Sunday, September 4, 2016

Growing Up in America: American Movies in the 1950s (Part 3)

Hitchcock thrills with North by Northwest

By Rolf Dumke

Alfred Hitchcock’s wonderful film North by Northwest (1959) is my top American thriller. It mixes up the life of Roger Thornhill – a smug advertising executive and self-contained ladies’ man, only hounded by his overly protective mother – with the violent world of cold-war espionage and counter espionage. In the bar of the Plaza Hotel, Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) – decked out, as usual, in a well-fitting suit – is called to the telephone by a bellboy and becomes entangled by mistake in a net of spies and counterspies.
    The Soviets believe they have identified George Kaplan, a top American counter-spy with access to top secrets. They capture Thornhill and take him to a mansion on Long Island for intense questioning. However, he escapes, goes to the UN to witness the murder of a delegate and is mistakenly charged with the deed. He is spirited away by the CIA and told that he should continue in the role of the secret US spy, Kaplan, who actually does not exist. Thornhill is to continue on the fake Kaplan’s planned itinerary across the US, to stay in different hotels to protect a US woman counterspy, played by the pretty Eva Marie Saint. A long train ride to Chicago with Saint introduces their personal intimacy, initiated by the ladies’ man Thornhill. The film has fine scenes that have become movie icons.
    I particularly enjoyed three scenes:

The first scene is an auction of antiques in Chicago, where Thornthill suddenly faces his Soviet oppressors, who have gained control of Eva Marie Saint. To be able to leave the auction without being killed, Thornhill begins a bidding contest with the Soviets for a peculiar statue, reaching absurd price levels. He hopes that the auctioneers will call the police to rescue him by arresting him, which they do.

The second scene is more significant as an icon; it has Thornhill waiting to meet a contact out in the sticks at a country road crossing. There are drab brown, flat fields stretching away into the distant horizon and a huge blue sky above. He is waiting. A lonely Trailways bus crawls up from afar on the two-lane highway, its diesel engine getting louder as it comes closer. Besides the wind and the engine, no sound is heard. Then, at the bus stop, a few people board the bus and it drives away, leaving Thornhill there as the only person for miles around.
    He is wondering whether the appointment was a mistake when he sees and hears a tiny crop duster in the distance spraying chemicals onto fields. Slowly, the crop duster comes closer and suddenly veers at him to cut him down! A boring bucolic event has become a deadly hunt. The duster’s screaming engine and whirling propeller turn it into a giant, mad hornet, intent on shredding him.
    Thornhill dives into an unharvested field for cover but is driven from it by the chemicals sprayed over the field. He sees a gasoline tanker truck coming up the road. After the crop duster’s last dive at him, he runs down the road towards the truck, followed by the screeching airplane. Only a quick sideways jump saves him. The crop duster crashes into the tanker truck with a hellish explosion. Incredible tension is built up in this scene, with wonderful timing and superb photography. A drab and innocent farming scene turns into a deadly ambush. This is Hitchcock at his best!
    This scene reminded me of my first impression of the enormous, flat farming district around Medina, Ohio, when we first arrived in the States. Having grown up in Bavaria, surrounded by mountains, I felt hemmed in by them and by fogs that suffocated villages in the Inn Valley in the fall and spring seasons. In contrast, in Ohio’s farmlands, the view of a huge sky above – almost every day and in every season of the year – was like a fresh breath of freedom. But when the weather turned bad, with enormous thunderstorms and tornados, the skies were also unusually dangerous. Hitchcock created another dimension of fear in these wide open spaces in North America, where peace and freedom can quietly or suddenly turn dangerous, just as Hitchcock showed.
    But the most important, immediate reaction while seeing the film was one of unmitigated terror from the buzzing, whirling airplane. This scene unearthed my first clear memory of childhood, when I was about four years old. This was near the end of WWII in Kufstein, Austria, in the mighty Inn Valley, which flows down from the high Alpine mountains of St. Moritz, Switzerland, through Austria, to Passau, Bavaria, where it joins the Danube, colored with a pretty, light blue tinge, made up from microscopic splinters of Swiss granite.

