North by Northwest: Feast of the character actors

Alfred Hitchcock's cameo right after his "directed by" credit in North by Northwest

Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo right after his “directed by” credit in North by Northwest

There are plenty of reasons to enjoy 1959’s North by Northwest, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best thrillers. Among them: a slick performance by Cary Grant. Eva Marie Saint as the heroine, James Mason as the villain, Martin Landau as the villain’s main assistant, Ernest Lehman’s script, Bernard Herrmann’s music, etc.

The purpose of this post, though, is to point out the wealth of character actors, especially for those familiar with 1960s and 1970s television shows in the U.S. Hitchcock’s 136-minute film provided plenty of parts, albeit small in most cases, for busy character actors.

What follows is a sampling:

Leo G. Carroll (The Professor): Carroll, by this point, was something of a Hitchock regular, having previously appeared in Rebecca, Suspicion and Spellbound. Here’s he appears as “The Professor,” a high-ranking official of U.S. intelligence. It’s a preview of his performances as Alexander Waverly in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Jessie Royce Landis (Roger Thornhill’s mother): Landis was born in 1896, just eight years before Cary Grant. She steals almost every scene she’s in here, especially when she’s skeptical of her son’s wild story of spies. Her career spanned decades.

Edward Platt (Thornhill’s lawyer): At his point, Platt was six years away from his best-known role, The Chief in Get Smart.

Ken Lynch (Chicago policeman): Lynch showed up as gruff cops (he had a recurring role on the 1970s show McCloud as a New York cop) or gruff villains. With 189 acting credits in his IMDB.COM ENTRY, he never lacked for work.

Malcom Atterbury (Man at Bus Stop): The busy charactor actor (155 credits in his IMDB.COM ENTRY) only gets a few lines as he chats with Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill in the middle of nowhere. But Atterbury’s observation about the crop dusting plane sets up a classic sequence, which would be an influence in the Terence Young-directed From Russia With Love.

Lawrence Dobkin (U.S. intelligence official): He’s one of the people who participates in a meeting chaired by The Professor. In the 1970s, he’d double as a director on various series as well as being a character actor (including being the villain in the pilot of The Streets of San Francisco).

Les Tremayne (Auctioneer): Blessed with a smooth, silky voice, Tremayne remained busy for decades, including a part in the 1953 version of War of the Worlds.

Olan Soule (Assistant Auctioneer): Another actor blessed with a smooth voice. He had a slight build, but an enormous voice, ensuring he could get work frequently. His many voice-only roles included playing Batman in cartoons produced by Filmation and Hanna-Barbera.

Alfred Hitchcock (Man at New York Bus Stop): One of Hitchcock’s more prominent cameos, he misses the bus immediately after his “directed by” credit.

And no this is not a comprehensive list (sorry, Edward Binns and Ned Glass, among others).

 

Does SPECTRE have too much humor? Not really

Cover art for a North by Northwest Blu Ray release

Cover art for a North by Northwest Blu Ray release

A recurring criticism of SPECTRE is that the 24th James Bond film engages in too much “Roger Moore humor.”

This trope came up repeatedly. (Trust us, this blog surveyed a lot of reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.) Yet, in a lot of ways, SPECTRE’s humor content was closer to “Alfred Hitchock-Ernest Lehman humor,” as realized in the 1959 movie North by Northwest.

Without going into too much detail, North by Northwest concerns the adventures of New York advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant), who suddenly finds himself in the midst of a Cold War adventure involving spies from all sides.

Sounds like very serious stuff. And it is. But there’s also some humor, similar to SPECTRE.

SLAPSTICK: In SPECTRE, the main example of slapstick humor involves a hapless driver of a Fiat in Rome, with Bond (Daniel Craig) tailgating him while trying to evade Hinx (Dave Bautista). The Fiat driver eventually touches (slightly) a post, causing his air bag to deploy.

In North by Northwest, Thornhill has been forced to drink an entire fifth of Bourbon by the lackeys of lead villain Vandamm (James Mas0n). The thugs intend to make it look like Thornhill had a fatal auto accident while drunk. But Thornhills revives enough to drive off. At one point, two of his car’s four wheels are over a cliff. In a closeup, Grant looks at the camera while his character is drunk and not entirely sure what’s going on.

MORE SUBTLE HUMOR: In SPECTRE, Bond has amusing exchanges with M (Ralph Fiennes) and Q (Ben Whishaw).

In North by Northwest, Thornhill — who finally knows everything — gets away from his “American Intelligence” minder the Professor (Leo G. Carroll). He gets out of his own hospital room and enters the room of a woman patient.

The woman patient, while putting on her glasses, says, “Stop!”

Grant’s Thornhill replies, “I’m sorry…” The woman patient, her glasses now on and realizing what she sees, replies, “Stop….”

“Uh, uh, uh,” Thornhill says, wagging his finger. He then ducks out of the room.

