By Carter B. Horsley
In the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, Alfred
Hitchcock was the world's greatest film director who bought romance
and suspense to new cinematic levels.
Famed for conceptualizing his films in his
mind in great detail, Hitchcock had a wickedly delicious sense
of humor and was a master manipulator of his audiences with unexpected
dramatics in spectacular locations.
For film-lovers, it is extremely difficult
to pick the best Hitchcock scenes because there are so many: the
shower scene in "Psycho," the man lighting a cigarette
in "The Birds," the rainy assassination and plane crash
in "Foreign Correspondent," the "Mr. Memory"
show in "The 39 Steps," the runaway carrousel in "Strangers
on the Train," the "key" scene in "Rear Window,"
the suit-problem atop the Statue of Liberty in "Saboteur,"
the rooftop chase in "To Catch a Thief," and, of course,
the art auction and crop-dusting sequences in "North by Northwest."
In the mid-1960s, however, the James Bond series
upped the ante and audiences have since been primed for many thrills
and special effects to the point where many blockbusters now offer
almost non-stop "action."
Hitchcock's status in film history is very
secure, however, because of his immense influence, the magnetism
of his casts, and his sardonic and mischievous wit. Sorting out,
or ranking, his films is not easy, especially since he took risks
and made a number of films, such as "The Wrong Man,"
"The Trouble with Harry" "Vertigo" and "Frenzy,"
that were by his standards off-beat and yet very interesting.
Moreover, Hitchcock began to assume legendary status among "auteur"
critics and could be considered the first director who was more
important than his individual films. Kurosawa, Fellini and Truffault
would follow in this mold, while John Ford was his contemporary
but not his peer.
In considering his oeuvre, "North by Northwest"
may be the most classic Hitchcock film because of Cary Grant's
great comic skills, and its rather pyrotechnical, almost show-offy,
sequences, together with its complicated plot.
"Rear Window" and "To Catch
A Thief," his previous two hits that both starred the radiant
Grace Kelly at her most alluring, probably remain more enduring
to many of his fans because of the single-mindedness of the plots,
while "Psycho" and the "Birds" will most likely
stand as his greatest directorial achievements, but "North
by Northwest" is perhaps the most satisfying to the general
It has the most stylish title sequence, designed
by Saul Bass, in film history, and the persona of its lead, Cary
Grant, epitomized the civilized hero of Modern Man and was obviously
a major role model for James Bond. Suave, sophisticated, athletic,
womanizing, daring and humorous, Grant was a connoisseur of what
the world had to offer and for at least two generations was the
quintessence of "stardom" and the definitive modern
man of resourcefulness, manliness, and "coolness" in
the generation just before the emergence of anti-heroes and political
correctness. He was more debonair in "To Catch A Thief,"
but his humor is given more sway in this film. In one famous scene,
he breaks into a woman's hospital room and she yells hysterically
"Stop!," then puts on her glasses, and then, imploringly,
says "Stop," to which Grant, with his back to the camera
keeps on going by and out the window while giving her a knowing,
smiling rejection in a playful grunt.
Both Grant and Hitchcock straddled tongue-in-cheek
with derring-do. Hitchcock loved presenting viewers with the challenge
of incongruous happenings and difficult circumstances, characters
who get involved in sinister plans that are hard to fathom and
situations that seem to offer no easy way out. Subsequent thrillers,
such as "No Way Out" with Kevin Kostner, "The French
Connection" with Gene Hackman, and many others would intensify
the claustrophobic thrills and heroics of their lead with great
passion, but almost all would follow patterns and styles laid
out by Hitchcock. Carol Reed's "Odd Man Out" with James
Mason and "The Third Man" with Orson Welles (see The City Review article), would, of course,
demonstrate that Hitchcock was not the only master of suspense
and a great director, but no other director created such an impressive
and consistent oeuvre of high quality in this genre.
In Hitchcock's cinematic world, the leads were
generally beautiful and "elite" people such as Ingrid
Bergman, Gregory Peck, Madeleine Carroll, Robert Donat, Margaret
Lockwood, and Michael Redgrave. If people blessed with such natural
gifts could get into trouble, just imagine the dangers lurking
for the common man. Hollywood, of course, did have less mundane
stars such as Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis, but its "star"
mechanism dominated world culture for decades until the onslaught
of the New Wave in France and the multi-culturalism that would
eventually flourish with the demands of the Civil Rights Movement
and the demystification imperatives created by the Vietnam War.
In the sixties, Hitchcock would turn his talents
mostly to television and one wonders what types of films he would
be producing now. Most likely, he would be competing, tooth and
nail, with James Cameron and Ridley Scott and certainly Spielberg's
"Jaws" owes much to Hitchcockian suspense and thrills.
