north by northwest train romance scene
April 18, 2021 5:27 PM   Subscribe

I sat down to watch this movie with an older person and we had very different reactions to the train seduction scene. I thought it was unbearable / gross / too long, older person thought it was romantic but also being played with a wink for romantic tropes of the time and maybe a little intentional corniness. MeFites of varying ages and experiences and film tastes, what do you think?

nothing riding on opinions here, I just thought "romantic with a wink to corniness" was maybe a little weird but I don't have enough context with films of the era to come to a complete opinion. Thanks!
posted by snerson to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm in my 50s and I think it's very representative of its era in terms of the length of the scene, the amount of dialogue, the "we mustn't do this"-type vibe. Certainly, it was incumbent upon heroines of that era not to be too sexually forward, and to a certain extent it also was necessary for the male to be the aggressor but not too aggressive -- this is, after a bunch of shenanigans, the "good" woman he will end up with. (He's the protagonist of the film so we're basically riding along in his POV.)

It does seem very long to modern eyes at the very least. You also have to factor in the character stuff -- at this point in the film, they're both hiding a lot from each other and telling lies, with particular goals in mind, while also being attracted to each other.

Lastly, yeah it's a 62-year-old film, so no wonder the entire vibe might not be relatable to someone today. No wonder there's a lot of coded stuff in there that we've now lost the ability to decode, outside of separately educating yourself about the period, the filmmaker, writer, actors, etc.
posted by BlahLaLa at 5:43 PM on April 18, 2021 [16 favorites]

There’s a lot of winking in the movie. It was written that way, and Grant certainly plays it that way.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:47 PM on April 18, 2021 [7 favorites]

I remember raising an eyebrow at this scene when I rewatched North By Northwest last year, but I think it does ultimately make sense in context. Later in the film, however, I do find Roger Thornhill’s jealous spite towards Eve Kendall (a woman who’s made him no promises whatsoever—in fact, the opposite) unseemly at best.

Still, a great film, even if Cary Grant is mystifyingly orange.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 5:58 PM on April 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

Intersting question. I'm a little confused by the details. Is there an objection to ethics of the scene if these people were real, aesthetics within the world of the film, or a critique of the film-making choices? (All are interesting.)

As a white cis het American man in my forties, but one who probably spends more time than is healthy reading about the watching media from the first half the 20th century, I read it as kind of dull and unexceptional scene that moves the plot along. The woman's role seems like enthusiastic consent with some initiative and nothing obviously creepy, which is pretty good compared to other contemporary films. It could have been shorter, or written with more interesting dialogue. But, that's true of many things in film. I don't really get either the humor or the disgust. It's just one of the less interesting scenes in the film to me.

(I also find it impossible to take Cary Grant seriously in anything, ever, so I may not be the best judge.)
posted by eotvos at 6:14 PM on April 18, 2021 [6 favorites]

I'm a few years past middle age and mostly find it tedious--the part about him maybe murdering her tonight seems pretty ew, I guess. Is that what you mean? It's not unbearable to me, but I confess I generally like Cary Grant movies. I can think of others with problematic elements that I could view as played with a wink, and I just don't go around recommending them.
posted by Wobbuffet at 7:03 PM on April 18, 2021

Response by poster: just popping in to clarify - I use "gross" here to describe my annoyance/disgust at the the third "oh we are going to fuck" exchange (yes, clearly you are going to fuck, stop dragging it out), not ethically problematic. It all seemed consensual and above-board, they just would not stop with the inane dialogue and let the movie move on.
posted by snerson at 7:32 PM on April 18, 2021

Oh, of course it's super winky! The winkiest! Remember that this movie literally ends with flirty dialogue AND A VISUAL OF AN ACTUAL TRAIN ENTERING A TUNNEL.

For the time (1959), it's a particularly provocative, stylish, elevated kind of realism. And Hitchcock loved the idea of stylish women who skirted the edge of what was proper. In The Birds, his heroine boldly drives to Bodega Bay with luggage(!) and a cheeky, exotic gift of lovebirds(!) in search of a potential love interest she barely knows. In Psycho, his heroine steals a pile of cash and drives alone, boldly and dangerously, to a lonely hotel. Women weren't even allowed to have their own bank accounts in that era without a man signing for them, so for her to take this risk is astonishing.

So yeah, Hitchcock looooooves these bold women. In Notorious, his heroine lures our hero (Cary Grant, again) out for a drive in the cool air after a too-long party. He's practically a COMPLETE stranger who's caught her eye, and here's this exchange -- in 1946 no less:

Cary Grant, as Devlin: Won't you need a coat?
Ingrid Bergman, as Alicia: You'll do.

I mean, yow. That's spicy.

