I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but Alfred Hitchcock is dead. That doesn’t mean that he is no longer the master of suspense. “North by Northwest” will always be the exemplar of the lighthearted thriller in which an innocent man is mistakenly identified as someone else — someone with dangerous secrets — and, therefore, is pursued by villains and authorities alike.
That’s Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp, “Alice in Wonderland”), an American math teacher who is vacationing in Europe. He meets a mysterious woman named Elise (Angelina Jolie, “Salt”) on a train and spends the afternoon with her making up the plot of an imaginary spy novel.
What we know is that she is being shadowed by the police for her relationship with a British tax dodger who stole more than 2 billion pounds from a crime czar. The cops think she will lead them to the missing thief, who has undergone extensive plastic surgery. Elise is acting on a note from her lover, telling her to find a man of his general body type and make her pursuers think the stranger is the thief.
In the course of his adventures of capture and escape, Frank will fall in love with the alluring Elise and, despite her best efforts not to, Elise will go all sappy for Frank.
Of course, the plot is all absurdly complicated, one of those cartoon machines that involve 20 household items and a dozen steps to accomplish a simple task. Hitchcock did this kind of thing, too, but he was generally better at palming his aces.
Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s (“The Lives of Others”) best ideas are setting the film in Venice, which he uses as a character and not just as an exotic location, and adapting Frank and Elise to fit the actors in the roles. If Depp had been asked to play Cary Grant, he would have been awful. If he wanted to imitate a Hitchcock star, he might be able to pull off the everyman-ish James Stewart.
But Frank is not Cary Grant — he’s Depp. Likewise, Jolie is no icy-but-vulnerable blonde in the Grace Kelly style.
She has spent her entire career playing invulnerable women, but here, she does it with a twinkle in her eye.
Paul Bettany (“Legion”) is fun as a dedicated but slightly dim Scotland Yard cop, and Timothy Dalton (“Hot Fuzz”) is his frustrated but ultimately humane boss. Steven Berkoff (“44 Inch Chest”) is the Brit crime lord who surrounds himself with Russian muscle and doesn’t mind killing anyone who gets in his way. The script is by von Donnersmarck, Christopher McQuarrie (“Valkyrie”) and Julian Fellowes (“The Young Victoria”), and is adapted from a French film.
“The Tourist” is lightweight, but entertaining, giving Depp a chance to underplay for a change and Jolie an opportunity to kid her screen persona. Go in expecting to compare it to Hitchcock, just not in a Cahiers du Cinéma sort of way, and you’ll have some fun.