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North by Northwest to Psycho: The Breakdown of Moral Order on the Edge of the Sixties…

In the space of three years, Hitchcock produced Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho.

Each of those three films is (rightly) regarded as a classic, and it is astounding that a single director could produce three such films back-to-back with only a year between each. Each of those films is massively influential, each of those films is loved by critics and audiences alike, and each of those films is radically different than the other two. Hitchcock remains one of the most influential and respected film directors of all time, and these three consecutive classics demonstrate his remarkable control of the form.

The road to nowhere.

It is important to separate the modern perception of these films from the reaction to them upon release. Very few classics are accurately identified as such by contemporary critics, often settling into that role over time. Vertigo was originally met with a somewhat muted critical response by critics and struggled to break even on release. Pyscho was largely dismissed by critics as the time as something crass and inelegant. In contrast, the contemporary critical reception of North by Northwest was a lot warmer.

However, time has arguably been kinder to Vertigo and Psycho than to North by Northwest. Vertigo is frequently identified as one of (if not the) best films ever made. Psycho is frequently cited as one of the most formative (and perhaps the best) horror films ever made. In contrast, North by Northwest can feel overshadowed by the films that flank it, even if it is hard to feel too sorry for a film that have been described by both Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich as “perfect.”

A shady deal…

Still, there is a sense that the lightness of North by Northwest has been held against it. Ben Oliver has stated that North by Northwest is “not typical film-school fodder.” Nathan Rabin explains that North by Northwest is a “glorious trifle of an adventure film” placed “between two of Hitchcock’s heaviest and most tormented films.” David Shariatmadari has speculated that “perhaps the lack of Freudian handwaving leads people to rate it poorly in comparison.” There is a sense that North by Northwest is somehow lesser than the heavier films around it.

Of course, this speaks to broader trends in how critics talk about art. There is a tendency to prioritise drama over comedy, to dismiss superficially lighter material in favour of weightier content. (Genre fare faces a similar bias, although it seems that science-fiction and horror are more likely receive a revaluation in the medium- to long-term.) North by Northwest is a lighter and fluffier film than either Vertigo or Psycho, but does that make it inherently lesser than either of them. More to the point, there is a surprising amount of Psycho to be found in North by Northwest.

The final curtain.

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