The NxNW seduction scene's also important for the story -- he's pretending to be a cypher in that he's flirting in a way that's both sexy and reserved, but Eve Kendall literally is one. She's awfully bold, hooking up with a stranger on a train, and yet what she's saying gives her a kind of cover. There's an uncertain balance here, and it makes things especially thrilling and confusing later on when she distances/disappears/lies to him in service of her role.

But also importantly, it shows that he's starting to fall for her and in taking that first step, his whole character is starting to change. When we first meet Roger Thornhill, he's boredly rattling off a love note for his secretary to send chocolates to his ostensible sweetheart, something super tired like "Tell her I'm counting the days, the minutes, the hours...." And the secretary's like, uh, that was your exact message last year. And he's unphased by this, and comes up with something equally cliched. Roger's an empty, dull man. His relationships are transactional. He's buttoned up, straight-laced, all habit, no adventure. The events of NxNW show a man forcibly shaken from his staid life and irrevocably changed enough to find a little more fun and romance in his life, albeit in an awfully Hitchcockian way.

I first saw this one when I was about 11. It must have been the favorite of whoever ran the programming at the local TV station because it was on every other saturday afternoon. This particular scene, when watched with parents, felt like it went on for ages and made me desperately want to find a hole and fall into it forever. But I like it -- it's daring, it's sexy, it's slightly ridiculous but it's lust amplified in silver. One of my favorite scenes in Hitchcock.
posted by mochapickle at 7:37 PM on April 18, 2021 [52 favorites]

I'm in my 50s and I remember this scene being sultry. Like this guy in the past has been kinda blablabla about women and then he meets this mystery woman who is pushing his actual buttons. The "you might murder me tonight' part is bleh but the rest of it is pretty much standard that-era movie flirting and winking.
posted by jessamyn at 8:07 PM on April 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

"Maybe you're planning to murder me, right here, tonight"

"...shall I?"

"Please do" (she grabs his head and pulls him in as they enthusiastically kiss)

We all know she's not talking about homicide, right?

I have a hard time finding problem with enthusiastic consent in old time sexy scenes, this one is so much less problematic than most of its era (and even many contemporary ones) imo.

It is indeed long.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:35 PM on April 18, 2021 [4 favorites]

We all know she's not talking about homicide, right?

Yes. Still kind of ew, IMO.
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:39 PM on April 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

BlahLaLa articulated most of my feelings about this probably better than I would have, so I won't repeat.

Other factors include the seven decade gap-- this movie is a historical artifact of a time that's gone forever, and cultural ideas about consent and "seduction" have changed so much since then, of course it's going to look really strange.

Then add in couple more things what we as modern audiences know, that the original viewing public didn't, namely that Carey Grant was queer as fuck, and that Alfred Hitchcock was what we today would call a serial stalker, tormentor, and assaulter of women who displeased him, and that his particular misogyny bled into his particular skills as a film maker and it's evident in his work once you know it.

Add those two bits of extra knowledge in there and sure, the whole scene is going to set off tsunamis of subconsious alarms to anyone watching it.
posted by seasparrow at 8:39 PM on April 18, 2021 [4 favorites]

I thought it was unbearable / gross / too long, older person thought it was romantic but also being played with a wink for romantic tropes of the time and maybe a little intentional corniness.

The scene is all those things simultaneously. At least the train entering the tunnel gag is saved for later.

It's pretty rare I see what I think is an honest depiction of life in the movies. Older movies tend to be bigger offenders in all kinds of ways. When I was a teen in the 80s, many of my peers loved those brat pack movies, finding something or someone to identify with. I thought they were fantastical stories, full of people I couldn't identify with, doing things that puzzled me and made little sense. But they still offered some entertainment value, so I made allowances. I generally don't take movies very personally. If I did, I don't think I could tolerate any movie. I evaluate them in a variety of other ways, and include or jettison things like context as I see fit.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:18 PM on April 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

That scene doesn't read as romantic to me, just sexualized. As others noted it is very much in keeping with Hitchock's tastes, so I think the bold sexual frankness is a male fantasy and part of the overall gaze of the film. Something that I think contemporary audiences would have been more clued into. You might find it interesting to contrast with some pre-code movies featuring sexually liberated women. Gold Diggers of 1933, for example. If you haven't seen it, you might also finder Hitchcock's Vertigo somewhat enlightening with regard to his views on women.
posted by forbiddencabinet at 9:31 PM on April 18, 2021 [6 favorites]

So I'm an 'Elder Millennial' (which sounds Cthulhu-esque) in NZ, I can answer the question what do I think of the scene, but I'm not quite sure what you're *actually* asking, but it seems like some variant of, why did I find this scene gross/why did it wig me out?
Answer to that, I have no idea, I think only you could truly answer that. I'm not sure what about it bothered you, so it's not something super obvious to everyone at least.