In a 2009 post, this blog argued that North by Northwest provided the blueprint for 1960s spy entertainment. SPECTRE is an attempt to replicate that, as well as the “classic” Bond film style, while including some of the drama of 21st century Daniel Craig 007 movies.

SPECTRE has its faults. This blog’s review, while liking the film overall, cited the “reveal,” the length and the last third of the film as demerits. Still, SPECTRE doen’t remotely resemble a comedy, as some critics seemed to think it did.  It’s an attempt, as we’ve said before, of blending “classic” and Craig-style Bond.

And it’s humor content is comparable to what Hitchcock liked to introduce in some of his films. SPECTRE isn’t up to the standards of North by Northwest. That’s still a nice standard to shoot for.

 

Jon Burlingame starts a YouTube channel

Film and television music expert Jon Burlingame has started a YouTube channel called Reel Music. First up: a look at Burlingame’s picks for top 10 spy movie scores.

Burlingame has written books on television composers and James Bond music. In the initial video, launched on Aug. 11, his selections comprise a number of different composers.

Burlingame’s list is presented in chronological order and doesn’t attempt to rank the 10 selections. It begins with Bernard Herrmann’s score for 1959’s North by Northwest and ends with John Powell’s score for 2002’s The Bourne Identity.

Along the way, there are two John Barry scores (Goldfinger and The Ipcress File), three Bond films (including one not made by Eon Productions) as well as efforts by Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones and Dave Grusin.

You can take a look for yourself. While individual viewers might quibble with selections or argue for others, there’s no dispute that Burlingame knows the music territory.

Note: the image below shows posters for Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie. Neither shows up on the list, but they present a “news peg” in journalism-speak.

Spring 1964: U.N.C.L.E. gets a new chief

Leo G. Carroll's title card for first-season U.N.C.L.E. episodes

Leo G. Carroll’s title card for first-season U.N.C.L.E. episodes

With less than a month before regular series production began, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had some tweaks, both major and minor.

Superficially, star Robert Vaughn changed his hairstyle, switching his part and going for more of a “dry look” compared to the pilot that would air as the first episode.

More substantively, U.N.C.L.E. would have a new chief: Leo G. Carroll, a mainstay of several Alfred Hitchcock films, was cast as Alexander Waverly, replacing Will Kuluva’s Mr. Allison.

Carroll was three decades older than Kuluva. He had two basic on-screen personas: kind and bumbling (the 1955 comedy We’re No Angels or the Topper television series) or cold and calculating (“The Professor” in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest).

Occasionally, he got to a character where he displayed *both* personas (such as THIS EPISODE of the Boris Karloff Thriller anthology series where his character’s seeming bumbling masked his true persona).

Here’s an entry from Craig Henderson’s U.N.C.L.E. TIMELINE:

Monday, May 18, 1964

(Executive Producer Norman) Felton officially informs NBC that (Rober) Vaughn and (David) McCallum will remain to play running characters but Will Kuluva has been dropped. The new chief at U.N.C.L.E. will be played by Leo G. Carroll, and the character’s name has changed from Allison to Alexander Waverly.

Arguably, Carroll’s Waverly is an extension of his “Professor” character. Waverly is calculating and, as the series went on, showed he was more than willing to sacrifice his operatives if necessary. In one second-season episode (The Foxes and Hounds Affair), Waverly drops Solo (just returning from a vacation) into the middle of a complicated assignment where the ace agent’s life is in danger.

The official casting of the new U.N.C.L.E. chief came less than two weeks before series production began on June 1. The first draft for The Double Affair, which would be the eighth episode broadcast, still refers to Allison as the U.N.C.L.E. chief.

As the first season unfolded, the production team would seek to expand Carroll’s role. Waverly would be given a cousin who bore an uncanny resemblance (The Bow-Wow Affair) and would occasionally demonstrate he had once been a pretty mean operative himself (knocking out a lackey in The Deadly Decoy Affair).

The on-camera team was now complete. The question now was whether the show would work — or even survive.

Are cameos in movies worth it?

Alfred Hitchcock's cameo right after his "directed by" credit in North by Northwest

Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo in North by Northwest

This fall, fans of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series wondered if the show’s original stars would have a cameo in a new film version underway. Some fans were vocal, arguing that of course they should.

It’s not known if such a cameo took place for the U.N.C.L.E. movie. (Robert Vaughn said more than once he’d welcome the opportunity; David McCallum made comments suggesting he wouldn’t participate.) The subject though got this blog to thinking: are such cameos worth it, or are they more of a distraction for a finished film?

The king of such cameos was director Alfred Hitchcock, who made a cameo in his more than 50 films. They can be something of a mixed bag. In North by Northwest, he appears right after his “directed by” credit as a man missing his bus in New York City. The appearance, in effect, is an extension of the main titles designed by Saul Bass. At this point, the viewer hasn’t been watching the actual story of the film.

