- Produced and Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
- July 1, 1959 (Chicago)
A New York advertising executive’s life is turned upside down when he is mistaken for a spy and must go on the run across the United States.
North by Northwest is just fantastic. It is a great spy thriller from Alfred Hitchcock featuring Cary Grant as advertising executive Roger Thornhill and Eva Marie Saint as the mysterious and seductive Eve Kendall. How can you not have a great film with that much talent alone present? And let’s not forget James Mason as the villainous Phillip Vandamm and Martin Landau as Vandamm’s henchman Leonard. I give special credit to Martin Landau who had very few lines yet was able to convey his character’s menace and threatening nature with looks and how he carried himself while on the screen. That is what the French call acting.
North by Northwest is a film that could have only come out during the Cold War. While there are spy thrillers today, because of the politics of the time this film packs a little more punch than the same story would set today. The stakes were higher with the opposition that much more threatening.
The movie starts out serious and then makes an abrupt turn to something lighter when Thornhill turns to his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) for help, and she is rather dismissive in a comical fashion of her son’s story. She obviously has a low opinion of her Richard, and it is played for comedy. The narrative then switches back to serious and the switch back to spy thriller is made seamless through the skill of Hitchcock and the acting of Grant.
In all honesty I have a strong preference for older films. Mostly because they relied more on imagination and good dialogue. I am not saying newer films do not do that, but it is easier to find that in older films than more modern movies. There is not as much innuendo and word play today because all too often audiences want to be handed whatever is going on or whatever is being implied rather than discover through dialogue or action. It is the same mentality that causes a person to ask questions that would be answered in they just shut up and watched.
As stunning as Eve is she seduces Roger with words and he manages to do the same with her. They craft genuine attraction between the two characters. And while romance does occur between the two, Eve is not there just to be a romantic conquest for Roger. Eve is rather capable of doing what she has to do in the story. She can be as intelligent and crafty as any other character in the story.
Hitchcock was a master. You get a sense of the characters not only through story but action. One thing, and you could be forgiven for missing it, is how Vandamm touches his lover Eve. You see it when Thornhill tracks them both down to an auction house. The camera has a shot of Vandamm gently caressing the back of Eve’s neck with it getting slightly more aggressive until he finishes with his hand resting gently on the back of her neck in a threatening manner. It told me just how dangerous he could be.
One thing that does bother me though is it is strongly implied that whatever intelligence agency is involved here (it is never explained which American agency it is) that they are just going to let whatever happens to Thornhill happen in an effort to keep their particular plan going but at some point there is a change of heart and Uncle Sam decides they need to do something about the guy. I guess when the film was made a callous government agency would not be a good thing in theaters.
North by Northwest contains not one but two classic scenes. The first is when Thornhill gets strafed by a crop-duster intent on killing him. It is a nail-biting scene that just drives home how much danger he is in. The second is the intense chase in the finale on top of Mount Rushmore. Both very creative moments and just brilliant bits.
Cary Grant’s character of Roger Thornhill does not become super skilled or a great fighter or anything like that. He just becomes creative in how he goes about things with his inexperience being a bit of an asset. I especially like how his character gets out of the auction house in Chicago. A less creative writer or director would have had the character fight their way out but instead Thornhill creates a scene where he hopes he will be taken to the one place nobody can get to him.
And then there was style here. Maybe it was the era or the story or both, but this movie just had cool. Not only was the presentation stylish but it was in how everybody dressed. There was great dialogue and great clothes. Grant alone was a fashion plate.
North by Northwest is a classic film that deserves its classic status. It has intriguing action and a great story and fantastic performances all around. This is a must watch!