In terms of length, I was expecting it to be longer, but that is probably because I was cued to expect it to be long.

It just seemed a kind of character exposition through a make out scene, which, sure.

This only think I thought was weird was the way/angle he was standing a bunch of the time, which seemed awkward, but I think that might have been because he's taller, or supposed to be on a moving train, or is holding himself in a way so that he's not in as close contact at least below the waist with the actress as it looks? I'm not sure.
posted by Elysum at 1:47 AM on April 19, 2021

Best answer: they just would not stop with the inane dialogue and let the movie move on

OK, so, taking a little more time with this, I think some of the purpose to all that is what Hilary Dannenberg (Coincidence and Counterfactuality, 2008) calls counterfactual plotting, where to lay some groundwork for the actual plot to come, the story dwells for a while on alternatives that aren't going to happen. In this scene, there are, like, three of them lined up right in a row:
  • The delegate alternative: a little like Lisa in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), Eve volunteers to go out and do stuff for a main character who needs to stay inside. She suggests a great reason for it--well within the possible tropes for this kind of movie--but it wouldn't really work for the story, so Thornhill "wins" this part of the scene with a joke that blows off that possible direction for the plot.
  • The murderer alternative: the audience knows Thornhill isn't a murderer, but why isn't Eve acting like he might be? Hitchcock basically lampshades this, calling attention to it overtly but blowing it off this time by turning it into a sex joke. If Hitchcock had any notion this established consent, good for him, but I suspect the larger goal was defusing the fact that Eve really should be worried. We might suppose Thornhill overlooks her lack of concern thanks to his knowledge of his own innocence, but the audience needs a signal this can't be part of the plot, so Eve basically stipulates to it in a way people can smirk at (again, ew).
  • The get-to-know-you alternative: Eve calls out the third story possibility that they should probably know each other better before getting involved, which we can read as both getting involved in a relationship and getting involved in the plot together. They definitely should, but it's Thornhill who doesn't know it. So in response to the proposal that they get to know each other better, there are two jokes this time: first, the taste/flavor joke reconfirms Thornhill's basic, poorly-considered interests; and second, the "underpaid" ad man joke establishes that Eve is aware of his capability for persuasion yet OK with it, which Thornhill takes as a compliment, but we'll find out later ... it probably isn't. Incidentally, the script includes a third joke: more lampshading in the form of an allusion to Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951), straight up poking fun at how coincidental meetings between strangers set in motion elaborate movie plots.
Anyway, after all that, we're on track for a plot where Eve doesn't have to do much for Thornhill to send him where she likes, doesn't have to worry about all this like a normal person might, and in actuality occupies a deceptive role without having to explain much else about herself because she's convinced Thornhill that he's the convincing one.

As a personal matter, I agree with you it's pretty boring--not even plotting but a slow and defensive non-plotting that creates conditions in which the plot can move forward--but I don't really like thrillers or Hitchcock.
posted by Wobbuffet at 2:32 AM on April 19, 2021 [5 favorites]

The music we hear in the background is called "Interlude" from James Hermman's score. Coming in the context of the film's other more action centred music, this reads to me as a "slow movement" providing a moment of respite for the audience. It almost seems as if Hitchcock padded out the dialogue here to fit the music - rather than work the other way round. Personally it doesn't work for me as a trick because the dialogue is having to work very hard, for a long time, to try to hold the scene together - even well written and well acted dialogue has really too big a job to do.

However - I would agree that we have to see this scene as part of the set up to the "train going into the tunnel" shot we are about to see. That is still a pretty good joke - even today - and we have to see the scene in its wider context.
posted by rongorongo at 3:53 AM on April 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

the third "oh we are going to fuck" exchange (yes, clearly you are going to fuck, stop dragging it out)

This sounds to me like a "different times, different standards" kind of thing.

One thing to keep in mind when watching older films is that all tied up with the questions of what was considered socially and culturally acceptable & appropriate for depictions of sex and violence and various adult thematic elements is the issue of what filmmakers were allowed to depict and express both visually and via dialog. At the time of its filming the Motion Picture Production Code was still in effect (although not as rigorously enforced by that point), and to modern audiences (and, frankly, filmmakers of the time), these codes can seem bizarrely arbitrary and nit-picky.

There's a pretty good Hitchcock example in the Wikipedia article itself. To quote:
Some directors found ways to get around the Code guidelines; an example of this was in Alfred Hitchcock's 1946 film, Notorious, where he worked around the rule of three-second-kissing by having the two actors break off every three seconds. The whole sequence lasts two and a half minutes.
I mean, I'm in my 50's, and the idea that seeing someone kiss for longer than three seconds will lead to moral depravity and orgies in the streets or whatever sounds totally WTF. But those were the kinds of strictures they were working under. For all we know Hitchcock, Lehman (screenwriter), and MGM executives were like, "Hey, we're only gonna get three steamy double entendres in the dialog, where do we put them? Fuck it, let's jam them all in the same scene, we've got other things to spend our time on in the rest of the script. And we can add in the whole train enters the tunnel thing just to make it obvious. We can probably get away with that."

