North by Northwest (1959) directed by Alfred Hitchcock
What’s it about?
Cary Grant plays a New York advertising executive named Roger O. Thornhill who gets abducted by a pair of heavies while attending a business meeting at a swanky city bar. He is taken to a country mansion where he is brought in front of a man who introduces himself as Lester Townsend (James Mason). This group who have kidnapped Thornhill are convinced that he is someone named George Kaplan. Despite his repeated protestations they continue to believe the mistaken identity. Moreover, Townsend presses “Kaplan” to come clean about his business or else he will kill him.
After repeated failed attempts to get information out of our hapless hero, Townsend’s henchman Leonard (Martin Landau) fills him with Scotch and the other goons place him in a car on a road by a seaside cliff - with the intent to push it off the edge to make it look like a drunk driving accident. However, Thornhill manages to remain conscious enough to overcome one of the goons and embarks on a fraught attempt to maintain control of the vehicle and escape his would-be murderers. He is taken in by the police for driving while intoxicated and eventually manages to persuade both them and his equally skeptical mother, Clara (Jessie Joyce Landis) to help investigate Townsend.
Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of his troubles. He gets embroiled in a fraught adventure where nothing is what it initially seems, he goes on the run after being wrongfully accused of murder and he becomes involved with a mysterious blonde bombshell named Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint).
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Why is it significant?
North by Northwest is widely considered to be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest, with a number of critics and film scholars listing it amongst the greatest films of all time. It came at a creative peak in the director’s work, falling between Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960). However, while both of those films were critically panned during their initial release (Vertigo didn’t fare so well commercially either), North by Northwest was received very well by both reviewers and audiences. It was also nominated for three Academy Awards - for Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction and Best Original Screenplay.
James Stewart - who had been Hitchcock’s main star in Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958) - had wanted to star in it. However, Hitchcock opted for Grant instead after he blamed the box office failure of their last collaboration on him looking too old for the part.
The film is also considered to be a prototype for the style of the Bond films with its Cold War-era intrigue, spectacular action sequences, humorous touches, innuendoes and romantic interludes.
How does it hold up?
North by Northwest really deserves its place amongst the Master of Suspense’s best work. This is despite the fact that, comparison with most other films frequently cited in “Best Of” lists (such as Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds), it’s actually a fairly conventional Hitchcock in outline. It almost feels like a Greatest Hits compilation as it features his recurring “innocent man wrongfully accused of murder” trope, an extended episode of suspense and intrigue aboard a moving train, the archetypal “icy blonde” in the shape of Eva Marie Saint, some Freudian symbolism (the train entering the tunnel at the end) and so on. Even the finale (set atop Mount Rushmore) recalls the equivalent scene in his earlier Saboteur (1942), which revolved around a similarly-admired American monument - the Statue of Liberty.
It was perhaps understandable that Hitchcock adopted a relatively safe, crowd-pleasing tone here after the critical and commercial disappointment of Vertigo. On the other hand, the top-drawer manner in which the director delivers these fairly familiar goods is the whole pleasure here.
While Hitchcock, naturally, tends to bag the lion’s share of the credit for his films, Ernest Lehman’s hilarious script and the excellent cast are worthy of note here. Cary Grant’s effortless charm and charisma is put to fantastic use throughout with some classic pieces of sardonic dialogue such as “In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggeration”. Eva Marie Saint (who had previously won an Academy Award for On The Waterfront) is sparklingly dry and cool as his romantic foil. James Mason makes for as suave and calmly menacing villain, coming a close second to star Grant in terms of dialogue. Martin Landau also pops up in an early role as Mason’s character’s right-hand man who (it is implied) might possibly be gay.
Another element that adds to the film’s impact is Bernard Herrmann’s atmospheric and rousing orchestral score. While not quite as iconic as that of his subsequent Hitchcock collaboration, Psycho, it’s still strong evidence that this pairing of indomitable and idiosyncratic personalities were born to put a shared stamp on cinema.
Hitchcock embraces his talent for vicarious thrills
However, the factor that ultimately makes North by Northwest a true classic is Hitchcock’s steady deployment of themes, twists and thrilling setpieces throughout. The notions of deception and assumed identity - along with the attendant dangers and vicarious thrills brought upon by these - feature heavily throughout. While Thornhill initially finds the new persona with which he has been bestowed (“George Kaplan”) to be disconcerting, he soon uses it to turn the tables and deceive others in his efforts to extricate himself. The villains themselves aren’t who they initially present themselves to be.
The film includes two of Hitchcock’s most iconic sequences. The famous crop-duster chase is wonderfully slow-burning and agoraphobic, making great use of lingering long shots across those vast corn plantations that are so archetypal of the rural United States. The second is that vertiginous finale on Mount Rushmore with its clever use of forced perspective matte paintings and lots of precarious dangling over sheer drops. However, there are other notable moments of action and nail-biting suspense throughout such as the frantic drunken escape down a winding country road in the dead of night and Thornhill’s hilarious escape from the villains’ clutches by wreaking verbal havoc at an otherwise civilised art auction.
North by Northwest is Hitchcock letting his hair down without letting his standards slip. It’s grand entertainment - exciting, twisted, hilarious and subtly erotic.
Runtime: 136 mins
Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
Script: Ernest Lehman
Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Joyce Landis, Leo G. Carroll, Josephine Hutchinson, Philip Ober, Martin Landau