Friday, December 6, 2013

North by Northwest: Mad Men and Englishmen

This post has been revamped and republished for the CMBA Blogathon: Film Passion 101, from December 1st through December 6th, 2013. Enjoy!

Danger: Beware of Spoilers!
For me, my fascination with Alfred Hitchcock first started with my sister having the flu.  My big brother let me stay up with him to watch Strangers on a Trainhalf of it anyway, once Mom put me back to bed.  But it was like a “gateway drug” for movie fans, and the biggest score of all was North by Northwest!  It all began when composer Bernard Herrmann (On Dangerous Ground; Vertigo; Psycho) introduced his friend, screenwriter Ernest Lehman (Sweet Smell of Success; West Side Story; Sabrina), to director Alfred Hitchcock.  As Lehman explained, “I sat in my office, trying to construct a story which began at the United Nations…I said, ‘I want to make the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.  Something that has wit, sophistication, glamour, action, and lots of changes in locale…And that’s when I started writing.”  Well, Lehman did all that and then some, in my absolute favorite film of all time, which also happens to be my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film:  North by Northwest (1959).  When there weren’t enough Hitchcock movies available in theaters or on home video (remember Blockbuster and such?), I filled the gap as best I could with Stanley Donen’s own delightful comedy-thrillers: Charade; Arabesque; Mirage; and Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, also penned by Peter StoneSilver Streak was also a favorite of mine during its original theatrical run, when I was a fresh-faced lass of 13.  I was eager to see more of Hitchcock’s own films, but at that point in time, few if any of us Average Joes and Josies owned VHS players, and DVDs weren’t even a twinkle in technology’s eye yet. Therefore, if I wanted to watch honest-to-goodness classic Hitchcock movies, I had to wait for them to turn up on TV, often in the wee hours of the night , or sometimes I’d be lucky enough to find them playing at one of the many revival theaters operating in my hometown of New York City back then. 

Mr. Thornhill, your horoscope predicts
you'll have a most unusual day!
Believe it or not, I first saw the Hitchcock film destined to become my all-time favorite in a tiny movie theater in midtown Manhattan. Appropriately enough, it was called The Mini Cinema. As I recall, it was in a brownstone; I only remember maybe twenty seats in the screening room. I was there to see North by Northwest, having heard it was one of Hitchcock’s very best films. Well, they had me at Saul Bass’s sleek green skyscraper in the opening credits!  The print was excellent, and all of us in the audience were enthralled.  By the time the film ended and I emerged into the sunshine, I was in love. So a short time later, when my mom took my friends and me to see Silver Streak at East Tremont Avenue’s now-defunct Interboro Theatre — so named because it straddled the Bronx/Manhattan border — I was just film-savvy enough to pick up on Silver Streak’s tips-of-the-hat to Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, and of course, North by Northwest.

See no evil, drink no evil,  frown no evil!  
In the 1950s, Hitchcock was at the peak of his powers with Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder; Dial M for Murder; Rear Window; The Trouble with Harry (more renowned in France at the time); the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much; To Catch a Thief, and Vertigo (even if the latter wasn’t fully appreciated until years later). But North By Northwest was truly the jewel in Hitchcock’s crown at that time; heck, it’s still the champ as far as I’m concerned!  MGM originally wanted Hitchcock to film Hammond Innes’s The Wreck of the Mary Deare from a Lehman script, but both men soon realized they were far more interested in making North by Northwest.  Slyboots that Hitchcock was, he and Lehman devised a way to slip out of …Mary Deare by colorfully describing the high points of North By Northwest to the MGM brass, leaving them thinking they’d get two Hitchcock pictures!

 
You’ve got me all wrong, fella, I’m a teetotaler! 
… Mary Deare
was eventually filmed by Michael Anderson, and everyone got what they wanted—except James Stewart. According to the IMDb, while Stewart and Hitchcock were filmimg Vertigo, Hitch gave Stewart a taste of what he had in mind for North By Northwest.  Stewart was hooked—but as much as Hitchcock liked Stewart, he felt (rightly) that Cary Grant was the ideal choice for the lead.  Rather than disappoint his old friend and frequent leading man, Hitchcock delayed production on North By Northwest until Stewart found himself committed to shooting Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder—and then he offered the role to Stewart, who of course had to turn down the offer by then. Oh, that Hitchcock—such a finagler!
Even Hitch can't control NYC traffic!

