During one of the satirical cocktail conversations in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope" (1948), two women debate the virtues of James Mason ("so attractively sinister!") and Cary Grant. So it was perhaps a fulfillment of a directorial dream when, 50 years ago, Hitchcock pitted these two stars against each other in his most glorious adventure fantasy, "North by Northwest."
"North by Northwest" reminds you of how magical and emotionally satisfying movie escapism can be, especially in the current era of "Transformers." It's never passed out of circulation, so it doesn't carry the extra charge of rediscovery. But it's a great movie - probably Hitchcock's most influential, since it's had as much of an influence on the tone and set pieces of James Bond films as did Ian Fleming himself. It's set in a coolly amoral, mostly upper-crust fantasy land stretching from Long Island to Mount Rushmore - as if the entire fragmented contemporary world had inspired the suave, bitchy banter and cynical courage of men and women living by their wits.
"North by Northwest" is of all Hitchcock films the most fitting testament to his reputation as the complete film-artist-as-game-player. The film has never ceased running on TCM, and yet, watching adman Cary Grant get embroiled in an espionage plot involving a cosmopolitan master agent - Mason! - and a mysterious beauty, Eva Marie Saint, is vastly more pleasurable on the big screen. There you can fully appreciate the sportive precision of Hitchcock's compositions in such classic sequences as the crop-duster ambush and chase at a prairie road stop or the climactic pursuit across the faces of Mount Rushmore - a deadly game of Chutes and Ladders with human tokens.
The sleeping-car flirtation between Grant and Saint - a mutual seduction, really - showcases the mature sexiness of Hitchcock's work at its best. The sexiness is made all the more pointed by the divided emotions underneath the surface lust and humor. I think "Sabotage" (1936) and "Notorious" (1946) are Hitchcock's most broadly resonant movies, but on its own terms as a consummate light entertainment, "North by Northwest" beautifully illustrates one of Hitchcock's overriding themes: the subversion of everyday life by the tumult of the 20th century, and the need for men and women to make a separate peace. At the start, Grant is a dithering executive caught up in a whirl of meaningless appointments, but as he demands to know the truth behind the spy plot he's tumbled into, he becomes a more substantial person. Grant plays his role with perfect charm: He's both the embodiment of old-time comic-romantic movie stardom - the perfect foil for Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman's jokes (the other characters are always commenting on his good looks and tailoring) - and an actor with such untrammeled energy that you never doubt his potential to take on the world. When, in the course of the movie, he loses the vestiges of his banal existence and risks his life for love on Mount Rushmore, he - and Saint and Hitchcock - scale the heights of screen romance.
"North by Northwest" plays at the AFI Silver at 10 p.m today., 1:45 p.m. and 4:20 p.m. Saturday, and 6:30 p.m and 9 p.m. Tuesday. The AFI Silver is at 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Check afi.com/silver for updates; call 301-495-6720 for general information or 301-495-6700 for recorded program information.
Creative Alliance gets really real with "Riot Acts": The full name of Madsen Minax's brand-new "gender queer rockumentary road movie" is "Riot Acts: Flaunting Gender Deviance in Music Performance." Its debut tonight at Creative Alliance should feel like a homecoming. And that's not just because CA has always been a welcoming host to diverse documentary and performance films, but also because several CA staffers, including Kristen Anchor, Megan Hamilton, Brittney Huff and Dawn Swartz, appear in this rock doc - Anchor as part of her art-rock power trio, the Degenerettes. Other groups in the film include Katastrophe and the Cliks; the Degenerettes will perform live, as will Jessica Xavier. There'll be a soup dinner (for a separate fee) before the screening and a Q&A with Minax and coproducer Simon Strikeback afterward.
The reception for "Riot Acts" starts at 7 p.m.; the film goes on at 8. The Creative Alliance at the Patterson is located at 3134 Eastern Ave. For more information call 410-276-1651 or go to .creativealliance.org.
Red carpet at the Senator: A clutch of local-favorite actors will tread the Senator's red-carpet tonight for the premiere of the thriller "Safehouse," including Johnny Alonso ("Dawson's Creek"), and Jonathan Ruckman and Sheila Cutchlow (both of "The Wire"). There's a reception at 7 p.m. before the 8 p.m. screening, and an after-party, too. For more information, call 410-435-8338 or go to senator.com.
R.E.M. film at the Ottobar: Simultaneous with the release of R.E.M.'s Dublin-based "Live at the Olympia" album, the unreconstructed alt-rockers have brought out a movie, "This Is Not a Show," for targeted screenings in the U.S. - including 7 p.m. Saturday at the Ottobar. "This Is Not a Show" is "not a theatrical release" and is based on events that are " not a show," either (five nights of Dublin rehearsals). Do three negatives equal a positive? It will only take an hour of your time to find out. Go to theottobar.com.
Poe, Poe, Poe: The 48 Hour Film Project and the BMA provide a showcase for local filmmakers' Edgar Allan Poe-themed shorts. Will any of these game, talented directors give themselves a break and adapt some of Poe's shortest stories, like "The Oval Portrait"? ( Jean-Luc Godard quoted it in his 1962 film "Vivre Sa Vie.") You can see the films starting at 8 tonight at the BMA, 10 Art Museum Drive. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.