For modern, young audiences, Hitchcock's films
are likely to appear somewhat dated. Hitchcock, of course, always
was au courant, utilizing footage of the sabotaged Normandie oceanliner
in "Saboteur" and the onslaught of World War II in "Foreign
Correspondent." His most popular films, however, were definitely
modern. James Stewart used an extremely long telephoto lens in
"Rear Window," and Grace Kelly drove a spiffy sports
car in "To Catch a Thief," Claude Rains was dealing
with precious minerals for weapons development in "Notorious,"
Ingrid Bergman applied contemporary psychiatric techniques in
"Spellbound," and James Mason employed microfilm technology
in "North by Northwest."
There are some preposterous moments in "North
by Northwest" that stretch one's belief in the story a bit
too far: why try to kill Grant with a crop-duster plane and then
have it crash into a oil-track under which Grant momentarily hides
and have Grant escaped unscathed? Why doesn't Grant find it strange
that in the midst of danger aboard a train he would be seduced
and saved by a beautiful woman stranger?
Such moments are easily lost because of Grant's
incredible screen persona that so enchants audiences that they
will believe almost anything and because of Ernest Lehman's very
witty, very sophisticated and very suggestive script.
Eva Marie Saint, of course, had previously
been best known as the waifish lover of brutish Marlo Brando in
"On the Waterfront" and here Hitchcock has done his
best to glamorize her, but despite similar coifs and wardrobe
she cannot hold a candle to Grace Kelly, who had starred memorably
in Hitchcock's three previous hits, "Dial M for Murder"
with Ray Milland, "Rear Window" with James Stewart and
"To Catch a Thief" with Cary Grant. It was during the
filming on the latter on the French Riveria that Grace Kelly met
Prince Rainier of Monaco and shock the world by marrying soon
thereafter and retiring from the screen at the height of her immense
box-office appeal. Hitchcock's next film, "Vertigo"
starred James Stewart and Kim Novack, but was not a sensation
because of its convoluted psychological plot.
"North by Northwest" would restore
Hitchcock's status and reputation and Eva Marie Saint carries
off some wildly suggestive repartee with Grant with aplomb, appeal
and grace. She does a fine job, but Grace Kelly was a very hard
act to follow at the time and as a result many film buffs rate
this movie somewhat lower than "Rear Window." "Rear
Window," on the other hand, had laconic Stewart rather than
the ebullient Grant as the male lead, and was a straight-forward,
albeit wonderful, claustrophobic thriller whereas "North
by Northwest" is a startlingly bright, comic thriller with
more of the director's classic elements and wit with fabulously
droll performances by Jessie Royce Landis as Grant's imperious
dowager mother, and Leo G. Carroll as the relaxed head of an American
As Phillip Van Damm, the film's villain, James
Mason is deliciously pernicious and his cool elegance and authority
would be later mimicked by most of James Bond's villains. In his
screen debut as Leonard, Mason's assistant, Martin Landau is a
bit wooden but convincingly menacing.
Grant plays Roger Thornhill, a successful and
arrogant advertising executive in New York who happens to have
a dominating mother. Over cocktails with business associates in
the Oak Bar at the Plaza Hotel, Thornhill happens to page a waiter
just as another waiter is paging a "George Kaplan."
Two men immediately kidnap Thornhill at gunpoint thinking that
he is the "George Kaplan" they had paged and push him
into a cab and take him to a large Georgian-style estate in Glen
Cove on Long Island, where he is introduced to Lester Townsend,
played by James Mason, who tells him to stop playing games and
admit that he is Mr. Kaplan and tell him what he knows about their
operation. Thornhill protests that he is a victim of mistaken
identity, but to no avail and Mason's henchmen fill him with bourbon
and put him in a car with the intent of killing him and making
it look like an accident of drunken driving.
Grant tries unsuccessfully to sober up behind
the wheel but manages not to get killed in a car crash but does
get arrested for drunk driving. The police do not believe his
story and he spends the night in jail before his mother and attorney
can appear to bail him out the next day. They do convince the
police then to go to the Glen Cove mansion where the lady of the
house greets Grant as Mr. Kaplan and says she hopes he had recovered
from the party the night before. She says that Mr. Townsend is
in New York attending a meeting of the United Nations. Grant's
mother, convinced that her son had simply imbibed too much, tells
him to "pay the two dollars."
Grant convinces his mother to return to the
Plaza Hotel to find out who the real George Kaplan is and by ruse
they get into his room, which is full of his clothes, but they
realized they are being followed and quickly leave and Grant decides
to visit Mr. Townsend at the United Nations. When they meet in
the delegates' lounge, Grant realizes that Mr. Townsend is not
the man he met at the Glen Cove mansion, but before he can learn
more Townsend staggers over with a knife in his back into Grant's
arms as a photographer grabs a picture. Grant realizing that people
think he has just killed Townsend flees to Grand Central Terminal
to catch a train to Chicago where Kaplan's last address was.
At this point in the movie, the audience only
understands that Grant has been an alleged victim of mistaken
identity and the next scene helps to clarify the situation as
a C.I.A. meeting discusses the Townsend murder and the newspaper
accounts of Roger Thornhill's involvement. The meeting is being
conducted by Leo G. Carroll, referred to as "The Professor,"
and he sighs that regretably Thornhill has been mistaken for a
non-existent "decoy" agent his group has created to
mislead Vandamm from the true identity of an agent of theirs in
his camp. He proceeds to conclude that there is nothing they can
do to help Thornhill without revealing their ruse and threatening
their agent and since they have already lost two agents in their
pursuit of Vandamm they decide to do nothing.