The opening credits alone sweep us viewers into the action before the bad guys even show up. Saul Bass’s sleek opening credit sequence works beautifully with Bernard Herrmann’s fandango-style opening theme, swirling tempestuously along as Manhattan’s bustling citizens rush into subways and taxis—except for that distinguished, imposing gent who’s just missed the Fifth Avenue bus. Yep, it’s Hitchcock himself, literally trying to catch up with the credits. This is New York City, all right, with its boisterous, cocky attitude, like this dialogue from Eddie,  the elevator operator:
Roger: “Say good night to the missus.”
Eddie: “We’re not talkin’!”

Strangers on a train, exchanging cigarettes! 

What’s the world coming to when even your mom, Cyrano Jones,
the Chief of CONTROL, and the SIA won’t believe your life is in danger? 


Just as well Hitchcock's cameo came early, because our hero gets few opportunities to relax and enjoy the film’s fabulous locations, what with the wringer he’s about to be put through! Talk about Mad Men: as Roger Thornhill, the ad man who became a bewildered red herring, Cary Grant’s romantic panache and flair for comedy perfectly suits our literally dashing hero, Roger O. Thornhill. The “O” stands for "nothing", much like Roger himself at first.  He’s a charming, slick executive who's used to having his own way in business and the boudoir, judging from the fact that he’s been married twice and is currently wooing a new gal with “candy from Blum’s. Each piece wrapped in gold paper. She’ll like that; she’ll think she’s eating money.” Indeed, those aforementioned opening credits move at a rapid-fire pace, almost like one of the screwball comedies Grant made with Howard Hawks in the 1930s and ‘40s.

“You gentlemen aren’t really trying to kill my son, are you?”
We see that Roger is a man of smooth confidence, always in charge—until that fateful day at The Plaza Hotel’s Oak Bar when the name “George Kaplan” is called out at the wrong time, turning our hero’s life upside down!  Roger has barely had time to knock back his cocktail before he’s kidnapped by the coolly sinister henchmen of a suave gent calling himself Townsend (James Mason of Lolita; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; and Team Bartilucci’s Suave Hall of Fame!).  It seems these wicked jaspers are convinced that Roger is really George Kaplan, a government agent, and they’re not playing on Kaplan’s team. Roger is outraged and bewildered, but his frustrated insistence that “I’m not Kaplan!” falls upon deaf ears. Instead, Roger gets bourbon forced down his throat in Townsend’s Glen Cove home, thanks to reptilian henchman Leonard (Martin Landau before TV’s Mission: Impossible and his Oscar-winning performance as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood), and is nearly killed in a drunk-driving frame-up.  From there, things go from bad to worse as Roger’s visit to the U.N. to confront Townsend results in more mistaken identity and worse: our hero gets framed for murder!  And so the chase begins, monitored by a spymaster known as “The Professor” (Hitchcock favorite Leo G. Carroll, looking remarkably like one or both of the Dulles brothers)!



Not one, but TWO fist-i-cams in one film!
North By Northwest is truly the Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films, with all his pet themes covered with maximum wit, panache, and suspense: a wrongly-accused hero on the run; mistaken identity; a romance between Roger and soignée spy Eve Kendall (played by On the Waterfront Oscar-winner Eva Marie Saint in a sexy-cool change of pace) that's tender, sensuous, and full of surprises, on a chase that takes our hero from New York to Chicago to Mount Rushmore.  Fun Fact:  Hitchcock took our gal Eva Marie to Bergdorf Goodman in New York City for a fabulous new wardrobe for her, all seen in the film (look sharp in the scene where she’s wearing the red dress; you can see the Bergdorf label).  In the movie’s extras, she playfully called Hitch “my one and only Sugar Daddy.”  But as engaging and dashing as Grant is, the smoothly villainous James Mason nearly out-suaves him.  My husband Vinnie and I have joked that if Mason had played Roger O. Thornhill, the film would have been over in minutes. With all due respect to Grant, if the imperious, unshakably confident Mason asked the Glen Cove police, "Do you honestly believe that this happened the way you think it did?", they would immediately reply, "Er, no, sir, you must be right, you're free to go, sorry we bothered you."

North By Northwest was nominated for Oscars for George Tomasini’s film editing, the art direction and set decoration of Robert F. Boyle (who you may remember from the sterling documentary Something’s Gonna Live), Merrill Pye, William Horning, Henry Grace, and Frank McKelvy (but not Best Director or Best Score, alas). Best of all, North By Northwest was nominated for Lehman's screenplay; in fact, he borrowed from it liberally for his suspenseful, rollicking script for the film version of Irving Wallace’s The Prize, starring Paul Newman! 

Roger wanted to catch a plane, but now the plane’s trying to catch him!  

