North by Northwest (1959)
If you’ve looked at my previous coverage on Alfred Hitchcock then you’re aware of the glaring omissions in his filmography for me. Well, cross one of the biggies off the list for I’ve finally seen North by Northwest. Hitchcock’s Bond-esque story of the man who wasn’t there is a top-notch in every sense of the word; it combines the wittiest comedy, elegant prose and a host of classy characters that leaves you breathless and yearning for more.
Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is an average man mistaken for the mysterious George Kaplan. Kidnapped and threatened by a villain named Vandamm (James Mason), Thornhill escapes and is forced to go on the run to prove he isn’t Kaplan. As Roger makes an attempt to prove his identity and his innocence he meets the beautiful Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who might know more than she lets on.
Hitchcock’s spy films are an acquired personal taste. The myriad twists and turns, complicated further by his McGuffins, always leave me scrambling to deconstruct the plot and lose connection with the characters. In short, I’m often left too confused by these. Now, that’s probably a simplistic summation of the Master of Suspense’s oeuvre, but I think I cracked the code after watching North by Northwest. Hitchcock’s masterful story of a flashy ad-man in a gray flannel suit isn’t just peppered with the typical Hitchcockian tropes – mistaken identity, an emphasis on irony and coincidence – but it’s expertly scripted (courtesy of Ernest Lehmann) and acted. This is a master class in Hitchcock’s work. Not only did I enjoy myself immensely, but I opened the Pandora’s box and discovered what I’d missed in his previous spy thrillers. This is the film to watch if Hitchcock’s left you cold before.
To truly deconstruct North by Northwest would be grotesquely long and writers better than me have done superior jobs if you look online. Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill (the O stands for nothing, like Thornhill’s previously empty and bland existence) is Cary Grant at his best: cultured, polished, a bit of a jerk. It isn’t until he’s mistaken for George Kaplan, a man whose life is more exciting than Roger’s – the high point of Roger’s week is going to the Winter Garden Theatre with his mother – that he’s able to find romance while avoiding being killed. Grant plays with Lehmann’s script like a cat with a ball of string. Words roll off Grant’s tongue with a swagger that compliments the double entendres of his scenes opposite Saint. I’m still torn whether this film is sexier than Notorious (1946) or not.
In comparison to Notorious, though, is the fact that Grant isn’t the one in charge of those seduction scenes. To me, Eva Marie Saint is the shy girl in On the Waterfront (1954). Apparently I’ve watched the wrong movies because despite the crop-duster scene and Mt. Rushmore, it was Eva Marie Saint who conquered this film. As the duplicitous Eve Kendall, she’s more than just the girl Friday to the evil Vandamm or the love interest for Roger. When she first meets Roger she saves him not once, but twice because he has “a nice face.” She knows more about his circumstance than he does, and she calls him out on his BS. She’s also one of Hitchcock’s few cool blondes with actual sexual agency. “I never talk about love on an empty stomach” was dubbed over from the initial “I never make love…” and from there Eve doesn’t hide the fact she wants to get Roger into bed. He “likes her flavor,” while she jokes about climbing up onto the top bunk where he’s hiding. There’s no doubt these two are going to get together by the end, but with the added implication of actual lovemaking in there!
Like Bergman’s Alicia in Notorious, it’s Grant’s character who ends up making Eve feel bad about her sexual nature, sarcastically treating her like an object when it’s revealed she’s Vandamm’s girlfriend. Really, what I’m saying is Cary Grant always plays a dick in Hitchcock movies.There are also other interesting sexual intrigues, from Martin Landau’s sexually fluid Leonard – there’s a wealth of scholarly material on him being a homosexual character – to how Vandamm’s relationship with Eve is examined. I know everyone gets all swoony over Grant, but I ended up losing my head for James Mason. The way Hitchcock’s camera captures a simple neck caress is amazing.
I should touch on the more noticeable sequences in North by Northwest, though I was more invested in the train sequence with Grant and Saint. Once the two part ways the film returns to Grant’s Roger being placed in situations that are meant to culminate with his death. The crop duster scene, outside of how it’s filmed, is tense in numerous ways. I have to wonder if Spielberg was inspired to work on Duel (1971) because of this, and by that I mean how the plane almost acts of its own volition. We never see a pilot helming it, and the mindless way it chases Roger, before blowing up, almost implies that the world itself is against Roger. All the action culminates with Roger, Eve, Vandamm and Leonard traipsing around Mt. Rushmore. I’m assuming you can’t do any of this now? Or even back then? It’s a bit of fun irony on the part of Lehmann and Hitchcock that this twisted tale of government intrigue and corruption – in the sense that the government leaves Roger out to dry – ends with people trouncing on these symbols of government.
I don’t feel I’m doing North by Northwest justice, but that’s what happens when you’re writing about a film that’s so ingrained in the cinematic firmament. Regardless, I can’t recommend North by Northwest enough. Saint steals the show, but that’s not to say Grant or Mason are slouches. Everything about this movie is a work of art.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
A glorious review of this great film, Kristen: such a pleasure to read. This is my favourite Hitchcock and in it Grant and Mason show just how good they were as movie actors.
Thank you! I fear I didn’t do the film justice. There’s just so much to deconstruct it’s worthy of a Masters thesis.
North by Northwest is the greatest – there aren’t many films that are just pure entertainment right the way through. And Cary Grant in that suit 😍 I saw North by Northwest on the big screen for the very first time on New Year’s Eve as part of a Hitchcock double bill with Notorious at Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds – was totally amazing as you can imagine 😊😊😊
Ben Fastnedge says “What a superb account of North By Northwest. Definitely one of Hitchcock’s finest, up there with Vertigo and Rear Window for me. Cary Grant exudes such charm and you are absolutely right in saying the words just roll of his tongue with swagger. The pace, the locations and of course the wonderful Eva Marie Saint make this a sheer delight from start to finish. The humour is well judged too, such as Roger’s mother – her scenes are glorious.”