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North By Northwest (1959)

October 29th, 2007 · 8 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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Madison Avenue executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) – who remarks to his secretary “In the world of advertising there’s no such thing as a lie, there’s only expedient exaggeration” – takes a business lunch at the Plaza Hotel. While trying to get the valet’s attention, two thugs mistake him for someone named “George Kaplan.” When Thornhill gets up to send a telegram, they force him into their car at gunpoint.

Thornhill is taken to the mansion of Lester Townsend (James Mason). Townsend and his creepy right hand man (Martin Landau) want to know how he’s obtained the information that he has on them. Thornhill has no idea what they’re talking about, so the thugs pour a bottle of bourbon into him and place him behind the wheel of a stolen car they’re sending over a cliff. Thornhill manages to speed away, but is arrested for driving while intoxicated.

Drunk and disorderly, Thornhill is unable to convince police that men in a big house tried to kill him. Not even his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) believes his story, especially after Thornhill directs police to the house the next day and Townsend is revealed to be a diplomat addressing the United Nations. Thornhill and his mother go to the Plaza and gain access to George Kaplan’s room, which is vacant, until the thugs show up looking to kill Thornhill.

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Thornhill heads to the UN, but when he meets Lester Townsend, he finds it’s a completely different man from the one who tried to have him killed. Before he can get answers, someone throws a knife in Townsend’s back. Witnesses believe Thornhill is the killer, and he flees. He follows Kaplan’s itinerary, and heads for Chicago by sneaking aboard the 20th Century Limited. A naughty blonde named Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) is attracted to Thornhill and helps him evade the police.

Eve helps Thornhill sneak off the train and arranges a meeting between him and Kaplan. Arriving at a rural field, a cropdusting plane tries to kill him. Thornhill discovers Eve is the mistress of Phillip Vandamm, the man from the mansion, a smuggler of stolen secrets. An FBI agent (Leo Carroll) explains to Thornhill that George Kaplan doesn’t exist, but they’ve managed to convince Vandamm that he’s an enemy agent. The government needs Thornhill to go on pretending to be Kaplan so they can catch Vandamm.

Production history 
While promoting Strangers On a Train, director Alfred Hitchcock mentioned a movie he was thinking about making. All he knew was that it would concern a Cary Grant styled hero wrongfully accused of a crime who hides out in Mount Rushmore, inside of Lincoln’s nose. The director obtained a treatment from journalist Otis Guernsey, which he hoped Ben Hecht would adapt into a screenplay. Hecht was busy, and The Man In Lincoln’s Nose – as Hitchcock called it – was put on the backburner.

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In the summer of 1957, Hitchcock was working with screenwriter Ernest Lehman on an adaptation of the novel The Wreck of the Mary Deare. Neither one thought it would make an interesting film. Hitchcock returned to the idea of a falsely accused man who ends up dangling from Mount Rushmore. Lehman loved it and produced a two-page treatment titled In A Northwesterly Direction.

While Hitchcock was shooting Vertigo, Lehman took two weeks to tour the United Nations, undergo a mock arrest in Long Island, and hike up Mount Rushmore. James Stewart had heard about the script and was game to play Roger Thornhill, but when Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville was diagnosed with cervical cancer, production was moved back. By the summer of 1958, Stewart was committed to Bell Book and Candle. Cary Grant replaced him.

To play Eve Kendall, MGM proposed Cyd Charisse. Hitchcock considered Elizabeth Taylor, before arriving on Oscar winner Eva Maria Saint, regarded a thespian as opposed to the typical “Hitchcock blonde.” Hitchcock wanted Yul Brynner as the villainous Vandamm, but James Mason took the part. Shooting commenced in New York in August 1958. Grant remained fussy throughout filming, referring to the project as “a David Niven script” and baffled by what it was supposed to be about.

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The scene in which Thornhill is attacked by a cropduster confused the star. Hitchcock didn’t care about logic as much as eliciting an emotional response from the audience. Today, the sequence is regarded as one of the greatest in film. Released July 1959, North By Northwest was a blockbuster, grossing $6 million in the U.S. The AFI ranks it #55 on their list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time, and it often slips into debates over which film is Hitchcock’s best.

With a hero armed with one liners facing overwhelming odds, a charismatic villain and his lethal henchmen, and spectacular set pieces – usually revolving around famous locations – this script might be considered the blueprint for the Hollywood action movie, particularly the 007 franchise. It doesn’t make the least bit of sense – starting with why the bad guys mistake Cary Grant for a spy – but the movie is so exhilarating that it doesn’t matter.

North By Northwest represents Hitchcock at the peak of his virtuosity as a filmmaker. The cropduster sequence and the finale atop Mount Rushmore have been often imitated, but rarely matched in terms of visceral thrill. Cary Grant is comedy – playing a great drunk scene, and flinging innuendo around with Eva Marie Saint – while the editing, musical score and opening titles, by George Tomasini, Bernard Herrmann and Saul Bass, respectively, only add to this film’s luster as a classic.