As auctioneers, Les Tremaine and Olan Soule
want to ditch troublemaker Roger at any price! 

“Stop!  (She looks closer and gets swoony.) Stop.”
(The female patient wants more of Grant’s bedside manner as Grant flees
Who could blame her?)

For more information about North by Northwest, here's a post I wrote about the 2001 Oscar nominee The Man on Lincoln’s Nose; and the 2010 documentary Something’s Gonna Live, produced by Norman Jewison.






30 comments:

  1. "In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggeration." I have a friend in real-life who's a veritable falsehood Rolodex, and I always smile when I hear that line because I immediately think of her.

    It's no secret that North by Northwest is my favorite Hitch, too, Dor (I get to call her Dor); it wasn't the first classic movie I ever watched but the first time I saw it I sat through it three times--it played on the campus theater movies program when I was attending Marshall University in 1982. I've lost count how many times I've seen it, and I agree with everything in your essay and then some. There's just no better Hitchcock film (bah on Vertigo); it is the quintessential representation of the Master of Suspense's work.

    One day, my mother says to me: "I've tried to watch North by Northwest over the years but I always got interrupted...so today I finally watched it from start to finish. I can see why you love that movie so much!"

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    1. Ivan, I'm delighted to see that your mother finally had a chance to give NORTH BY NORTHWEST her undivided attention. Clearly, the dear lady raised you right! Funny how so many of us movie mavens became fans in college, isn't it? Just goes to show that movie fans like us are, as Yogi Bear would say, smarter than the average bear! :-) All of us here at TeamBart thank you kindly for your enthusiastic comments!

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  2. Charming look at a fun movie. Love your title.

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    1. Jacqueline, thanks so much for your kind words about NORTH BY NORTHWEST, including my subtitle "MAD MEN AND ENGLISHMEN! I'm delighted you enjoyed it!

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  3. Dorian, it was wonderful to read how Hitchcock was your "gateway drug." I wonder how many under the age of 30 realize what dedication it took to be a film fan back in the day -- either you saw it when it was on or in the theatre, NO DVR's! Thanks for sharing!!

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    1. Gilby, many thanks indeed for your enthusiastic praise of my NORTH BY NORTHWEST post! You're so right re your comments about the kind of dedication we die-hard classic movie fans needed back then, before VHS and then DVRs made life easier for us fellow movie fans. Thanks for joining the NORTH BY NORTHWEST conversation here at TotED; feel free to drop by anytime! :-D

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  4. Like Tracy, I like how Hitch was your "getaway drug." When everything and everyone else fails, there is always Hitchcock! NBNW ranks as one of my favorite Hitchcock films and one of my favorites overall. My own first taste of AH in a movie theater was with MARNIE back in 1964 when I stilled lived in Brooklyn.

    I agree with Jacqueline on your title. Nice play on words. Were you channeling Noel Coward's song or Joe Cocker's album?

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    1. John, I actually fused Noel Coward, Joe Cocker, and my older brother Peter all together for the subtitle "MAD MEN AND ENGLISHMEN," since Peter had long since taught me about both those talented gents, back when I was just the kid sister of the family; just goes to show that a good memory can come in handy when you least expect it :-) How cool that your first Hitchcock film experience came from MARNIE! We native New Yorkers who love Hitchcock must support each other! Thanks a million for joining our NORTH BY NORTHWEST chat; always glad to have you join the movie fun and frolic! :-D

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  5. Your comments about the Mini Cinema reminded me of how, during the week I spent in NYC so long ago, I noticed all these little movie houses squeezed in here and there, and I really desired to visit some of them (I understand at one time there was such a place which was running the Coe-Lover short film "The Duva" continuously. Do you happen to know if it's still there and still doing that?).

    Oh, and NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

    Maybe my favorite Hitchcock film (or at least very firmly planted among the top three). A film which is so excellently directed that one doesn't dwell on the obviously illogical gaps in the storyline (trying to kill a man by luring him out to a field and using a biplane? I mean, could we have made things a bit more COMPLICATED here? But no . . . when we're watching the film we're bouncing up and down and going "Duck, Cary!").

    Show of hands: who besides me have thoroughly studied the region immediately behind Mt. Rushmore to see where that fabulous looking neo-Frank Lloyd Wright house could be located? That house, by the way, has always been high on my list of Places In Movies I Wish I Was Living In (for contrast, Jimmy Stewart's apartment in REAR WINDOW is also on the list, even if it clearly didn't have enough room for all my books).