    I recall walking with my mother, pulling a sled up to the plateau that overlooks the town, behind the massive Kufstein Fortress. There were gently undulating hills decked with snow, at the edge of a forest, great for sledding. Behind the forest, a steep mountain rose, faced with chalk-stone cliffs, the picturesque Wilder Kaiser, or Mount “Wild Emperor.” We were alone on this working-day morning in late March or early April 1945. After a couple of first runs with the sled, we heard a small Allied reconnaissance airplane approaching at low altitude, above tree level, zooming over the plateau behind the fortress.
British WWII Swordfish reconnaissance airplane
    We stopped to wave, but the plane was flying straight at us, and the howl of its motor became louder and louder. We could see a single pilot. Then he began to fire bursts from his machine gun! Our peaceful sporting scene turned murderous in the space of a minute. We ran for our lives to the trees. Initially we hoped that the pilot merely wanted to scare us and did not mean to kill. But he turned around, searching for us, and began another long volley of gunfire to kill us, hiding under and behind the trees! Then he calmly flew back over the plain to the fortress and down into the Inn Valley.
    This was a curious, offhand attempt at butchery, probably by a British pilot, which was very different from the planned malevolence of the crop-duster pilot’s attempt to kill Thornhill in North by Northwest.
    A couple of weeks later, I remember seeing my first American soldier, a young and scared black man with alarmed, wide-open eyes crawling around a garden fence with his rifle. The women and children in an apartment house of Meranerstrasse in Kufstein, where we lived, had been afraid of trouble that the Allied invasion would bring to civilians. After seeing this scared young man through a white curtained window, we realized that Americans were humans, after all. We all laughed out loud with relief.
    A few days later, a couple of pretty mothers diverted the attention of the driver and co-driver of an American delivery truck that was unloading canned goods to the tented American compound across the street, just long enough for three other women to steal armfuls of cans of baked beans with bacon, which they shared later, with much laughter. Meals were served to the soldiers in the compound, from which the scent of scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast and the whiff of good coffee drifted over the neighborhood. We kids were welcome to come and get chewing gum and small chocolate bars.
    For me, the Americans were too nice for us to believe that one of their own would have been so cruel as to attempt to mow down a mother and child while sled-riding. It remained a puzzle what the nationality of the Allied pilot was.

The third memorable scene of North by Northwest is in North Dakota, where the Soviet agents reside on a plain above Mount Rushmore, in a modern white mansion with huge windows.
    Eva Maria Saint steals the statue that the Soviets bought at the auction. It contains secret microfilm information that they intend to fly out on a small plane at night. The spies corner Eva and Thornhill on top of the cliff above Mount Rushmore’s giant statues of four American presidents. They climb down around President Theodore Roosevelt’s face, getting shot at by the Soviet spies. In a final struggle with Thornhill and Eva, the spies slip and fall to their deaths into the dark night.
    The pictures of Cary Grant and Eva Maria Saint next to President Theodore Roosevelt’s huge face, their struggle for freedom next to one of America’s great presidents, have become a symbol for America’s quest and struggle for freedom and democracy. The visual power of this statement is enormous. Hats off to Hitchcock for this scene!

