Should I Watch..? 'North by Northwest'
What's the big deal?
North by Northwest is a spy thriller film released in 1959 and was directed by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. The film stars Hitchcock regular Cary Grant, James Mason and Eva Marie Saint and concerns an advertising executive caught up in a deadly case of mistaken identity. In addition to Grant, the film also uses other regular collaborators of Hitchcock including title designer Saul Bass and a musical score by Bernard Hermann - the genius behind those iconic strings used in Psycho the following year. The film was released to universal acclaim from critics with some declaring it the best film of Hitchcock's long and distinguished career. It went on to earn $22.2 million worldwide as well as three Academy Award nominations. It was later selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry for its cultural, historical or aesthetic significance in 1995.
What it's about?
In the bar of a New York hotel in 1958, advertising executive Roger Thornhill is about to ask the waiter for some water before he is apprehended by two thugs who believe Thornhill is actually a man called George Kaplan. Despite his pleas, Thornhill is taken to the Long Island estate of Lester Townsend and interrogated by shady spy Phillip Vandamm. Ignoring Thornhill's insistence that he is not the man they are looking for, Vandamm orders his henchman Leonard to discretely kill "Kaplan" but Thornhill escapes at the last minute.
Finding himself increasingly mired in conspiracy after being framed for a murder at the United Nations, Thornhill has no choice but to leave New York and he sneaks on board the fabled 20th Century Limited train to Chicago. During the journey, he is hidden from police by the bewitching Eve Kendall and the two of them develop a relationship. But with unknown and mysterious assailants never far behind, who can Thornhill trust as he searches for the real George Kaplan?
Eva Marie Saint
Jessie Royce Landis
Leo G. Carroll
Release Date (UK)
20th November, 1959
PG (2006 re-rating)
Academy Award Nominations
Best Original Screenplay, Best Set Direction (Colour), Best Editing
What's to like?
For viewers relatively inexperienced in Hitchcock films, North by Northwest is one of the most accessible and enjoyable films he ever made. Feeling like a grand spy adventure with gripping action sequences like the iconic duel with the crop-duster, you can see its influence in so many pictures from The Bourne Identity to From Russia With Love. The film's narrative rarely lets up the pace, flowing from one absorbing scene to another with the skill only a truly great director can conjure. Hitch knows how to get the best out of a scene - take the crop-duster sequence which has no music or dialogue of any kind, just the sound of the plane's engine and Grant's increasingly frantic efforts to avoid being hit. It's impossible to take your eyes off it.
Casting is also superb with Grant's character visibly becoming more brazen and daring as the film progresses, as though he is slowly morphing into the enigmatic George Kaplan. Mason, supported by Landau in his film debut as a bruising henchman, works well as the villain of the piece because he is a mirror of Grant - urbane and well-dressed, he isn't really a man of action but of words and implied threat. And then there's Saint as the film's bewitching femme fatale, stunning beautiful but also engaging as we're never entirely sure of her loyalties and she gives the film another element of danger for Thornhill to tangle with.
- The United Nations declined Hitchcock permission to shoot at the UN Headquarters in New York so Hitch secretly filmed Grant getting out of a taxi at the building with a hidden camera.
- Hitchcock discussed the film's premise to James Stewart on the set of Vertigo in 1958, causing Stewart to believe that Hitch intended him to play Thornhill. When Hitch realised this, he deliberately waited until Stewart had been cast in another film before offering the role to him as he didn't want to hurt his feelings. Stewart had no choice but to turn it down, leaving Hitch to cast Grant - his intended lead actor.
- Saint had to redub a line in post-production to satisfy the film censors, "I never make love on an empty stomach" to "I never discuss love on an empty stomach". The film's final shot - that of a train suggestively entering a tunnel - was described by Hitchcock as "probably one of the most impudent shots I ever made."
- This was the only film Hitchcock ever made for MGM. When they suggested that the film's final length by cut to under two hours, Hitch checked his contract and found he had total control over the film so he refused.
What's not to like?
Far be it for a scruffy urchin like myself to criticise an acknowledged master of film-making like Hitchcock but even without the great man's fearsome reputation hovering over the picture, there is very little I can find fault with in North by Northwest. The narrative feels a little confusing at times but that's ok - Thornhill is kept in the dark about a lot in the film so the audience should as well. But otherwise, this is a superb film.
One thing in its favour is how refreshing it is compared to spy films that have come afterwards. Most spy films these day involve more action, explosions and even more exotic locations, usually featuring women in some state of undress. This film holds back many of these elements while still suggesting them. The climatic scramble across the carved faces of Mount Rushmore is tense, dangerous and different enough to stand out from your typical thriller. You know that if this film were made today by someone like Michael Bay, not only would flames be shot out of George Washington's nose but the entire mountain would explode for the sheer hell of it. Thank God Hitchcock resisted such nonsense.
Should I watch it?
Hitchcock veterans might see this as another "wrong guy" caper but North by Northwest is an incredible film made by a director at the height of his abilities. From the fascinating storyline to Grant's increasingly desperate performance to Hitch's ratcheting of the film's tension, the movie has become one of cinema's most influential pictures as well as one of Hitchcock's very best. Unlike Psycho, the film is bold, colourful and tremendous escapism and remains a compelling and essential watch all these years later.
Great For: spy cinema, thrill seekers, Hitchcock fans, mild-mannered advertising executives, north American tourism
Not So Great For: modern Bond fans, anyone expecting mile-a-minute action sequences
What else should I watch?
Hitchcock made plenty of films based around the idea of an ordinary man suddenly thrust into an adventure in classics like The 39 Steps, Dial M For Murder and the aforementioned Vertigo. One could even make the case for Psycho which sees Janet Leigh's love-struck secretary embark on a dangerous theft before having her story suddenly overtaken by the most notorious hotel manager in cinema, Norman Bates.
There is something about spy films that keep audiences coming back for more, whether its the kiss-kiss-bang-bang of the Bond franchise or the more contemporary adventures of amnesiac super-spy Jason Bourne. Many of these movies feature some elements of North by Northwest such as the cross-country chase, the alluring femme fatale and larger-than-life action sequences. Some of my favourites include Ang Lee's overlooked Lust, Caution which depicts a revolutionary attempting to assassinate a political rival during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in 1942, James Cameron's bombastic action-comedy True Lies and another overlooked effort, Ronin. But truth be told, I'll always have a soft spot for 007...
© 2018 Benjamin Cox