    NORTH BY NORTHWEST also features one of my favorite Cary Grant "little bits": the business when he's sneaking into a hospital room and the female patient breathily goes "Stop"! That Grant charm strikes once again (and we already knew, from PEOPLE WILL TALK, that Grant certainly had a way with women in hospitals).

    (We could've had a much shorter movie if the James Mason character was played by a woman, but I digress.)

    And because of this movie it's always been my dream to someday enjoy brook trout in the dining car of a train. Yes, I know it's a little trouty, but . . .

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    1. Michael, my friend, you've given me something to research: I must confess I've never heard of the Coe-Lover short film "The Duva!" If you unearth this riddle before I do, let's trade notes! In any case, I was tickled by your comment about NORTH BY NORTHWEST: "A film which is so excellently directed that one doesn't dwell on the obviously illogical gaps in the storyline (trying to kill a man by luring him out to a field and using a biplane? I mean, could we have made things a bit more COMPLICATED here? But no . . . when we're watching the film we're bouncing up and down and going "Duck, Cary!")." I couldn't have put it better myself, Michael :-) And like you, I've always wondered how James Mason's Vandamm & henchmen were able to get such sweet real estate on the top of a national monument. Suave Hitchcock villains get all the goodies, at least until they get their just desserts! (Not that the world really needs a remake of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, but if you must, how about Meryl Streep?) And yes, I always enjoy that delightful "Stop!" as Grant's charm gives that Rapid City hospital patient a chance for Grant to charmingly sidestep the lady! :-) I enjoyed your comments on our movie, Michael; always glad to have you join the fun here at TotED, as always!

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  6. It took me until my, ahem, middle years before I fully appreciated "North by Northwest". Well, better late than never. The film is pure pleasure.

    My daughter (first year animation student) tells me that they looked at parts of the movie in class - something to do with framing and storyboarding I believe. She knew I'd be thrilled that at least she's seen some of it. It's been hard to pin her down for a viewing.

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    1. Caftan Woman, we all know our "ahem, middle years" (including me) are our best ones when it comes to enjoying NORTH BY NORTHWEST and other classic movies! You and I are in the same boat, my friend, in that many of us have rediscovered fun and fabulous suspense movies like NORTH BY NORTHWEST! I'm delighted to hear your animator daughter was able to use Cary Grant's material and watch the movie for herself! We're rooting for her to achieve her goals of being an animator!

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  7. For some reason, I avoided this film for along time (don't ask me why, because I adore Cary & Hitchcock) - but, boy, once I saw it it shot up to one of my most favorite films of all time.

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    1. FlickChick, while I'm surprised you initially avoided it (hey, everyone's a little nervous about meeting Cary Grant and Hitchcock, even via NORTH BY NORTHWEST! :-)), I'm delighted it turned out to be a smashing success with you after all! BRAVA to you, and keep that good Cary Grant love coming; we're right behind you! :-D

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  8. Dorian: "I must confess I've never heard of the Coe-Lover short film "The Duva!"

    HOLD THE PHONE!

    Everything Comes To A Screeching Halt!

    Off-Topic Police, Ma'am. We need you to pull over. You're being charged with a 509: admitting to not having seen "De Duva". Not only as brilliant a parody of Ingmar Bergman as one could wish for, but the very first appearance of Madeline Kahn.

    We're letting you off with a warning this time. "De Duva" can be found on YouTube. Move away from the blog right now and go watch it. And have a nice day, Ma'am.

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    1. Michael, my friend, you had me at "Young Madeleine Kahn in a Bergman parody," as well as your usual smart and snappy wit! I will make it a priority to get my hot little hands on "De Duva"! Beaucoup thanks for bringing this daft little short to my attention! :-)

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  9. love it! the post and the movie. REAR WINDOW is my fav Hitchcock but this one's very close. the music is the best, always gives me the goosies, and you just never get tired of watching it over and over and that's really the test isn't it? best

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    1. Kristina, my friend, once again you prove to be a gal after my own movie-loving heart! While NORTH BY NORTHWEST is my #1 fave, REAR WINDOW is definitely a tight-close second, Hitchcock-wise! I wholeheartedly agree with you that NORTH BY NORTHWEST passes the multiple-viewings test with the proverbial flying colors, too! All of us here at Team Bartilucci HQ hope you and yours are doing as well as possible, and we wish you the warmest of wishes during this holiday season!!

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  10. I didn't see "North by Northwest" on the big screen until a few years ago and though I'd seen it many, many times before, I never experienced it as I did in the theater that day. Wow! Every aspect of the film was intensely magnified and Cary Grant's charisma was almost overpowering (not a bad thing at all). You were so fortunate, Dorian, to first see it in a theater.

