North By Northwest (1959)

 

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Cinematography Robert Burks

Plot

Advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for “George Kaplan”. Kidnapped by two thugs, he is brought to the Long Island estate of Lester Townsend, and interrogated by spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Vandamm’s henchman Leonard (Martin Landau) tries to arrange Thornhill’s death, but he manages to escape a staged drunken driving accident.

Thornhill fails to convince his mother and the police that he was kidnapped. A woman at Townsend’s home (Josephine Hutchinson) says he got drunk at her dinner party. She says Townsend is a United Nations diplomat. Thornhill searches Kaplan’s hotel room, and visits the U.N. General Assembly building. He discovers that Townsend (Philip Ober) is not the man he met on Long Island. Townsend is killed instead of Thornhill, who is then wanted for murder. Thornhill flees and attempts to find the real Kaplan.

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Thornhill (Grant) on the run, attempting to travel incognito.

Thornhill sneaks onto the 20th Century Limited. He meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who protects him from the police and sleeps with him. Kendall is actually working with Vandamm and his thugs. In Chicago, Kendall tells Thornhill she has arranged a meeting with Kaplan at an isolated bus stop.

Thornhill (Grant) stopping a truck while being attacked by the crop duster plane. (Screenshot from the film trailer.)

Thornhill waits, but no one comes. He is nearly assassinated by a crop duster plane. He steps in front of a speeding tank truck; the airplane crashes into the truck, and Thornhill escapes.

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When he reaches Kaplan’s hotel in Chicago, he discovers that Kaplan had checked out and left before Kendall said she talked to him on the phone. Thornhill goes to her room, but she leaves. He tracks her to an art auction, where he finds Vandamm and his thugs. Vandamm purchases a Mexican Purépecha statue and departs. Thornhill is trapped, but acts crazy so the police come and take him away. He tells them he is the fugitive murderer; the police release him to FBI chief Professor (Leo G. Carroll), who reveals that Kaplan does not exist, and was invented to distract Vandamm from the real government agent: Kendall. Thornhill agrees to help maintain her cover.

At the Mount Rushmore visitor center, Thornhill (as Kaplan) negotiates Vandamm’s turnover of Kendall for her prosecution as a spy. “Kaplan” confronts Kendall; she shoots him “fatally” with a handgun (loaded with blanks), and flees. Thornhill and Kendall meet in a forest. Thornhill discovers Kendall must depart with Vandamm and Leonard on a plane. Thornhill evades the Professor’s custody, and goes to Vandamm’s house to rescue Kendall.

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At the house, Thornhill overhears that the sculpture holds microfilm. Vandamm implies that he will kill Kendall during the flight. Thornhill lets Kendall know they plan to kill her, but he is captured. As Vandamm is boarding the plane, Kendall takes the sculpture and runs to Thornhill. They attempt to flee, but they realize they are on top of Mount Rushmore. They begin to climb down the mountain’s sculpture, pursued by two thugs. After a harrowing chase, all turns out well for them.

Later, Thornhill invites Kendall, as the new Mrs. Thornhill, onto the upper berth of a train, which then enters a tunnel.

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While filming Vertigo (1958), Alfred Hitchcock described some of the plot of this project to frequent Hitchcock leading man and “Vertigo” star James Stewart, who naturally assumed that Hitchcock meant to cast him in the Roger Thornhill role, and was eager to play it. Actually, Hitchcock wanted Cary Grant to play the role. By the time Hitchcock realized the misunderstanding, Stewart was so anxious to play Thornhill that rejecting him would have caused a great deal of disappointment. So Hitchcock delayed production on this film until Stewart was already safely committed to filming Otto Preminger‘s Anatomy of a Murder (1959) before “officially” offering him the North by Northwest (1959) role. Stewart had no choice; he had to turn down the offer, allowing Hitchcock to cast Grant, the actor he had wanted all along.

