Before 007

One of the pleasant aspects of summer in Staunton is watching classic movies on Monday evenings in the beer garden behind Coffee on the Corner.

Coffee on the Corner isn’t my coffee place.  Overall, I prefer Cranberry’s – just down the block and around the corner.  The Cranberry’s regulars tend to be a bit older and more rooted in the town, whereas the Corner crowd seems more connected to the college.  

But I’ll give Coffee on the Corner this:  On Monday evenings in the summer, it offers free classic movies, outdoors, in its sunken beer garden.

There’s even free popcorn.  

The Monday night movies aren’t anything fancy.  The movie is actually projected onto a bed sheet.  But you can sip a beer as the evening cool sets in and watch a great flick in good company.

Simple and sweet.

This month, we’ll be watching Charlie Chaplin.  In July, all five Mondays were devoted to the suspense thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock.

For a classic movie buff, that’s hard to beat.  For me, it also proved educational.  I thought I’d seen a fair amount of Hitchcock in my college days, but I either hadn’t paid attention – or my taste have matured with age.

Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of watching a movie as it was intended to be watched:  from beginning to end, in the evening, as part of an attentive audience.  

Quite a different experience from having seen the same movie on TV, late at night, as a sort of soundtrack to whatever’s going on in your undergraduate apartment.  

Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched Jimmy Stewart and his leading ladies – the lovely Grace Kelly and the superb Doris Day – outwit villains in Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

But the great revelation came with Cary Grant’s performance in North by Northwest.

I’d seen bits and pieces of this film before – certainly the climactic scene at Mount Rushmore – but I’d never watched it all the way through.  Early on, it occurred to me that Cary Grant – cool, alert, impeccably attired, extraordinarily graceful – would have been the perfect James Bond.  

As the plot unfolded, I had the further realization that North by Northwest – released in 1959, three years before Dr. No – had all the essential elements of a James Bond movie.

To be sure, Roger Thornhill – Grant’s character – is no secret agent.  He’s a hard-drinking, twice-divorced advertising man.  But he wears beautiful suits, he orders a drink well, and he’s irresistible to women.

And when the chips are down, he proves capable of feats of derring-do even 007 would applaud.

For starters, he escapes from a locked hotel room by climbing out the window and along a high ledge to the window of the next room.  There, in a Bond-like moment, his catlike entrance awakens a gorgeous blonde who – finding a handsome stranger in her room – tries to persuade him to stay.

The plot of North by Northwest is, like that of most Bond flicks, delightfully improbable.  Thornhill finds himself kidnapped by agents of an unnamed foreign power who has mistaken him for an American agent.  In his efforts to escape their clutches – and the police, who believe he has committed a murder at the UN building – Grant’s character teams up with a very sexy Eva Marie Saint.  

As in a Bond movie, Grant can never be sure whom to trust – beginning with Saint.  His suspicions, however, do not preclude their sharing a passionate interlude on an overnight train – à la From Russia With Love.

There’s a charming, well-spoken villain (James Mason), a deadly henchman (Martin Landau) and several silent, menacing thugs.

There’s also a pleasant, but ruthless, head of American intelligence (Leo G. Carroll), who is willing to sacrifice our hero for the greater good.

And there are action scenes, including that hotel ledge, the famous crop-duster scene, some wonderfully acrobatic climbing about Mason’s mountaintop lodge,  and the unforgettable finale at Mount Rushmore.  

Aside from the absence of Q’s nifty inventions, every essential Bond trope is there – including, in Grant, a leading man better suited to play 007 than anyone who actually did – including Sean Connery.

There are even familiar faces from 1960s television series inspired by the Bond craze.  Leo G. Carroll would go on to play the head of U.N.C.L.E.  Grant’s lawyer (Edward Platt) would play Maxwell Smart’s “Chief.”  And Landau, Mason’s cold-eyed henchman, would be a key member of television’s Mission Impossible team.

Younger readers might not remember the television shows – or the incredible excitement which greeted advent of James Bond in the early ‘60s.  

But for those who do – and for anyone with a sense of the Bond film as cultural icon – I strongly recommend an evening with North by Northwest.  

Alfred Hitchcock created what we now know as the Bond movie.

We all owe him for that.

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