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Alfred Hitchcock: Masterpiece Edition Vol. 8: Beware of cropdusters....
Warner (film)/Universal (box set) / 136 Minutes / 1959 / Unrated / Street Date: October 30, 2012
[As preparation for our comprehensive review of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, we're investing each of that massive Blu-ray sets films one by one chronologically. If you missed them, check out our reviews of Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo.]
Quintessential Hitchcock: the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. A hapless victim of circumstances caught in a web of intrigue, barely equipped to survive. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a busy advertising executive with two ex-wives and a doting mother (Jessie Royce Landis). He's mistaken for the unseen George Kaplan, a federal agent, we learn, pursuing a foreign espionage ring. Thornhill is unceremoniously abducted from a business meeting in the cocktail lounge of a New York hotel. Whisked off to a grand estate in Glen Cove, he's questioned by a man who introduces himself as Lester Townsend (James Mason), suave, debonair, and seemingly ruthless. Protesting his mistaken identity simply seals Thornhill's fate. The chief enforcer, Leonard (Martin Landau), force-feeds Thornhill a bottle of bourbon. Then he and his associates place Thornhill in a stolen car on a dark and winding road, unprotected by guardrails to protect the careless from a severe drop to the rocks below.
Thornhill escapes by racing away, barely able to control the car, to be arrested for drunk driving. Brought before a judge the next morning, he naively protests his innocence, accusing his captors of trying to kill him. But he underestimates the slick professionalism of his foes. When he returns to the estate with police investigators that afternoon, all traces of his captivity have been removed. Determined to understand the truth, Thornhill seeks out Townsend at the United Nations, where he's addressing the General Assembly. His captors follow, and Thornhill is drawn deeper into an ever more complex conspiracy to destroy him. Framed for murder, he flees New York to find the only man who may be able to clear his name, George Kaplan.
He stows away on the Twentieth-Century Limited, a train that links New York with Chicago. Onboard, he meets and is seduced by Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), an industrial designer traveling on business. But, all is not as it seems. As the police and foreign agents pursue Thornhill, and as he chases after the shadowy Kaplan, his desperate flight is monitored by an American Intelligence Agency. The Professor (Leo G. Carroll), an anonymous senior officer who oversees the operation to bring down the spies, is somewhat pleased that the hapless Thornhill has been mistaken for Kaplan. He's just the red herring the Agency needs to protect its deep-cover asset. No help for Thornhill here.
The game of cat and mouse among the police, the Agency, Thornhill, Kendall, and Phillip Vandamm, the espionage ring's leader, moves swiftly. Along the way we are treated to two of cinema's best-known sequences, the wonderfully constructed and unscored crop duster attack in the middle of a Midwestern cornfield, and a climax that takes place on the faces of presidents at Mount Rushmore. Truths are slowly revealed. Twists and turns add layers of complexity and unpredictability that consistently demand your attention. The great Cary Grant has never been better, a delightful blend of wit, charm, vulnerability, and unexpected inner-strength. James Mason doesn't get much screen time, but his portrayal of an amoral sophisticate, entirely at ease with this lethal game, is wonderful.