My personal memory of the Russian threat is from visiting my grandmother in East Berlin in 1947, when I overheard discussions in an uncle’s dining room about how the population of my mother’s home village fled the arriving Russian army and the subsequent carnage.
    A 1957 visit in Berlin revealed the threatening presence of the Russian Army around the Brandenburg Gate before the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. A 1969 visit with my American wife teemed with tension as we crossed Checkpoint Charley into East Germany with our new VW beetle. But all we saw were disagreeable East German police.
    In 1971, I took the subway into East Berlin from West Berlin to work in the Humboldt University library on my dissertation research. Returning on the first day in the Friedrichstrasse subway station, I was pulled aside by the STASI, the East German secret police, to determine the provenance of the many pages of my written notes.
Humboldt University Library
    My notes contained the signature numbers of books and pamphlets on the German Zollverein of 1834, the first German customs union. These books could be ordered by interlibrary loans, which worked surprisingly well between East and West Germany. The East Germans did not allow me to visit important Prussian archives, which were located in Merseburg, because their researchers were not allowed to do research in American archives. That was why I worked in the Humboldt library in East Berlin.
    I joked that they had apparently never been in a library before because they were puzzled by my list of book signatures. Soon I was sorry for my joke, because I was held up for another hour of questioning when they tried to sign me up as an informer on political trends in West German universities. It was clear that they were testing how robust my personality was under pressure and trying to find out whether I would become weak after hours of questioning.
    I was getting increasingly annoyed but stayed civil and desisted from further jokes. I asked, “When can I go?” I said that I was getting hungry and that my wife, an American, was waiting for me in West Berlin. She would go to the American Consulate if I did not show up soon. At that point, they got in a hurry to let me go.

In 1970, Susan and I visited Leningrad for a week’s stay for the International Economic History Congress, when we got a direct and fascinating view of how Russian society functioned. Managing the simple arrival of western congress members at the airport and putting us in busses from the airport to our hotel took seven(!) hours.
    The small airport was jammed with arrivals from Moscow and elsewhere in Russia. Our airplane had arrived from Paris around 4:30 p.m. (Regardless of where they lived, all West European economic historians had to take the Aeroflot airplane from Paris to Leningrad!) It was parked some distance away from the airport. There we waited one and a half hours – in a plane that was turning into a hot and humid sauna. Most of the men were dressed in suits; they started cussing and sweated profusely.
    Finally, we were allowed to walk some distance to the terminal, which was still jammed with persons looking for their bags. The airport’s baggage system had broken down, and unloading and sorting bags was being done by hand. For the next two hours we were all engaged in competition with burly Russian men, searching for our bags, which had been dropped willy-nilly in the crammed hallways. The Russians won.
    The congress participants left the airport later to see that there were no busses left that would take us to our hotel. On benches outside the airport we waited for busses that finally arrived more than an hour later. During this time, officials were looking for individual persons, to return passports that had been perused and stamped. Some individuals were already seated in a bus, but were unwilling to leave it and potentially leave their ride to the hotel. They refused to get out to get their passports and delayed all of us again. Irrational egotism had overwhelmed a number of congress participants. Another two hours had passed.
    Finally the busses drove off to the hotel at around 10 p.m. When we got there, after 11 p.m., the hotel was surprised. We were terribly late, so they had not expected us! There was a heated scuffle about who got rooms, especially after a dozen French congress members were told they had no reservations!
    The French immediately knew what to do. They threatened an international scandal in French and other important western papers: Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times. They ignored the hotel staff and called the headquarters of Intourist, the Russian State travel agency, which had given us all hotel reservations almost a year before the congress. The reservations and the official receipt for our payment were preconditions for us to get Russian visas. The young lady who was sent from the Leningrad Intourist office was told that if we all did not get rooms, this would create an international scandal at their prestigious congress. Very quickly, the room reservations were found by the hotel.
    Later, we surmised that some of the top communist party members, who were celebrating a banquet in the dining hall that night, simply commandeered the rooms for their own group, who would be too drunk to go home.
    But the French, led by the great historian, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, threatened another scandal if we did not get dinner in the hotel dining room at midnight. We had not eaten since leaving Paris early in the afternoon. The Intourist lady pushed the hotel, which decided that we could get only an early breakfast, at 1:30 am, of a boiled egg, toast, and tea, on the balcony over the dining hall.
    [Le Roy Ladurie’s book Montaillou (I have the 1979 Vintage paperback, translated by Barbara Bray), which he wrote on the basis of the enormous files in the Vatican library of the last great Inquisition held in the early 1300s, is a fantastic, readable ethnographic history of the small village of Montaillou in southern France near the Pyrenees. See review by Patrick Reardon.]