The murder of Townsend and Thornhill's picture
with the knife in his hand is on the front page of the afternoon
tabloids and Townsend has to hide from the police who are searching
the train. He meets Eva Marie Saint and starts a conversation
that he soon loses control of as her risqué comments astound,
befuddle and beguile him, especially when she manages to hide
him from the police.
Their train ride together set new Hollywood
standards for testing censorship in its quite explicit innuendoes
about their sexual attraction. More than four decades later, the
clothes-on repartee remains amazingly witty and far more interesting
than the snippets of nudity and raunchy talk that fills much more
At one point, she leaves their compartment
and visits Vandamm and Leonard in another compartment and the
audience realizes, though Grant does not, that she is working
When they reach Chicago, she convinces Grant
to let her call Kaplan and she returns with a message that Grant
should meet him at a bus stop outside Chicago.
The bus stop is where the crop-dusting sequence
takes place and its long, intricate editing is often compared
with the editing for Janet Leigh's murder in a shower sequence
in "Psycho" as one of the most brilliant and classic
sequences in film history.
Surviving the crop-dusting attack, Grant realizes
that he has been set up by Eve Kendall and returns to Chicago
and learns that she and Vandamm have gone to an art auction. He
dashes to the auction and confronts them. Vandamm admires his
tenacity, still convinced he is George Kaplan and abruptly leaves
after instructing his thugs to take care of Thornhill.
The auction is continuing as they speak and
Thornhill decides to attract attention by outlandish bidding behavior
in an attempt, eventually successful, to get arrested before Vandamn's
henchmen can get to him.
In both this scene and the drunken driving
scene, Grant's acting is pure buffoonery, and hilarious. The auction
sequence, in fact, is extremely well-done as it well reflects
the institutionalized propriety of such events.
Grant informs the arresting officers that it
is their lucky day as he is not just a public nuisance, but the
murderer of Lester Townsend at the United Nations. Before long,
"The Professor" shows up and introduces himself to Thornhill
and explains that Eve Kendall is their agent who is now in jeopardy
because Vandamm was suspicious of her conduct with Thornhill at
the auction. The Professor enlists Thornhill's further aid and
the next scene is in the visitor center at the base of Mt. Rushmore
where Eve Kendall shoots Thornhill in front of Vandamm to convince
him of her loyalty.
In reality, however, she used "blank"
bullets and they briefly met in the woods before she has to return
with Vandamm to his mountain retreat near the Mt. Rushmore monument.
When Thornhill discovers that she plans to
leave the country with Vandamm and microfilm he has hidden in
an object he bought at the auction, Thornhill goes to the retreat
to try to warn her not to get on the plane.
Vandamm's assistant dramatically shoots him
with her gun to prove that she was using blanks and cannot be
trusted. The plane to whisk Vandamm out of the country lands nearby
and Thornhill tries to intervene but Kendall slips off the top
of the monument and Vandamm's assistant threatens to kill them
both in a wonderful and very famous sequence.
In the excellent DVD edition released in 2000,
Ernest Lehman, the screenwriter provides a commentary in which
he discusses the origins of the film that occurred after his friend,
Herrmann, the composer, introduced him to Hitchcock. At lunch
one day, Hitchcock said that he had wanted to do a film that involved
Mt. Rushmore and also that he had thought of a scene when a speaker
at the United Nations stops his speech and says he will not continue
until the representative from Peru wakes up and someone nudges
him and discovers that he is dead. From those two concepts, Lehman
fashioned the screenplay and wrote the first 65 pages in a few
weeks that wowed Hitchcock and then set off on a cross-country
research trip. At Mt. Rushmore, he hired a park ranger to climb
with him up the monument, but he chickened out about half way
up and had the ranger return by himself the next day with a Polaroid
to take pictures in all directions at the top. When the Department
of the Interior discovered that Hitchcock planned to make a movie
at the monument involving murders it declined permission, which
was good for publicity, but required that great sets be designed.
According to Lehman, Hitchcock had originally
considered James Stewart for the lead as he was then working with
him on the completion of "Vertigo." The famous crop-dusting
sequence was shot in Bakersfield, California, and the studio planted
In one of the publicity shots for the film,
Mt. Rushmore is shown with a fifth face, the rotund and famous
profile of Hitchcock and in the beginning of the film a New York
City bus shuts it doors and pulls away from a frustrated Hitchcock.
In lesser hands, such plot contrivances might
not work, but here the directing and the acting, and the superb
and very stirring score by Bernard Herrmann, carry the day in
an immensely entertaining and glamorous film that is notable not
so much for its adventure but for its predicaments and puzzles
and the audience is constantly surprised and intrigued by the
tunnels of suspense and sexual innuendo.