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    1. Many thanks for your enthusiastic comments about NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Patty! Even with DVDs and BluRay and such, there's nothing quite like being lucky enough to see NORTH BY NORTHWEST in an honest-to-goodness movie theater! I'm delighted that both you and I were were lucky enough to see it in a great movie theater as the movie gods intended! :-D

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  11. Ah, Dor, this is one of my fave Hitchcock movies, and I'm SO glad you included a gif of Roger Thornhill's mother in the elevator scene. It's one of the best parts in this terrific movie.

    Your review is so enthusiastic that I'm almost ready to stream it RIGHT NOW, even though I've seen it a dozen times.

    I'm curious to learn more about the Mini Cinema you spoke of. Were cinemas like these common? Who owned it? Did you go there often?

    Thanks for a wonderful post, Dorian. It was such a treat to read.

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    1. Ruth, my friend, thanks ever so much for your enthusiastic comments for my NORTH BY NORTHWEST post! I admit it was a labor of love, what with NORTH BY NORTHWEST being my favorite film of all time. You're a sugar bowl with 2 handles, Ruth, high praise here at Team Bartilucci HQ, you may recall :-)! :-) I'm tickled that you enjoyed it as much as we of Team B did!

      Back when I was a teen living in NYC, there were lots of small movie theaters catering to classic movies before many of them winnowed out and Netflix and such took over, but there are still fine indie films still standing, such as NYC's Film Forum. If some delightful twist of fate brings you to NYC and the Film Forum and, such maybe we could see what classic films would be available! :-)

      I'm glad you got a kick out of the NORTH BY NORTHWEST GIFs, too; that's part of the fun for both me and my husband Vinnie, my GIF master, who enjoys doing the GIFs as much as I do, bless him! Jessie Royce Landis' character may not be the Mother of the Year, but she steals her scenes delightfully Thanks for your wonderful comments, Ruth, as always, and all of us here at Team Bartilucci HQ hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday season!

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  12. Dor,
    From first reading the title of your post then 'gateway drug' I knew this was going to be a good one and full of laughs. You didn't disappoint.

    Not sure if you know this but being such a huge Cary Grant fan, I did not see NBN until a year ago. I know! How shameful.

    You pick some perfect photos with hilarious captions for this look back at NBN which made it even more clever and enjoyable.

    See ya soon!
    Page

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    1. Page, thanks ever so muchly for your rave review of my NORTH BY NORTHWEST post! I'm happy that you got a kick out of it, including my "gateway drug" quip and other captions! :-) It's quite all right that you only got to see NORTH BY NORTHWEST fairly recently; this gem is well worth waiting for! :-D Glad to have you join the NORTH BY NORTHWEST fun and frolic, my friend!

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  13. Dorian, I can easily see why NORTH BY NORTHWEST had an impact on you--it seems as contemporary today as it did in the late 1950s. Even if the theater was a screening room, I'm still jealous that you got to see Hitchcock's classic on a large screen.

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    1. Rick, many thanks for your positive feedback on my NORTH BY NORTHWEST post for the CMBA's brilliant Film Passion 101 Blogathon! You really hit the proverbial nail on the head with your comments about how the film "seems as contemporary today as it did in the late 1950s." No wonder my favorite film still feels fresh and contemporary even today! :-) Thanks for your comments, and I hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday season!

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  14. Whatever the direction, be it N by NW or S by SE, Cary plus Hitchcock is mesmerizing. It is filled with improbability: the murder at the U.N., being able to hide on the little upper berth of a train (you can tell Cary was an acrobat), and the escape on Mount Rushmore. But with Cary you never have trouble believing. I really enjoyed your post!

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    1. Toto, thanks for your enthusiastic comments about my NORTH BY NORTHWEST post! Your comment about Cary Grant's talent as an acrobat had me smiling! You're right that the movie's wilder elements are a big part of its fun and charm; must be why we love it so much! Thanks for joining the fun and chat about our favorite movie! :-D Have a happy holiday season, and drop by anytime!

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  15. Okay, Dorian - you made me want to see this movie that I thought I'd forgotten - Hadn't seen it in ages, I mean AGES! Now I'm all anxious to view it again. Okay, just added it to my queue. All is right with the world. :)

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    1. Yvette, my friend, I'm confident that you'll love it! It's a treasure trove of suspense, fun, romance, wry comedy, swell locations -- NORTH BY NORTHWEST has it all and then some, if you ask me! When you finish watching it, I look forward to hearing what you think! :-D

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