Hotel Sovietskaya
    Once ensconced, we witnessed a huge dinner banquet and dance by top Communist Party members taking place in the dining hall. Huge portions of steak and other roasted meats were served and heartily chomped by Russian Leningrad communist party elites in their own private party. Waiters were running around avidly with resupplies of meat and many, many bottles of wine. It looked like all the men were already drunk, yelling and laughing loudly at each other and the waiters.
    At a big round table below us, a serious fist-fight was taking place because one man was making advances to another man’s wife. The fight continued because nobody dared to stop such important persons. And we continued to wager among ourselves who would be the winner, while we awaited our “breakfast.” Finally, the word spread that the hotel had called the police and the fight had to be covered up by a harmless story to be given to the police by both the protagonists and everybody else. So, a big hush resulted during which a cover story was quickly concocted.
    When the police came, they met a very friendly group of people and were told that the two men had been engaged in a friendly wrestling match, and they were sorry to have bothered the police in the middle of the night.
    It was typical of Soviet psychology to house us in an uninviting new giant box, Hotel Sovietskaya, on the outskirts of town, but hold the final banquet in the beautiful Catharine Palace, with a stand-up dinner. Tables were groaning under heaps of fish, meat, and potatoes, along with many huge bowls of different types of caviar and champagne from the Krim. Unfortunately, we Westerners paused politely while long final speeches were held. A couple hundred burly Soviet economic historians, none of whom we had seen during the conference week, took their advantage, boorishly swilling most of the Krim wines and gobbling up the caviar!
Catharine Palace, Leningrad (by Alex “Florstein” Fedorov)
    Patricia Herlihy, a professor of Russian history at Harvard and Brown Universities, translated for us up on the balcony. She was a wonderful person, who accompanied her husband, David Herlihy, a renowned medieval historian at Wisconsin, where I did my graduate studies in economic history. [Review of David Herlihy’s book on Medieval and Renaissance History of Pistoia, 1967.] They were great companions when we ventured out to the last stop of the famed, beautiful Leningrad Metro and walked through the mud to one of many huge apartment blocks at the end of the Metro line.
Leningrad Metro, Avtovo Station (by Alex “Florstein” Fedorov)
    David had wanted to know where and how do the working class persons in Leningrad live, because there was obviously no place for them in the historical city. For that reason we all joined him at rush hour in the evening and took the fabled Leningrad Metropolitan subway to the end station, where immense public housing projects were in place and or still being built. There, at the instigation of David, our group of economic historians spontaneously walked up to the third floor of an apartment house, where wives were cooking dinner in a communal kitchen. We found that even with this more modern group of workers, traditional life at home still dominated. Everybody was astounded that Americans could speak Russian and show up in their homes. They were friendly and welcomed us with small glasses of “little water” – vodka. (Regular water is called voda.) [See Patricia Herlihy’s 2002 book, The Alcoholic Empire: Vodka and Politics in Late Imperial Russia. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-516095-9.]

Actually, we were overwhelmed by the friendliness of the Russian population when we walked along the famous five-kilometer-long avenue, Nevsky Prospekt, every evening after dinner. The sidewalks were huge, allowing ten to fifteen persons to cruise up and down the Prospekt side by side. There were no restaurants open at night, nor any shops. Only a big cinema played Russian movies. Thus, the walk along Nevsky Prospekt was more like an energetic hike, with chains of friends linked with arms and elbows, shouting comments left and right in order to be heard.
    As soon as older persons heard us speak English we were surrounded by women with a basic understanding of Western European languages from school in the early decades of the century, or from deceased family members who were schooled in the West. Patricia Herlihy was soon surrounded by large groups of enthusiastic women, quizzing her about life in the West. They either quizzed her about concrete life experiences in the Western world, or eagerly clung to her hands, suddenly spilling out their misfortunes in the Soviet system in sobbing spurts, wanting somebody, a kind and friendly person, to know. It was heartbreaking, watching Patricia Herlihy, the calm “Mother America,” comforting the distraught Russian women.
    Before the entrance to our hotel, Susan and I were accosted many times per day by young, well-dressed Russian women and men who spoke almost flawless English. They wanted to buy my shirts, ties, cowboy hat, yellow corduroy suit, raincoat, shoes. I could have stripped nude a number of times and had to exchange my rubles for possibly illicit antiques. The pesky, insistent persons were all traders, and well-known to the hotel staff.
    One afternoon Susan and Elisabeth Tilly, wife of Richard Tilly (the head of the economic history institute in Muenster, Westphalia, whom we accompanied in Leningrad), brought a young Russian woman to our hotel. Her mother was head of the Leningrad telephone company, so she had a high standing in the city’s society. Miss Telephone desperately wanted knee-high black leather boots from Western Europe as a sexy accessoire to her Russian outfits. She offered us a handsome historical Russian icon, with a silver covering, if we promised to send her the boots as a “gift of used shoes” to an address somewhere else in Russia.
    We snuck her up to our hotel room, past the attending hotel women guards who were placed on each floor to hinder contacts with Russian persons. Apparently, a word from Miss Telephone sufficed and the guards looked away. I had to kneel on the floor to measure her with strips of newspaper along her feet, up her legs to the knee, as well as around her big calves, while she giggled, pulling up her dress, with Susan and Elisabeth joining in. She looked like a big, round, sturdy peasant who was desperate for Western elegance.
    We hid the illegal icon in our bags when we flew back to France. The hassled officials at the airport were unwilling to spend time to check out the bags of hundreds of exiting foreigners from the congress. They simply waved us on. They had been very picky when we entered Russia, taking away western newspapers, magazines, and books. But leaving was no problem. So we left with the icon and an old samovar, for which, actually, we should have had to pay export duties. But they tore off the incriminating tag from the samovar and vigorously waved us onward.
    Soviet society was a layered society of high and low party members, to whom more or less rights and privileges were available. The Russian economy was chock-full of rules that would have suffocated almost all useful activity. But the administrators of those rules had their own priorities to conserve their spirits, time, and energy. It was an irony that, in reality, these formal “failures” of the system actually helped run it.
    Our package from Germany to Miss Telephone actually reached her in Russia. She sent a postcard via a foreign friend to whom we had sent her boots, stating that she was deliriously happy to have gotten them.
    Middle-class contacts in Soviet Russia were very friendly and, it appeared, were largely allowed by the Communist Party. A slow social change was occurring in Russia even in the early 1970s, at the high point of the Cold War. Further time and peace were necessary for this evolution to a post-Soviet era to succeed, which did happen, regardless of all the saber rattling by both sides in the Cold War.

For additional information see:

Still to come:
Part 4. US and German postwar movies compared
Links to previous installments in approximate historical order of contents:
Copyright © 2016 by Rolf Dumke


  1. Rolf Dumke rounds off his viewing of Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST (which pits Cary Grant against Soviet spies) with personal memories of Soviets in what was then called Leningrad a few years later. Far more interesting than Hitchcock's plot.

    1. My memories sound a bit ungrateful to the Russian economic history invitation, as the conference members were invited to excursions to the Heremitage, one of the finest art museums in the world, and to Peterhof, Peter the Great's Versailles outside Leningrad, and to a wonderful evening performance of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake in the famous Mariinskiy Ballet.

