“I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself ‘slightly’ killed.”
“That’s funny. That plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.”
—Man at the Prairie Crossing
I expected Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest to be suspenseful, cinematic, and even a bit perverse, peppered with the director’s inimitable wit and dark sense of humor. It certainly is all that. However, I didn’t expect it to be altogether facetious, or as fun as it is. Scene after scene, North by Northwest delivers; not many films give as much bang for your buck as this one.
Cary Grant is Manhattan ad executive Roger O. Thornhill—”The ‘O’ stands for nothing,” he quips at one point. A mild-mannered, stylish middle-aged man in a grey flannel Brooks Brothers suit—think Mad Men—he leads a perfectly predictable straight life serving clients, drinking martinis, and keeping his WASPy mother (Jessie Royce Landis) entertained.
While having cocktails at the Plaza Hotel one afternoon, Thornhill is yanked into a treacherous game of cat-and-mouse when the goons of a smooth and well-spoken spy, baritone Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), mistake him for a government agent named George Kaplan. It’s nothing but trouble from here.
Relentlessly hunted after being framed for an incident at the United Nations, Thornhill flees Manhattan on a passenger train that looks a lot like Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited. He meets cool, mysterious, and sultry stranger Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who’s headed to Chicago. Her innuendo is sexy, but she’s not exactly trustworthy—Thornhill senses it, and so do we.
North by Northwest is ultimate Hitchcock, fueled by mistaken identity and packed with psychological drama manifest mostly in the form of dizzying pursuit: a drunken car chase on a windy road, a moving train, an out-of-nowhere crop duster in an Indiana cornfield, a race down Mount Rushmore. Nothing about the plot is believable; it’s more preposterous than a James Bond film. Although it shares the same Cold War sensibility, North by Northwest is much more intriguing and memorable. It’s also more entertaining.
Ernest Lehman’s script is brilliantly put together, but the story isn’t what makes this soar; it’s Hitchcock’s directing and the acting, particularly that of Grant, Saint, and Mason. Grant is a hoot to watch here; he plays Thornhill like a high-style Thurston Howell without his Lovie. He walks a fine line between convincing and cartoonish, always coming off as the former. It’s quite an astounding feat of balance, actually. Saint is the perfect counterpart to Grant. I could listen to Mason talk endlessly. Martin Landau plays a secondary character, but he’s awesome as über creepy (and probably closeted) Leonard, Vandamm’s right hand man.
Ahead of its time in many ways, North by Northwest is consciously silly yet pushes a few boundaries. Exceedingly mischievous, it just might be Hitchcock’s most charming film. It’s definitely more fun than any other film of his that I’ve seen—not that I’ve come close to seeing all of them. It’s truly a dazzler.
Personal geek-out side note: in a film full of thrilling moments, the most thrilling for me was the scene outside The Ambassador Hotel in Chicago. I live two doors down from the hotel, now known as Public. I’ve stood in the exact spot Grant did as he exited the alley to cross Goethe to get to the hotel—I walk my dog there all the time. It’s amusingly weird to see a place you know so well onscreen, let alone in something from almost 60 years ago. It’s different, but not much. Here’s what it looked like when North by Northwest was filmed:
And here’s what it looks like today:
In 1995, the United States Library of Congress deemed North by Northwest “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).
With Leo G. Carroll, Philip Ober, Josephine Hutchinson, Adam Williams, Robert Ellenstein, Edward Platt, Philip Coolidge, Edward Binns
(AMC River East) A