NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock

Written by: Ernest Lehman

Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, Leo G. Carroll, Josephine Hutchinson, Philip Ober & Martin Landau

NORTH BY NORTHWEST is widely considered to be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films and one of the best movies of all-time. This thriller to end all thrillers is loaded with twists, turns and intrigue for its entire 136-minute running time. The pacing is fast and the story is sure to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. This is truly one of the best thrillers of all-time and easily stands among the master of suspense’s greatest hits, ranking just behind PSYCHO as my second-favorite movie in Hitchcock’s filmography.

Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is an advertising executive on a business lunch with colleagues. He calls out for a waiter just as two thugs come in looking for a man under the name of “George Kaplan.” Mistaking Thornhill for Kaplan, the goons force this mild-mannered businessman into their car at gunpoint and drive him to a mysterious mansion. There, he meets the sinister Lester Townsend (James Mason) and finds himself being interrogated for information that he doesn’t know. This case of mistaken identity elevates as Thornhill soon finds himself being chased from both sides of the law, whilst falling for a mysterious stranger Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). In order to clear his name, George will have survive all sorts of threatening scenarios and face some very dangerous people head-on.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST’s first key strength comes in leading man Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill. From the first minute we see this hapless businessman, Grant infuses him with a sarcastic demeanor that gradually morphs into a far more courageous and charismatic personality as the film moves forward. Even after being kidnapped and forced into a library at gunpoint by brutish thugs, Grant’s Thornhill still has enough gumption to get in a few smart-aleck remarks and maintain his composure. It’s been said that NORTH BY NORTHWEST served as the template for the early 007 films and one could definitely get that impression from Grant’s performance as Thornhill.

The supporting cast members don’t slouch either because we get James Mason playing the sinister antagonist. Not much is initially known about this foreboding foe in his introduction and we are fed small bits of information about him as he keeps popping back up. Mason sneers and plays this villain with such scene-chewing talent that you’ll revel in viewing this character’s every scene, especially his on-screen banter with Grant’s Thornhill (who he constantly mistaken for Kaplan). Mason’s merry band of henchmen are intimidating too. Each suit-wearing goon gives off a distinctly creepy or threatening vibe from their sheer appearance.

NORTHWEST doesn’t just pit Cary Grant against James Mason. Eva Marie Saint stars as Grant’s gorgeous love-interest and a hard-to-read possible femme fatale. Though her intentions are unclear, what is clear is that Grant and Saint have wonderful on-screen chemistry together. These two performers feed off each other in a natural way and their shared scenes are a joy to watch. The screenplay also slips in lots of sexual innuendos through clever dialogue that are sure to get modern audiences giggling and likely shocked the 1950s Production Code folks. The final shot of the film is also an appropriately suggestive shot to make up for a lack of sex allowed in a 1959 major motion picture.

Ernest Lehman (who was known for musicals and comedies) spent a year penning this screenplay for Hitchcock and wound creating one of the best thrillers to ever grace the silver screen. NORTH BY NORTHWEST constantly keeps a veil of secrecy and mystery hovering over the viewer’s eyes for a majority of the running time, slowly leaking out clues to gain the maximum amount of suspense from each dire situation. Thornhill’s situation keeps going from bad to worse (being kidnapped, being accused of crimes that he hasn’t committed, and being chased by nearly everyone around him) and the viewer’s eyes remain glued to the screen.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST’s screenplay utilizes masterful set-pieces that stick out even more when placed within the plot’s context. I already knew about the famous cropduster scene, but seeing it in action and the uneasy build-up towards it added a new level of thrills to this iconic movie moment. The finale on Mount Rushmore is truly one hell of a way to end this thriller, while the prior breaking-and-entering scenes build an atmosphere of tension that’s so thick you might suffocate. This film also has brilliant smaller bits that aren’t really discussed as much as they probably should be. One of my favorite scenes being Grant’s hilarious way of escaping a seemingly inescapable auction room.

Simply put, NORTH BY NORTHWEST is an ingenious piece of entertainment and filmmaking. This thriller is one of the best thrillers in Hollywood history and one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films. The action-packed, suspense-filled plot moves at a fast pace, but also slows when certain key details need to be revealed and lets the many twists sink in for extra effect. The cast is great across the board with Cary Grant starring as an excellent leading man, whilst James Mason plays a perfect villain and Eva Marie Saint is spot-on as the believable love-interest. Countless twists and turns will keep viewers planted on the edge of their seats. I had a blast watching NORTH BY NORTHWEST! This classic thriller to end all thrillers hasn’t lost a bit of its quality in the decades after its original release!

