– Cary Grant to Eva Marie Saint, “North By Northwest” (1959)
The word classic gets so overused in connection with movies that it’s almost ceased to have meaning: this is one of the few films it should be reserved for.”
Alfred Hitchcock introduces North By Northwest:
Hitchcock Takes a Suspenseful Cook’s Tour
Since he is a peripatetic operative who loves to beat about the bush while beating about the countryside, director Alfred Hitchcock and a covey of willing and able traveling companions have made “North by Northwest,” which was unveiled at the Music Hall yesterday, a suspenseful and delightful Cook’s Tour of some of the more photogenic spots in these United States.
Although they are involved in lightning-fast romance and some loose intrigue, it is all done in brisk, genuinely witty and sophisticated style. With Mr. Hitchcock at the helm, moving “North by Northwest” is a colorful and exciting route for spies, counterspies and lovers.
The director and Ernest Lehman, his scenarist, are not, to put a fine point on it, really serious about their mystery. With a tongue-in-cheek attitude and a breezy sense of humor, they are off in high gear right at the beginning as they spin the somewhat improbable yarn of a successful, handsome Madison Avenue executive, who is mistaken for a Federal intelligence man by foreign agents and forcibly pushed into a succession of macabre situations that shock, amaze, perplex and anger our once-debonair hero.
Mr. Hitchcock, who, as has been noted, knows that travel is both fun and broadening, quickly shifts his cast from such locales as the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel and the modernistic interiors of the United Nations Headquarters, to the fancy confines of the Twentieth Century Limited, to the posh Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago, to a vast, flat Midwest cornfield and finally to the giant faces of the Presidents sculptured on Mount Rushmore high above Rapid City, SD.
The complications are introduced with about the same rapidity as the ever-changing scenery. Our beleaguered hero, it appears, is being harried by the villains who want to dispatch him because he seems to be on to their skulduggery. It is, or course, merely a case of mistaken identity, an illusion the Federal boys are desperate to maintain.
In any event, Mr. Hitchcock, et al, take time out now and again to stop strewing red herrings and inject a funny scene here and there, such as one involving our drunken hero in a local hoosegow, or to point up the quickly burgeoning romance between him and the blonde Mata Hari who apparently is aiding the dastards chasing him. Their interlude, to the sounds of slick, romantic dialogue, in a train drawing room, for example, is guaranteed to send viewers’ temperatures soaring. The lines and the expert manipulation of the principals are tributes to the outstanding talents of Messrs. Lehman and Hitchcock.
Cary Grant, a veteran member of the Hitchcock acting varsity, was never more at home than in this role of the advertising-man-on-the-lam. He handles the grimaces, the surprised look, the quick smile, the aforementioned spooning and all the derring-do with professional aplomb and grace. In casting Eva Marie Saint as his romantic vis-à-vis, Mr. Hitchcock has plumbed some talents not shown by the actress heretofore. Although she is seemingly a hard, designing type, she also emerges both the sweet heroine and a glamorous charmer.
Jessie Royce Landis contributes a few genuinely humorous scenes as Mr. Grant’s slightly addle-pated mother. James Mason is properly sinister as the leader of the spy ring, as are Martin Landau, Adam Williams, Robert Ellenstein and Josephine Hutchinson, as members of his malevolent troupe. And Leo G. Carroll is satisfyingly bland and calm as as the studious intelligence chief.
Perhaps they and Messrs. Hitchcock and Lehman are kidding, after all. Their climax is a bit overdrawn and there are a few vague spots along the way. But they do lead us on the year’s most scenic, intriguing and merriest chase.
A.H. Weiler, August 1959
North by Northwest (50th Anniversary Edition) Trailer:
Why North By Northwest?
“It’s the American version of “The 39 Steps” – I’d thought about it for a long time. It’s a fantasy. The whole film is epitomized in the title – there is no such thing as north-by-northwest on the compass. The area in which we get near to the free abstract in movie making is the free use of fantasy, which is what I deal in. I don’t deal in that slice-of-life stuff. Only one sequence was missing from that picture: the assembly-line in Detroit. Never got that in. I wanted to have a dialogue scene – two men talking, walking along the assembly line – and behind them is a car being assembled. Starts with a bare frame and continues to be built. And the men talk on – their conversation should have a little bit to do with automobiles – and finally the car is loaded up with gas and one of the men drives it off. Well, I wanted to see the car finally come off the line, and they open the door and look in, and a dead body falls out. Also I wanted to get in a shot of Cary Grant hiding in Lincoln’s nose and having a sneezing fit!”
How did you get the idea for the plane sequence?
“This comes under the heading of avoiding the clichés. The cliché of that kind of scene is in The Third Man. Under a street lamp, in a medieval setting, black cat slithers by, somebody opens a blind and looks out, eerie music. Now, what is the antithesis of this? Nothing! No music, bright sunshine, and nothing. Now put a man in a business suit in this setting.”
Mason really doesn’t act like a villain, does he?
“No, I didn’t make him do a dastardly thing in the whole picture. I split him into three in an effort to keep him from behaving like a heavy: there’s Mason himself, who only had to nod. I gave him a rather saturnine looking secretary – there was the face of Mason. And the third man – Adam Williams – he was the brutality.” – Alfred Hitchcock
From: The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock – 1963
by Peter Bogdanovich (Author)
The Definitive Classic
“The word classic gets so overused in connection with movies that it’s almost ceased to have meaning: this is one of the few films it should be reserved for. Suspense, thrills, chases, romance, mistaken identity, and the ultimate expression of perfect cinematic pointlessness in the definitive MacGuffin: the nonexistent secret agent George Kaplan. This is such a perfect movie that even the sleek gray suit Cary Grant wears throughout the movie has been called “the best suit in film history.” It’s like Mad Men meets James Bond.” – FilmCom
Strangers on a train…
Eve: “I tipped the steward five dollars to seat you here if you should come in”.
Roger: “Is that a proposition?”
Eve: “I never discuss making love on an empty stomach”.
Roger: “You’ve already eaten!”
Eve: “But you haven’t.”
A strong candidate for possibly the most entertaining and enjoyable film ever made by a hollywood studio, North by Northwest is positioned between the much heavier and more profoundly disturbing Vertigo (1958) and the stark horror of Psycho (1960).”
In the corpus of Alfred Hitchcock films it shows the director at his most effervescent in a romantic comedy-thriller that also features one of the definitive Cary Grant performances. Which is not to say that this is just Hitchcock Lite. It’s a classic Hitchcock Wrong Man scenario: Grant is Roger O Thornhill (initials ROT), an advertising executive who is mistaken by enemy spies for a US undercover agent named George Kaplan.
Convinced these sinister fellows (James Mason as the boss and Martin Landau as his henchman) are trying to kill him, Roger flees and meets a sexy Stranger on a Train (Eva Marie Saint), with whom he engages in one of the longest, most convolutedly choreographed kisses in screen history. And of course there are the famous set pieces: the stabbing at the United Nations, the crop-duster plane attack in the cornfield (where a pedestrian has no place to hide) and the cliffhanger finale atop the stone faces of Mount Rushmore. With its sparkling Ernest Lehman script and that pulse-quickening Bernard Herrmann score, what more could a filmgoer possibly desire?”
– Jim Emerson, Amazon.com
Alfred Hitchcock: “A Life in Darkness and Light” (2004) by Patrick Mcgilligan
The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (1983) by Donald Spoto
Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock (1978) by John Russell Taylor
Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies (2008) by Donald Spoto
It’s Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock – A Personal Biography (2005) by Charlotte Chandler
See also: The Hitchcock Zone