So, yeah, while this doesn't strike me personally as very romantic, it does seem pretty unremarkable for the era.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:44 AM on April 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

The witty repartee was signature Cary Grant. What happened to the train noises?
posted by SemiSalt at 6:07 AM on April 19, 2021

Yes, it's way long, and that's because Hitchcock has been waiting for this the entire movie.

I haven't seen this thing in centuries, but I would put money on it that Hitchcock has been using his camera to nestle down in her perfect hair for probably fifteen solid minutes by this point, so he's now desperate to get fingers in it and mess it all up.

This seems to have been if not his only goal as a director at least his primary one:
1. Find or make a blond actress.
2. Create upon this actress's head the most impossibly perfect glossy, bunnysoft babysilk angelic hair ever seen in the world.
3. Destroy the perfect hair.

That he died before Pantene commercials is evidence that there is no god.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:26 AM on April 19, 2021 [3 favorites]

I've never seen the film, so I don't have any of the context, but to me the scoring was actually the most jarring part. I found the music tonally "read" as sort of sweetly romantic in a way that was a little disjointed with the tone of the scene itself.
posted by eponym at 9:02 AM on April 19, 2021

Hitch seems to have spent a lot of time dreaming up ways to sneak innuendos past the censors, and that might be the best context to view his love scenes.

For example ...

EVE: I never discuss love on an empty stomach.
ROGER: You've already eaten.
EVE: But you haven't.

... was redubbed after the censor objected. The scene as written and shot was ...

EVE: I never make love on an empty stomach.
ROGER: You've already eaten.
EVE: But you haven't.

... which more directly conjures an image that was too frank for 1959. Hitch took a childish glee in that sort of thing.
posted by Flexagon at 9:10 AM on April 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: some fabulous thoughts in this thread, thank you all. I think Wobbuffet's explanation of what was going on was the most helpful to me. Because after a cheesy line and deep kiss, I expected the scene to be over - and a pan over to the train equivalent of wafting curtains or lit candle and move on - but he just kept going because he had more stuff to establish, and what he was trying to establish wasn't merely "they have an express ticket to Bonetown. ;))" (which is a modern tack I am much more familiar with)

An interesting writing maneuver, and the movie was fine qualitywise, but I don't think I'm interested in seeing more Hitchcock after viewing/reflecting. Thanks again everyone :)
posted by snerson at 9:35 AM on April 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

To Catch a Thief is one of my favorites and that one has a bunch of ridiculous cutaways to literal fireworks. Different time. In general I love older movies because I’m a bit stodgy and like longer scenes where I get time to project my own thoughts into the plot. Paradoxically with faster-cut modern stuff I get bored. I fell asleep in the theater watching Face/Off!
posted by freecellwizard at 3:12 PM on April 19, 2021

I'm a fan of the movie but have always found this scene super creepy; as creepy a make-out scene as I know of. Lacking anything better to do tonight I watched the movie for the nth time and noticed an interesting detail. One thing about this scene that has always been just so odd to me is what both Grant and Saint are doing with their hands. They hold them up behind each other's heads kind of like praying mantises but don't really touch each other with them while they talk and smooch. It's a singularly unpassionate stance, whatever the epoch. Tonight I noticed that in the beginning of the scene later on when Grant has just returned (alive!) to Saint from his rendezvous with the crop duster, Saint rushes at him and full-on embraces him, while he, now understandably, has his hands up in a similar position to the earlier scene and doesn't touch her at all.

'Cause he really doesn't trust her now. So one thing going on in the earlier scene is that it isn't just a wholesome lets-fuck experience. Saint is, as we do soon find out, acting on her sinister boss's instructions, who she probably knows wants Grant dead. She is in fact -- as Grant puts it earlier in the dining car -- "luring" a man "to his doom" -- whether by saying so he's supposed to be being morbidly flirtatious or revealing insecurity in the face of Saint's apparent sexual candor, which, again, we soon find out is anything but candid. (She may be conflicted about Grant, but apparently patriotism demands extreme ruthless measures from secret agents and she has accepted that.)

So: creepy and un-sexy make-out scene because in fact super creepy and un-sexy situation.

(Yeah, Hitchcock is undeniably a great director, but, especially in the later films he sees women often as not either as whores in need of redemption -- like in North By Northwest or Notorious --, or as having sexual appetites of their own for which they need to be punished -- like in Marnie, or, imo, The Birds. Reason enough to take a pass, I suppose.)
posted by bertran at 1:10 AM on April 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

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