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Directed by Alfred Hitchcock with Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, Leo G. Carroll and Martin Landau, color, 136 minutes, 1959

Cover of blue-ray for North by Northwest

Cover of "North by Northwest" Blue-Ray

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 public.

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.

Mason, Saint and Landau

James Mason, Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau in great auction scene

"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 spy operation.

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 recent movies.

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 for them.

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 the cornfield.

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.

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This film was ranked 40th in the 1998 List of Top 100 Films by the American Film Institute and is ranked 12th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

The film is ranked 18th in the Internet Movie Data Base's Top 250 films as of December 27, 2000 and its fine entry can be accessed by clicking here.

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