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The Scapegoat is a frayed, middle-aging English professor (Alec Guinness) who goes on a holiday in France with nothing to declare but a hollow in the heart. He no sooner suggests that "a man has to be empty before he can be used" than he has a chance encounter with a decadent French count (Alec Guinness) whom he strikingly resembles. The professor is tricked into assuming the Frenchman's identity, along with a down-at-the-plumbing Loire chateau crammed with impressive horrors: the count's plaintive wife (Irene Worth), who fears for her life because of a portentous clause in her marriage contract; his child-mystic daughter (Annabel Bartlett), who paints pictures of "secret police" shooting arrows into St. Sebastian; a serpent-eyed sister (Pamela Brown) who blames her brother for the death of her fiance; and a dotty old dowager (Bette Davis) who writhes and flops about a cream-puffy bed, smokes cigars and has her morphine served up in toy Easter eggs from Paris. For the lonely professor, there is a lone delight in a strange legacy: the scapegrace's mistress, the only person who knows about the lookalikes, presumably because they make love differently.
Just as the professor is about to put a new broom to all the cobwebbed corners and mend some of the broken lives around him, the count returns. He flings his wife out the window, hoping to frame his double, but the cagey Briton, now enjoying his imposture, proves himself innocent and refuses to be relieved of stewardship. The two Guinnesses shoot it out in a cryptic climax that leaves both audience and the chateau puppets dangling in confusion.
On one score the movie succeeds where the book failed: the suspense turns not on Whether the scapegoat will reveal himself but on how he will handle himself in each situation. And moviegoers have the best of Author du Maurier's bestseller props: intrigue, murder, romance, another haunted Manderley setting, and a generous helping of hokum. As the author herself commented on her work: "This time I have gone the whole hog."
North by Northwest (M-G-M). While in Manhattan shooting the early scenes of this film, Director Alfred Hitchcock grumbled that newspapers tell too many "outlandish stories from real life that drive the spinner of suspense fiction to further extremes." "Further extremes" turns out to be a point on Hitchcock's compass. Direction: North by Northwest.
Smoothly troweled and thoroughly entertaining, North by Northwest wears its implausibilities lightly, bobs swiftly past colored picture postcard backgrounds from Madison Avenue to South Dakota's Mount Rushmore, the U.N. Secretariat to George Washington's wattles. As the story begins. Adman Gary Grant has little on his mind but Trendex and his waistline (he reminds himself to "think thin") until enemy agents mistake him for a U.S. counterspy and kidnap him from a cocktail lounge in the Hotel Plaza. Spy Ringleader James Mason (as polished and heavy as a Kremlin banister) invites Grant to spill all he knows. But all the adman knows has long since been run up flagpoles.