The day before the scene where Thornhill is hidden in an upper berth was to be filmed, Cary Grant took a look at the set which had been built and told Alfred Hitchcock that it had been constructed sloppily and would not do for the film. Hitchcock trusted Grant’s judgment so completely that he ordered the set rebuilt to better standards without ever checking the situation for himself.

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Top-notch suspense /adventure film still looks great after 40 years!

10/10
Author: Ian Harrison from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia
25 December 2000

For Christmas this year, I received my first to-own DVD: Hitchcock’s classic, NORTH BY NORTHWEST. After over 40 years, this rip-racing adventure-thriller still packs a punch and looks great on widescreen. This movie came along during a renaissance period for the Old Master, between masterpieces like VERTIGO and PSYCHO, but this excursion into the world of suspense is so different from anything else Hitchcock had created up to that point. Never did he challenge our endurance to keep still in our seats for such a long period of time, and yet the film’s 135 minutes go by so fast it could only be explained by movie magic itself.

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Cary Grant is one of those actors that a filmgoer either falls in love with or deeply envies. His debonair manner is displayed to the full in this film, even though the peril that his character goes through would cause any normal dude to break into a maddening sweat. The dialogue Roger Thornhill delivers alongside Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) in this film is sometimes too hilarious to be true, but wouldn’t any woman fall for it? (I’m merely guessing here) Ernest Lehman’s screenplay is so lighthearted and yet very ominous. With all the traps and pitfalls Grant goes through in this film, you would have to find comedy in it. Grant does and to great appeal. I absolutely love the sequence at the auction when Roger tries to get himself arrested by yelling out flaky bids and accusing the auctioneer of selling junk worth no more than $8. I also admire the scenes with Saint on the train to Chicago; I was tempted to jot down some of his pick-up lines, but then I realized it’s just a movie (or is it?)

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Hitchcock was famous throughout his career of setting up death-defying sequences with major landmarks as backdrops. Here, Mount Rushmore will never be looked at the same again afterwards. We may never enter the United Nations again without peering behind our backs for a notorious knife-thrower. And, I dare say, I will never walk alongside a highway where a cropduster could swoop at any minute. I love the line during the Rushmore incident when Grant says his two ex-wives left him because he lived too dull a life. Go figure!

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It has been said that Hitchcock’s many films each contain a personal side of the director inside them. The archetypes of the Master of Suspense are here amid the chasing and running across the U.S. The mysterious blonde, played to a tee by Eva Marie Saint, is a common fixture of many Hitchcock jaunts. Saint joins Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren in this feature. The protagonist is again awkward when faced with the opposite sex, but unusually casual when wrapped up in danger. The hero has an attachment to his mother, continually under his nurturing wing. And of course, the macguffin has fun with us again (government secrets my foot!)

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Whenever I see action-packed epics today like “The Fugitive” or the James Bond series, they all seem to quiver in comparison to this film. It amazes me that Hitchcock is able to hold the audience in the palm of his hand throughout the whole length of the journey. We become Grant as he runs away from the police and the secret agents who have chosen him as their dupe. But throughout the squabble, we sense that Grant is getting off on the whole jaunt, just as we want the chase to continue, not looking at our watches for a minute. However, it’s fascinating to note that Roger Thornhill is not a born adventurer, nor is he an archeologist with a flair for escaping impossible situations. We are experiencing the Cary Grant in all of us, running away from an enemy we do not know they are or what they want. Is this symbolism of some kind? I say who cares; just watch the film and have fun!

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Smoke and mirrors, without apologies

8/10
Author: Bill Slocum (bill.slocum@gmail.com) from Greenwich, CT United States
10 November 2003
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The one famous gaffe people point out in this film is when a small boy can be seen plugging his ears just before Eva Marie Saint brings her café conversation with Cary Grant to a sudden end. Another gaffe, just as egregious and apparent but not nearly as commented on, is when Cary and Eva, clutching an incriminating statute, are rock-climbing around a quartet of famous presidential heads until a bad guy suddenly appears and leaps upon him. Whereupon the surprised, backward-falling Cary has the presence of mind to hand the statute to Eva, who takes his from him whilst in mid-scream. Do me a favor and read that last sentence again. What director today would allow such a scene past the editing room?