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Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant writes, “The film is shot through with a sly wit and a slight tilt toward self-parody that resists the urge to become farce. … the James Bond tongue-in-cheek humor is invented here in Lehman’s script.”

“Elegant frenzy could describe the film as a whole: stylish and taut, North by Northwest is Hitchcock at his gleeful best,” writes Rebecca Flint Marx at allmovie guide.

Nate Yapp at Cinema Blend writes, “Often imitated (see the cornfield scene in Joy Ride), but never matched in its sheer grandeur, suspense, and sense of playfullness, North by Northwest remains one of Hitchcock’s best films, if not the best. It’s one of those rare movies where everything seems to work just the right way.”

“Now for the best news of all. You can enjoy this wonderful vacation while seated comfortably in this theater.” View the 1959 theatrical trailer, with Alfred Hitchcock talking about his new motion picture North by Northwest.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Drunk scene · Femme fatale · Hitman · Interrogation · Mother/son relationship · Paranoia · Road trip · Train

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Damian // Oct 29, 2007 at 9:32 pm

    I’m somewhat of an anomanly among Hitchcock fans when it comes to North By Northwest. While I can concede that the film is indeed a lot of fun (on those rare occasions when I do watch it, quite naturally I enjoy it), I must admit that out of all the films often considered Hitch’s “greatest,” it’s always been my least favorite. I do not think that it’s a bad movie by any means, but I’ve never really been convinced (even when I first saw it) that it belongs in the company of Vertigo, Psycho, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, etc.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Oct 29, 2007 at 9:38 pm

    Damian: If this were the SATs, North By Northwest would be to Vertigo as Die Hard is to Schindler’s List. It may be sacrelige for me to even mention that to a Spielberg fan like you, but I think all of those films are the epitome of their genre.

  • 3 Damian // Oct 29, 2007 at 10:18 pm

    That’s a very good analogy, Joe (and rather clever of you to use two of my all-time favorite films in the process). With that in mind I can understand completely why North By Northwest would be considered one of the greatest films ever made. Good job.

    The obvious question that then arises is whether or not there is something about films like Schindler’s List or Vertigo that makes them somehow “deeper” or “of more substance” than films like North By Northwest or Die Hard and if that should factor into one’s criteria when trying to determine “great works of art.” Although I am not prepared, at this point in my lifelong journey thinking about art, to say with certainty that there is, I can’t help but lean in that direction.

  • 4 Pat Evans // Oct 30, 2007 at 11:39 am

    I’m with you Joe. This is great escapist film-making (and who wants to be challenged all the time. Cary Grant is doing his best Cary Grant impersonation — and as always so likeable — and James Mason by his voice alone always makes a wonderful villain.

    When your 31 days are up you may find you have withdrawal symptoms if you return to watching the standard run of current possibilities.

  • 5 Megan // Oct 30, 2007 at 3:54 pm

    ‘No, they didn’t give me a chaser.’ Love that scene.

    Joe, when you say ‘David Niven script’ what do you (or what did Grant) mean? That it was more the type of film Niven would do/be offered? Or that the character reminded him of Niven himself?

  • 6 Joe Valdez // Oct 30, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    Damian: Maybe Jurassic Park would have been a better example than Die Hard. They’re both rollercoasters, whereas most critics ranking the Greatest Films Of All Time would probably favor movies that challenge an audience, rather than cater to it. If you have any interest in the engineering that goes into rollercoasters, North By Northwest is one of the masterpieces.

    Pat: “The least I can do is afford you the opportunity of surviving the evening.” James Mason’s diction is truly bad ass and he’s wonderful in this movie. Thanks for your comment, Patricia. If you’re worried about my psychological well being once October is over, a gift package of Hitchcock’s Universal fare would make a great stocking stuffer. The holiday shopping season begins November 1, don’t you know …

    Megan: That was Cary Grant’s comment. He told Ernest Lehman that North By Northwest was a David Niven script, that he couldn’t figure out what was going on and it was doubtful anyone else would either. Of course, when the movie came out and was a huge critical and commercial hit, Grant had a different interpretation of the film’s worth, even complimenting Gene Wilder 20 years later for his Roger Thornhill type characterization in Silver Streak.

  • 7 Jon Hynds // Jul 12, 2012 at 7:35 am

    Agreed Jo, Psycho, Rear Window, Vertigo were all suspenseful movies, but logistically they were very obviously soundstage bound – not very ambitions of Paramount from a film making perspective. My favorites are ‘The Birds’ & No. 1, ‘North By Northwest’; Universal & MGM respectively, were bold in their filmic endeavors & the above movies are good examples of that grand imagery

  • 8 grouch // Aug 3, 2012 at 7:49 am

    “It doesn’t make the least bit of sense – starting with why the bad guys mistake Cary Grant for a spy.” —

    You must not have been paying attention. They mistake him for a spy because he calls for the waiter at the exact moment that “Kaplan” is being paged, and it looks as if he’s responding to the page.

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