In other cases, Hitchcock’s appearance almost draw attention to themselves. In 1969’s Topaz, there’s an airport scene. The viewer is drawn to Hitchock, in a wheelchair, guided by a nurse. Hitchcock meets a man, abruptly stands up and shakes the man hand before walking off. By this point, more than 20 minutes of the story have been told. You could argue it’s a distraction, although it’s over pretty quickly.

In the James Bond series produced by Eon Productions, co-boss Michael G. Wilson has been performing cameos for decades. Again, they’re a bit of a mixed bag. In some cases (Skyfall, The World Is Not Enough), they’re fleeting, something for the hard-core fans while more casual 007 cinema goers aren’t likely to notice. In others (Tomorrow Never Dies, Casino Royale), they draw attention to themselves. Here are some:

The interest among U.N.C.L.E. fans whether the movie has cameos is different. Vaughn and McCallum established the original show’s popularity. There’d be no movie if there hadn’t been a television show in the first place. If one was filmed, would it distract from the Guy Ritchie-directed story? The counter question: do you owe it to the original actors if they’re interested? (Especially since Ritchie appears to have squeezed former soccer star David Beckham into the movie.)

None of these questions have right or wrong answers. Fan tastes vary. Hitchcock fans, for example, take pleasure in trying to spot the director’s cameos. In any case, it’s likely such cameos will continue in movies.

An obscure 007-Hitchcock connection: Charles Bennett

This week, there was a dialogue among proprietors of 007 Web sites among connections between James Bond and director Alfred Hitchcock. Perhaps one of the most direct ties (behind the camera) is also the most obscure.

Writer Charles Bennett worked on 1940’s Foreign Correspondent starring Joel McCrea


One of the most cited examples was how North by Northwest’s crop-duster plane sequence inspired a scene in From Russia With Love where a helicopter dive bombs 007. The U.K. Daily Mail wrote up how Ian Fleming hoped Hitchcock would direct a Bond film before the Eon Productions series began production.

However, the most direct connection is the 1954 adaptation of Casino Royale that aired on CBS, starring American actor Barry Nelson. It was co-scripted by Charles Bennett (1899-1995). Bennett was a screenwriter on a number of Hitchock films, including The 39 Steps (1935), Sabotage (1936), Secret Agent (1936) and Foreign Correspondent (1940). Bennett also co-authored the story that was the basis of the 1934 and 1956 versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

By the 1950s and ’60s, a period that included the first Casino Royale adaptation, Bennett was mostly writing for television. His work also included one episode of The Wild, Wild West, “The Night of the Eccentrics,” that introduced Count Manzeppi, intended to be a recurring villain. Manzeppi, played by Victor Buono, would only return for one additional episode (which Bennett would not write). Still, the episode is rather quirky, and includes Richard Pryor as one of Manzeppi’s henchmen.

1959: Hitchcock draws the blueprint for Bond movies (and other ’60s spy entertainment)

That blueprint, of course, would be the director’s North by Northwest, which marked its 50th anniversary this year.

The film is normally written about its use of themes such as mistaken identity or use of familiar landmarks as settings that Hitchock employed in his prior films. Still, it’s also striking how the movie also seemed to inspire makers of 1960s spy entertainment.

The documentary Inside From Russia With Love comments on how the second James Bond film tips the cap to Hitchcock by including “an aerial assault on 007” (a helicopter going after Bond) that wasn’t part of Ian Fleming’s original novel. In the Hitchcock film, Cary Grant faced this menace:

North by Northwest’s style may have also rubbed off on the Bond creative crew. Ernest Lehman’s script deftly balanced humor with the story’s suspense. For example, Cary Grant, after being forcibly inebriated by the villain’s henchman, does a double take staring into the camera when the car he’s driving is in a precarious spot on the edge of a cliff. Later, as Grant escapes the custody of U.S. intelligence, he walks on a ledge and into a woman’s hotel room. “Stop,” she says wistfully. It’s not that big a leap to the humor that Richard Maibaum and other screenwriters used in the early 007 movies to provide relief after a tense scene.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which like North by Northwest was filmed at MGM, also may have been influenced to some degree. Grant’s Roger Thornhill was, afterall, an innocent sucked into the world of espionage. The MGM television show utilized such characters as a surrogate for the audience. And, of course, U.N.C.L.E. ended up employing regular Hitchcock supporting player Leo G. Caroll, whose Alexander Waverly wasn’t all that much different than North by Northwest’s mysterious “Professor,” who is some kind of high-ranking U.S. spymaster.

Finally, Saul Bass provided Hitchcock with stylish titles for North by Northwest. Bass’ titles aren’t the same as the stuff Maurice Binder or Robert Brownjohn would turn out, but the title sequence was, and is, memorable: