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Let's get this out of the way right now: this isn't in any way, shape, or form a bad movie. It's got a great premise, the dialogue is actually rather snappy and witty without a hint of the dour gloominess that would become more popular in the genre over time, and the individual scenes and characters are all excellent.
Thornhill is a well-sketched everyman; not heroic but not callous. He doesn't reveal sudden action chops or fighting skills, not even a military background, yet he still manages to maneuver out of life-and-death situations with his quick thinking and observation skills without totally straining credulity. Eve, the Femme Fatale, balances her mystery and menace with moments of humanity, and their romance scenes are actually kind of sexy for the time period. Even the detestable villains are surprisingly funny, and despite regular failures never come across as bumbling or foolish. And the Professor adds moral complexity by demonstrating that the heroes' "side" of the Cold War is no less cold and uncaring about the individual. All their actors have fantastic chemistry, performing their parts expertly with that classic Hollywood charm.
And the setpieces, whether action or espionage, are almost uniformly fantastic. The crop duster attack in particular is masterful, skillfully combining Dramatic Irony, excellent camerawork and shot composition, slowly building tension, and then a life-and-death high-speed chess match that ends explosively. But other scenes, such as a drugged Thornhill having to engage in a high-speed car chase while inebriated, or his managing to escape from an auction house where he is surrounded on all sides by henchmen.
Unfortunately, while individual scenes are great, they just don't cohere well. The plot is kind of a thin excuse to string together thrilling or romantic situations. It's not full of holes, and it doesn't immediately fall apart or anything, but it's not terribly strong either. The stakes are largely personal, and fair enough given the personal focus of the story, but it does nothing to make the whole picture feel less light and breezy.
And the huge runtime doesn't help. A lot of early scenes in particular could've been cut down with minimal losses, and serve only to self-indulgently pad out the first act of the story. Plus, since we care so little about the scope beyond the personal, the MacGuffin in the last part of the film comes across as the transparent device to squeeze out a last bit of conflict it is.
This is not a bad movie by any means, again. But, after watching a bunch of top-grade Hitchcock movies with my little brother before his return to medical school, he confidently pegged this the weakest of the bunch, and I'm inclined to agree.
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