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North by Northwest - a Witty Hitchcock Thriller

Cary Grant is a Man on the Run

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating


Death by Cropduster?

North by Northwest DVD

Alfred Hitchcock’s most entertaining and delightful suspense film, North by Northwest, combines a dashing leading man, a gorgeous, icy blonde and a suave and deadly villain, with an apparently indestructible gray suit in a supporting role.

As the movie caroms from the elegant Oak Bar at the old Plaza Hotel in New York to the stony presidential faces of Mount Rushmore, the plot twists, the dialog sparkles, and the suit stands by Cary Grant at his most debonair. It brings together all the familiar Hitchcockian elements, yet stays fresh viewing after viewing.

The Plot

Urbane advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Grant) is happily juggling the demands of his Madison Avenue job, several ex-wives and a domineering mother when some very unpleasant men at the Oak Bar mistake him for one George Kaplan. Kaplan, it seems, is an elusive government agent on the trail of a Cold War spy, and poor Roger finds himself whisked off to a remote country estate by the spy and his henchmen.

His efforts to prove his identity to his captors are met with a very creative attempt to murder him by pouring a bottle of bourbon down his throat, putting him in a stolen Mercedes and aiming him at a cliff above the sea. And even though he escapes with some very drunken driving, his troubles have just begun.

He can’t get the bad guys to understand they’ve got the wrong man. He can’t get his mother or the police to believe there are any bad guys at all. And when he tries to find a bigwig at the United Nations who might help him prove his story, he finds himself standing over a murdered man with a bloody knife in full view of a news photographer. Oops.

Ever resourceful, the ad exec makes his escape onto the Twentieth Century, one of the great old passenger trains that used to carry people in stylish comfort across the country. He’s lucky enough to meet up with the blonde -- industrial designer Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), traveling alone, and apparently quite willing to hide an accused murderer in her sleeper car.

To say more would spoil things for first-time viewers, but the movie romps on with a close call at a fine-art auction, a crop-dusting plane that sprays bullets in a prairie corn field and a climactic chase across the great stone foreheads of Mount Rushmore. Of course it’s a ridiculous, improbable plot, but it moves so quickly you never stop to notice, and you wouldn‘t care if you did.

The Cast of 'North by Northwest'

Oh, Cary Grant. He’s superb in his fourth and last pairing with Hitchcock, terrific as an action hero, but even better in the scenes that require him to be drunk, exasperated, fast on his feet or warily seduced by a complete stranger on a train. He’s brilliant talking his way out of the art auction, hilarious dealing with the local police after his bourbon-soaked drive and smoothly charming throughout.

Eva Marie Saint pulls off her ice-blonde routine to perfection, and looks great in a series of beautifully tailored costumes. Her double-entendre with Roger on the train is fun, and there's a thrilling moment when she steadies his hand as he lights her cigarette. The chemistry sizzles.

As chief villain Phillip Vandamm, James Mason exudes his own brand of serpentine charm and corrupt sophistication. He reads his whole character into his arch, bemused pronunciation as he informs Roger that he’s booked into "the Hotel Alex Johnson in Rapid City, South Dakota." Martin Landau is nicely threatening as the chief henchman, who seems a little too happy with his more violent assignments, and a little stuck on his boss as well, in a classic Hitchcock bit of homoeroticism.

The supporting cast is wonderful, with Jessie Royce Landis as Roger’s disbelieving, disapproving mother, and Leo G. Carroll as the mild, professorial government spy chief trying to protect his pursuit of Vandamm and the spy ring from Roger‘s inadvertent heroics.

And let’s not forget that miraculous suit. From New York to South Dakota, Roger’s impeccably tailored gray suit (with him in it) is crammed into an overhead bunk on the train; rolled in a dusty corn field; manhandled by the police; and marched across the tarmac to a waiting airplane. And yet it always looks spectacular. Dagnab. We all need one of those.

The Backstory

North by Northwest has influenced many suspense and spy films, chief among them the thrill-a-minute, sensationally improbable James Bond and Indiana Jones films.

The title was a mistake -- no direction is described as "north by northwest." It was a jazzier version of an earlier title suggesting the physical movement of the action across the country. Thank heaven an early title Hitchcock considered was rejected: "The Man in Lincoln’s Nose." Even a movie this good might not have survived that.

The Director

Hitchcock brought a recurring series of themes and memes to his movies. Innocent men falsely accused, mistaken identities, icy blondes with fiery sexuality, strong mothers and often-absent fathers. Bumbling cops, threatening spies, strangers on trains, subtle homoerotic undertones, exotic locales and surprising twists and turns of the plot - all populate the Hitchcock universe, and never more successfully than in North by Northwest.
The movie is essentially a re-embroidered, re-imagined remake of one of Hitchcock’s most successful English-made films, The 39 Steps. The two movies make a great double feature, and show the progress of Hitchcock’s artistic ability and his skill at attracting a big Hollywood budget later in his career.

'North by Northwest' - the Bottom Line

North by Northwest shows Hitchcock at the height of his creative power, and Cary Grant at the peak of his urbane appeal. It’s not deep or brooding or dark, just terrific filmmaking and grand entertainment.

Recommended for You:

If you liked North by Northwest, you may like The 39 Steps, Vertigo, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief or Charade.

'North by Northwest' at a Glance:

Year: 1959, Color
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Running Time: 136 minutes
Studio: MGM
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