Grade: A+

FIRESTORM (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and Language

Directed by: Dean Semler

Written by: Chris Soth

Starring: Howie Long, Scott Glenn, William Forsythe, Suzy Amis & Garwin Sanford

For a film that relies on frequent scenes of characters running away from flames, FIRESTORM is all wet. Sorry, I couldn’t resist making that pun because it’s an accurate descriptor for this lame-brain excuse of an action flick. The studios clearly didn’t have much faith in this dud because it was dumped into an early January release date and the DVD doesn’t even have a menu. FIRESTORM has a whole list of problems and one only redeeming factor. It’s an ugly mess of a film that gets pretty much everything wrong…save for a single awesome moment that saves it from being a complete failure.

Jesse Graves (Howie Long) is a smokejumper, a specially trained firefighter who jumps straights into forest fires. Jesse’s seen a lot of hot messes in his day, but he’s about to face his toughest challenge yet. A mysterious arsonist has started a massive, rapidly spreading forest fire. This dangerous blaze is part of a master scheme by thief/murderer Alexander Earl Shaye (William Forsythe), who uses the chaotic inferno as a means to escape and retrieve a hidden treasure of 37 million dollars. Unfortunately for Shaye and his four goons, Jesse Graves has jumped into the fiery fray and the prison escapees soon find themselves in a heated stand-off against the muscular, square-headed firefighter.

Howie Long was an NFL player on the Raiders for 13 years and then took a misguided brief stint as an actor. FIRESTORM features Howie’s sole headlining role in his career and it’s very apparent why he eventually gave up acting to become a sports commentator. Long is a terrible performer. Not one of the emotions he’s trying to play comes off as the least bit believable and his line delivery constantly feels wooden. He’s possibly the worst actor I’ve seen in an action leading role, which is really saying something when you consider all of the terrible acting we’ve seen in decent/good action flicks. FIRESTORM doesn’t even give Howie the benefit of big dumb fun, because this script is terrible and the action scenes are atrociously boring.

Not even William Forsythe can save this film as the main murderer/thief antagonist. He seems downright bored in this role and who can blame him? He got suckered into playing a blandly-written villain. The most Forsythe gets to do is slowly pick people off one-by-one in rather dull ways and frequently refers to his thugs as “gentlemen.” That’s about the only quirkiness there is to this dull-as-dirt character. Meanwhile, Suzy Amis (who gave up her acting career shortly after this mess) plays bland bird-watcher turned damsel-in-distress Jennifer. Her only functions seem to be getting kidnapped by the villains and occasionally screaming at Howie Long during perilous situations (like hanging off his leg while he’s parachuting off a cliff or climbing over him on a moving motorcycle).

FIRESTORM’s script is filled with so many clichés that it comes dangerous close to bursting into a deadly explosion of bad writing. Numerous clichés occur within mere minutes of each other, including Scott Glenn announcing his future retirement as an aging smokejumper, verbally passing the torch on Howie Long’s character, and capping this off with the sloppy reveal of Long’s deceased father also being a smokejumper (with a cheesy black-and-white photo to boot). These three eye-rolling revelations happen in the same three-minute scene. During the climax, there’s also a half-assed twist that comes out of nowhere and feels like a half-hearted slap in the face.

To further add to the already ridiculously high pile of bad movie clichés, there’s a bus full of chained convicts left in the forest fire’s path as an extra bit of would-be excitement that pays off in the most anti-climactic way possible. Still, one line did make for a good (intentional) laugh. The film begins with an over-the-top rescue scene that features every single character and a dog reacting in slow motion to the heroic deed. It’s so cheesy that you’ll wish you brought nachos. The annoying soundtrack that’s prominent in many moments, rife with extra sound effects, doesn’t help matters either.

Action films (especially cheesy 90s action films) aren’t exactly known for having realistic logic and adhering to the laws of physics, but FIRESTORM’s action sequences are eye-rollingly inept. There’s one fight scene between skydiver Jesse and a former wrestler convict/henchman that is horribly choreographed and among the worst film fights that I’ve ever sat through. It’s terrible to a point where the viewer can point out all the times they actors are leaving themselves open for another attack…and then not taking an opportunity to attack their opponent. The rest of the action sequences range from stupid to boring to stupidly boring, save for a single two-minute scene.

I mentioned there was one redeeming quality that saves FIRESTORM from a failing grade. Well, that comes in one major death that occurs in the final showdown. It’s so ridiculous and absurd that it’s unintentionally hilarious and kind of brilliant. This single scene easily ranks among my favorite villains’ deaths and I won’t dare spoil it in this review. I’d recommend checking out the clip on YouTube though, because then you’ll have watched the only two minutes of merit in this feature-length disaster. Other than that death scene, this is one of the worst action films that I’ve had the displeasure of sitting through. FIRESTORM? More like SHITSTORM!

Grade: D-