It occurred to me shortly after we began our train ride to the Big Apple (I think somewhere between Cumberland and Manassas) that this trip was a nice complement to my class on Alfred Hitchcock films with Professor Adams from last year’s Spring Term. One of the movies we watched, and my favorite Hitchcock film, was North by Northwest (1959) starring the perpetually debonair Cary Grant and the stunning Eva Marie Saint. Without going through a whole summary (watch the trailer), it’s a story of mistaken identity and is a fast paced film and decidedly light-hearted thriller. In an interview with a film critic, Hitchcock later admitted that the whole movie boils down to a sort of big joke on Grant’s character, Roger O. Thornhill.
Try to stick with me on this on. In the film Thornhill, at this point a wanted criminal, sneaks onto the 20th Century Limited in Grand Central Station and stumbles into the company of a classic Hitchcock blonde, Eve Kendall (Saint). I don’t dare give up too much and ruin the movie, but, with some clever innuendo, Hitchcock makes sure the audience knows the two, shall we say, “hit it off.” In between, there’s a dinner car scene with plenty of witty banter. All the while, Thornhill is wearing his sunglasses in a comical attempt at disguise.
So I guess my experience on the train along the Northeast Corridor line with my good friend John Martin was slightly different. For starters, John is not a seductive blonde femme fatale. It’s ridiculous, I know, but I kept trying to draw parallels in my head between my experience with train travel and Thornhill’s in the movie. But let me tell you, there weren’t many. I did wear my sunglasses on the train, though I doubt I resembled Cary Grant. And I wasn’t hiding from the cops; it was just sunny.
I think more than anything, it made me aware of the distinct lack of elegance in modern travel and the unfortunate changes that have taken place over the last 50 years. For one, the dining car in the movie had waiters, glassware, tablecloths, hot entrees, and cocktails. The “dining car” of 2014 had mediocre looking sandwiches, chips, and little plastic liquor bottles. As far as I could see, sleeping cars are completely a thing of the past. The dramatic change was really driven home on our way back when we were waiting in today’s Penn Station. It was a sterile, crowded, and very unattractive, but—without irony—someone decided to place pictures of the grand old Penn Station that was demolished in the 60s. It’d be difficult to imagine Cary Grant in the Penn Station or the train of today.
Maybe all this elegance was the just the effect of good directing by Hitchcock, but there’s been an unmistakable change in the world—how buildings are built and decorated, the way people dress, etc.—in favor of the functional, convenient, or less expensive. In an attempt to make this blog post the least bit relevant to our class, this phenomenon can be seen to an extent in the media of today. People are choosing to look for the most convenient way to get their news or read the latest magazine piece. Not to say there’s a lack of art or skill in the graphic design of an iPhone app, but there’s something lost in reading from a screen instead of paper. The changes that have come with modern technology has had a profound effect on how media companies do business and form and maintain a relationship with their readers. Could you imagine Cary Grant hiding his face behind an iPad in a Taco Bell in the Penn Station of 2014? Personally, I don’t think North by Northwest would be quite the same.
— Charlie Klingenberger