      During our visit to Peterhof I wanted to obtain Eric Hobsbawm's opinion of the current state of Russia and its communism. Unfortunately, throughout our whole excursion this famed British Marxist historian, see wiki, was captured by a young woman socialist historian, clinging to every word he uttered.

  2. Your recounting of the economic congress you were a part of is an interesting read. This "layering of society of high and low party members, to whom more or less rights and privileges were available" was evident to me even in the 90s decade while I lived in Nizhny Novgorod. Though salaries were paltry the upper crust in academia enjoyed more luxuries like fresh fruit and occasional caviar than the working class who toiled in the auto plant for instance. I wonder if any in your congress had the opportunity to visit a Russian flat where remodeling and repairs had been neglected for so long that the bathroom/toilet room was only a black iron flange level with the concrete floor? Sadly, this situation still exists in the 21st century.

    1. No, the public housing compex we visited was relatively new, and the people we saw were happy in their functioning environment, although they could only be approached by muddy paths.
      Nobody had spread gravel on those paths since the building of the complex a few years before.

  3. Very interesting trip to Russian. I ran into the same problem in the old Yugoslavia. I was having words at the hotel when two men who looked very much like KGB intervened. I decided to wait until I got back to Austria and complain there. Enjoyed the read Rolf.

  4. Several of the anecdotes in your account of the congress bring to my mind scenes from my time in post-Communist Bulgaria. I recall being appalled when I first visited in 1990 by the absence of basic products in stores, indeed the absence of stores at all save the NarMag (People's Store), and the absolute apathy of the employees toward their customers. The desperate desire of the locals for Western products was so ingrained that in 1999, by which time one could probably find such things in Bulgaria, my ex-wife packed a bunch of empty seltzer water cannisters in her suitcase, hoping to get them refilled in Prague, where her family had been lucky enough to visit during Communism and purchase a seltzer-water maker. Granted former Czechoslavakia was also under Communism when they had visited. No matter - being able to leave Bulgaria for a brief vacation, even with the Bloc, was a victory in itself. The most striking manifestation of "how things worked" was how lines were formed. My American ideas of "line etiquette", regulated as they had been by helpful railings and by the similar ideas of those around me, were crushed forever. An example: I stand in front of the entrance door to an inter-city bus, seemingly the first in line to board. As others join the "line", they do not stand behind me, but to each side. In effect, three or more lines form, each of which will creatively merge as those in the outer lines try to board before those who got there first. What seemed like a personal affront to me was a matter of course there, perhaps born of the inbred knowledge and fear that the thing one is waiting for will be gone by the time one reaches it.

    1. Geoff, what a haunting comment. Your personal affront communicated itself to this reader, its recounting is so accurately phrased, so like a piercing arrow.

    2. The creative merging of those outer lines at public transport access areas brings to mind a family joke we had while living in Russia. One of our four would usually ask the others if we had sharpened our elbows appropriately before heading off to the bus stop. Over-crowding year round,in all but a few weeks in summer was an understatement. And getting off in a timely matter required even more finesse with those elbows.

    3. Wally, the situation might have been a pickpocket's paradise, but did the people have so little in their pockets that no self-respecting pickpocket would have bothered? Did YOU ever have a pocket picked?
          For that matter, what about you, GEOFFREY, in Bulgaria?

  5. A good read even by your standards, Rolf. All this puts me in mind of a hotel in Lijiang, China. An imposting building with a twenty foot statue of Mao in front. Lobby all in birch panelling and brass. All the plumbing in the elaborate public restroom leaked. We took a cheap people's room in the back. Bare concrete floors and walls, a single naked light bulb dangling from the ceiling. Dorm style beds with 1" matTresses. Bath down the hall - some of the plumbing worked. A perfect Potemkin village!

  6. Pickpocketing - all the travel articles about visiting Bulgaria that I saw while I was living there mentioned the dangers of being mugged, but this never happened to me. Certainly crowded subways and dark alleys are places to be extra vigilant (if you have to be there), no matter what city you are in!