considered avowal of Hitchcock’s cinematic greatness must be followed by an asterisk. The trouble with Hitch isn’t that he is a comedian, but that his comedy is less black than blank. He avoids the jungle of politics by fleeing into the desert of nihilism, and while we gladly follow him there, there is no nourishment in his cold laughter, and never any tears. True comedy is different: I’ve never watched The Rules of the Game, or listened to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, without weeping unabashedly at the harsh truths about human nature that can only be spoken with an unsentimental smile.
Teachout might have a point here. If Hitchcock championed "contentless virtuosity" then couldn't he be thrown a bone? Art for art's sake, perhaps? But he wasn't that kind of director, was he?