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But it just doesn’t matter: IMDB voters at this writing have placed the 44-year-old `North By Northwest’ ahead of all but 18 movies ever made, including 14 which have nothing to do with Frodo Baggins or Darth Vader. That’s pretty damn impressive. What the hell were they thinking? The only Hitchcock movie they rate higher is “Rear Window;” I can think of at least seven or eight Hitchcocks I’d rank over “North By Northwest.” [None of them are “Rear Window.”]

The truth is this film is so popular because it is so good. Not great, but very, very good, in a way that anticipates a lot of the direction of mass entertainment to come and thus speaks to people in a way `Vertigo’ or `Strangers On A Train’ do not. People talk about how forward thinking “Psycho” is, and it is, but more directors took note of the just-as-clever-but-more-mainstream approach of “North By Northwest.” The last four decade have been chock full of flicks serving up suspense, sex, changing locales, and plot twists that play with viewers’ expectations, all the while keeping the laughs coming. It’s not like “North By Northwest” invented this formula, but it perfected and distilled it into an essence that is imitated, with varying success, to this day.

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Cary Grant plays slick adman Roger Thornhill, who gets mistaken for a fugitive named Kaplan and finds himself on the run from a slew of bad guys, led by James Mason at his smug and oily peak as Vandamme. Martin Landau makes his first memorable appearance as Mason’s nastiest henchman Leonard (1959 was good to him, as “Plan Nine From Outer Space” premiered that year as well), suspicious, ruthless, and probably gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it was 1959 and that was a little daring.

Daring also is Eva Marie Saint’s Eve Kendall, a woman who uses sex, as Thornhill puts it, “the way some people use a flyswatter.” Her repartee with Thornhill shows just how erotic two people just talking to each other can be. It also provides further evidence Hitchcock’s writers didn’t go out on many dates. (Kendall: “I’m a big girl.” Thornhill: “Yeah, and in all the right places.” And she KISSES him for it!)

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The film does chug slowly at the outset, building suspense but also bugging you a bit as the plot gears grind while Thornhill is being pushed through his early paces, right until his moment at the UN. About the time we find ourselves with Thornhill in the cornfield, the picture starts to pick up a serious head of steam, and never loses it all the way to the final, famous tunnel shot. Actually, I like the penultimate scene between Grant and Saint, an elegant and witty way of resolving that most tried-and-true device, the cliffhanger.

As with most of Hitchcock’s ‘50s fare, elegance is behind much of what makes this movie so great. `North By Northwest’ manifests an elegance in dress, decor, language, music, and lighting that represents the best of its era while giving the picture a timeless character all the same. Hitchcock’s camera movements are very subtle yet brilliant, as during Mason’s entrance and Grant’s hide-and-seek game around the train. Everyone has perfect hair, lounges about in gowns and jackets, and you never think it should be otherwise.

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Grant isn’t my favorite actor, but he’s smooth enough for the central role when he’s not doing that bad Foster Brooks impression behind the wheel of the car. [I docked the movie one point just for that.] His best scene may be at the auction, though he projects real fear in the cornfield. Saint is simply splendid, nailing every line as she walks a tightrope and plays her character’s motives close to her décolletage. Hitchcock seemed to lose his ability to direct female actors, and not merely bask in them, with the advent of color, but Saint is one blonde bombshell that gives us a sense of brains and personality behind her mystery

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There’s logic gaps in this movie, and bad process shots, but it’s an amazing ride all the same, more amazing because it’s done with smoke and mirrors and without apologies. You ask the questions and figure out the loopholes only after you walk away, because the movie doesn’t let you up much while you are watching it. Hitchcock made other, more challenging movies that attested to his rare vision as an artist, but this is maybe his purest exercise in the craft of good filmmaking. That’s why `North By Northwest’ has remained so high in people’s estimations. Whatever the errors, it’s hard not feeling good about that.

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