Ten Things I Love About North by Northwest (1959)

NBNW

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When advertising executive Roger Thornhill is mistaken for a spy, it leads to a cross-country game of cat-and-mouse…

In a specially shot trailer to promote his new movie. Alfred Hitchcock stands behind a travel agent’s desk. He tells us that his latest film will cover many miles across America and take viewers on a thrilling adventure. ‘A vacation from all your problems,’ the master promises. He’s not wrong. North by Northwest is escapism of the highest order – breezy, confident, witty and a huge amount of fun. Here are 10 reasons why it’s one of Hitch’s best and most entertaining films…

1. The title sequence… North by Northwest’s credits play over a slick, modernist masterpiece of graphic design by Saul Bass. Kinetic typography moves fluidly, inventively and stylishly across shots of New York skyscrapers, and the music is also out of this world – brassy, bold, memorable. The score is by Bernard Herrmann, an all-time great film composer whose career began with Citizen Kane (1941), ended with Taxi Driver (1976), and took in eight collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock. The movie’s title, by the way, is a deliberate piece of nonsense. Borrowing the phrase from Shakespeare (‘I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw’), Hitchcock and writer Ernest Lehman knew that it had little to do with the story. Events might move in vaguely that direction across America; we might see an airline called Northwest – but the title is more an acknowledgement that the movie isn’t intended to *mean* anything beyond uncomplicated enjoyment.

2. The opening scenes… The body of the film begins so quickly, with so much energy. Madison Avenue advertising executive Roger Thornhill is heading out of his office, to meet some clients at a fancy restaurant, and as he walks he rattles off instructions to his loyal secretary. There’s fast dialogue, dynamic camera moves, and even location filming on a busy New York City street. The sequence sets up the tone and pace of the movie brilliantly: this story will not hang about and, as we watch Roger con a man into giving up his taxi, we also know that it’s not going to be taking itself too seriously either.

3. Cary Grant… In many ways, Roger Thornhill is a Hitchcock standard: he’s the innocent, likeable man accidentally caught up in a dangerous plot that he knows nothing about. (This idea also crops up in The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Saboteur, The Wrong Man, Frenzy…) Due to a misunderstanding in the restaurant, two heavies wrongly believe that Roger is really a spy called George Kaplan. They kidnap him, bundle him into a car, and take him to see their boss… Cary Grant is perfect casting for the film’s lead character; it’s his final role for Alfred Hitchcock and his most memorable. There was an early idea to cast James Stewart, and he would of course have done an excellent job. But Stewart’s Thornhill would have been more everyman, more full of all-American outrage. Grant, however, knows he’s playing a fantasy: he’s debonair and smooth and can handle light comedy, tough dialogue, action and romance. He knows that, while it must be played straight, North by Northwest is pure adventure. (It was surely this role above all others that put him top of United Artists’ wish list when casting for James Bond in 1962.)

4. The mystery… In truth, the entire plot is one big MacGuffin. Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as something ultimately uninteresting to the audience but which motivates the characters and drives the action. In North by Northwest, there is a story going on about American spymasters inventing a secret agent as a decoy in order to ensnare a villain. But does anyone care? It’s not important and Hitchcock knows it: the ‘plot’ is simply an excuse for the suspense, the entertaining characters, and the heightened incidents along the way as Roger fumbles around to find out what’s going on.

5. The bad guys… Having been kidnapped, Thornhill is taken to a large house outside the city and introduced to the silky criminal Phillip Vandamm, whose first scene sees him methodically switching lamps on as he circles and studies a confused Thornhill. Vandamm refuses to believe Roger when he protests that he’s not a spy called George Kaplan, but unlike many movie bad guys he never rants or raves or throws tantrums. He simply presses on as if Roger were a CIA agent intent on ruining his nefarious plans. Vandamm is played by James Mason, who purrs through every scene with undimmable assurance, while second-in-command Leonard is played by Martin Landau.

6. Style… In part, North by Northwest feels so fresh because it has had a big influence. Subsequent movies have followed suit to such a degree that it’s never really gone out of fashion. The mix of suspense, comedy, action, sex, theatrical sets and dramatic incidental music was more or less copied wholesale for James Bond when that film series began three years later, while you can also detect the elan and sophisticated humour of North by Northwest – taking things *just* seriously enough – in Steven Spielberg films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park.

7. Eva Marie Saint… After escaping and then being framed for the murder of a diplomat, Roger is on the run from both Vandamm and the police. So he sets out to track down the elusive George Kaplan and get some answers. This involves a train journey from New York to Chicago, during which he meets fellow passenger Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint. The studio had wanted Singin’ in the Rain’s Cyd Charisse for the part, but Hitchcock stood firm. Another example of his obsession with complex blondes, she’s sexually bold and flirtatious… and of course isn’t what she first appears. Saint is terrific, playing the role with just enough guard that you’re initially not sure of her motives. The cross-country train ride also provides us with another James Bond parallel. The second 007 movie, 1963’s From Russia with Love, also features characters with secrets sharing a buffet-car table – just one of several apparent nods towards North by Northwest…

8. The dust-cropping scene… Perhaps the film’s most famous sequence comes when Roger gets off a bus in the middle of nowhere, hoping to rendezvous with Kaplan. Initially all alone at an isolated country bus stop, he then encounters a man who points out that a nearby plane is dusting crops but doing so over fields where they are no crops. After the guy has been picked up and Roger is alone again, he realises the plane is getting closer and closer. And then it attacks, swooping just feet above Roger’s head and forcing him to throw himself to the ground. It circles back and strikes again and again… Roger only escapes its menace when the plane crashes into a passing petrol tanker. From slow build-up to explosive climax, this is nine minutes and 20 seconds of pure cinema. (It’s also another scene later homaged in From Russia With Love, this time with a helicopter.)

9. Mount Rushmore… The trail of breadcrumbs eventually leads Roger to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, where he encounters the CIA chief (Leo G Carroll) who concocted the idea of George Kaplan as a decoy. And what was Kaplan intended to distract Vandamm from? The real agent… Eve Kendall. But Vandamm is close by too, and has Kendall prisoner. Eventually, Eve and Roger flee and escape up to the top of the famous Mount Rushmore façade, a scene which is as gloriously silly as any in a Hitchcock film. It combines an action-movie chase with the bonkers sight of huge Presidential faces and the very real threat of a fatal fall…

10. The final image… After two hours of excitement and enjoyment, Vandamm is dead, Eve safe, and Roger on his way back to his comfortable life in New York. But Hitchcock has one final cheeky gag. Roger and Eve are in their carriage aboard a sleeper train. As they start to get amorous, Hitchcock cuts to… the train entering a tunnel.

Ten men trying to catch a bus out of 10

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