North by Northwest (1959)
July 1, 2018 11:12 AM - Subscribe

A hapless New York advertising executive is mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies, and is pursued across the country while he looks for a way to survive.

Empire: Thornhill is an egotistical chauvinist, totally in control of his (admittedly superficial) world (and is, thus, a potent symbol for America at the height of the Cold War). He's such a hollow man that he even admits his middle initial, "O", stands for nothing. Yet, though he ends up having to clear his name, uncover a conspiracy and save his lady love, his heroism lies in the fact that he survives everything his adversary, Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), can throw at him. In other words, he's something of an accidental hero. But once he knows what his objectives are, he snaps back into the cocky, committed and highly effective man of action he appears as in the opening sequence.

He's also a man who comes to know himself through his experiences. Initially, he's a self-centred, carefree bachelor. Yet, as he waits in the vast emptiness of the prairie for a mysterious stranger who will never come, he realises the sum worth of his status and wealth — a speck on a landscape that can be swatted from above at any moment. One of the most memorable set-pieces in cinema history, the cornfield sequence is almost seven minutes of non-stop action, with the only sound being that of the plane's engine. It's also one of the most Heath Robinson-esque murder attempts ever filmed. Forget the contraptions contrived by Bond villains. This is an assassination bid made in the middle of nowhere by the unseen pilot of a crop-duster plane. It's an act of almost surreal folly on Vandamm's behalf, which is reinforced by the Godot-like non-appearance of Thornhill's contact.

Slant: Ending the great director’s most fertile decade with juicy pop entertainment after the semi-realist grimness of The Wrong Man and the dreamlike romantic tragedy of Vertigo, the breezy, “light” North by Northwest is in danger of being pigeonholed as trivial Hitchcock because of screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s double-entendre-laden badinage, Grant’s cool star turn, and the popcorn-friendliness of its celebrated action highlights: Grant’s scramble over a desolate prairie landscape to avoid the murderous attacks of a crop-dusting plane and his climactic flight from the villains with Saint across the presidential faces of the Mount Rushmore monument. Yet along with the screwball staging of a corpse falling into Grant’s arms at the UN and his escape from an auction-room trap through prank bidding, many themes and motifs of Serious Hitch can be found: the fluidity of identity (Thornhill’s embrace of play-acting the role of phantom agent “George Kaplan”), the burden of mother love (in the hilarious poise of Jessie Royce Landis as Grant’s mocking mom), and even coded-as-queer sadism (Martin Landau as Mason’s enforcer, equipped with “woman’s intuition”). Grant’s bitter revulsion at discovering Saint to be Mason’s mistress recalls the darker variation of the spy-who-screwed-me scenario he played with Ingrid Bergman in Notorious. And Leo G. Carroll’s dry head spook reads as an unusually bloodless American puppetmaster for Eisenhower-era Hollywood, one who defends the human sacrifice of his people or innocent Thornhills as the cost of winning wars, “even Cold ones.” In spite of Kaplan’s nonexistence, the intel chief is the story’s true empty suit.

Still, it’s the sleek and triumphantly assured surface of North by Northwest that’s kept it perennial after half a century, despite the passing of its polished élan and semi-sophisticated banter from suspense-thriller style. (Saint, and Lehman, do much better with “I never discuss love on an empty stomach” than her post-clinch complaint to Grant that “You’re undermining my resolve when I need it most.”) Hitchcock sets his playful fantasy of spy chasing—with his most perfunctory MacGuffin gimmick ever (“Government secrets, perhaps”)—at landmarks like the UN, Grand Central Terminal, and Mount Rushmore without pushing the subtext of chaos in the midst of placid national icons or the routine humming of transportation hubs and tourist meccas.


Filming Locations

Art of the Title

Original reviews in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety

Alfred Hitchcock Wiki on North by Northwest

‘North by Northwest’: Quite Possibly the Most Entertaining Hitchcock Ever

North by Northwest: Long Shots as Close-ups
posted by MoonOrb (10 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I read that Hitchcock didn't like how Cary Grant was expressing fear in the crop duster scene and finally got what he wanted by putting a spider on CG's hand.
posted by brujita at 11:41 AM on July 1, 2018

On the plus side:
  • Fantastic Saul Bass credits!
  • The second pairing of Jesse Royce Landis and Cary Grant. This time she's playing Grant's mother (rather than his prospective mother-in-law) which is more than a bit unfair since there was maybe seven years' age difference between them in real life, but she's such a joy any time she's on screen that I'm willing to overlook that. Once again she plays a parent far more likeable and spirited than her offspring. She doesn't get as much screen time or the great lines she gets in To Catch a Thief but she's still fun when she's on-screen.
  • James Mason being especially James-Masonish (or is that James-Masonic?)
  • Great cinematography
On the other hand:
  • This is (at least?) the second time that Hitchcock has drawn on the icky "murderous, creepily jealous homosexual" characterization to drive a plot and while both cases are severely problematic, Landau's Leonard is additionally far less interesting than Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers.
  • The whole plot of North by Northwest is driven by coincidence. Which, yes, is intentional to a point -- Thornhill only gets involved because he's in the wrong bar and gets up at the wrong time. Had that been the limit it would've stayed a great gimmick for the setup. I think, though, that the murder at the UN stretches the gimmick too far. Without that you can't really have the "wrongly accused man on the run seeks to clear his name" trademark Hitchcock plot but the knifing seems really implausible either as an accident of timing or as a deliberate plan on VanDamm's part. At best it's an extraordinarily over-complicated way to get rid of someone who was totally in the villain's power just the evening before..
The film is visually gorgeous and well paced but the plot is not up to Hitchcock's best, in my opinion. To Catch a Thief has far more sizzle between the romantic leads. Notorious has far more menace for the character under threat. The Lady Vanishes has more far more charm and The Thirty-Nine Steps does the "hostile partners thrown together by fate fall in love despite themselves routine much better.

In my opinion this is second-rate Hitchcock with first rate production values. It's still good, mind you -- even Hitchcock's B-material is pretty great -- but he could and did do better.
posted by Nerd of the North at 6:12 PM on July 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

I was thinking about this the other day. The crop duster scene makes for great cinema (I even made it my Halloween costume one year), but if this happened to you in real life, it would be HELLA weird. The whole thing, really.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:33 AM on July 2, 2018

Also worth mentioning that the dialogue is fantastic in parts, the intro of thornhill especially but also the scenes between Grant and Saint. Clooney will never be that smooth.
posted by biffa at 2:57 PM on July 2, 2018

Stop! ... Stop.
posted by Elly Vortex at 5:02 PM on July 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've wanted to wear Eve Kendall's rose dress every day for the rest of my life since I was 11.
posted by mochapickle at 11:22 PM on July 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

Mochapickle's comment got me to think again about this, in my mind this film is in black & white, I guess since (like many other films) I watched it multiple times on my folks' old set. I have seen it since on both big screen and DVD but the perception remains.
posted by biffa at 7:31 AM on July 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

I love this film. Hitchcock was doing some knowing self-parody and just sort of riffing on his normal grab-bag of tropes.
posted by octothorpe at 9:37 AM on July 4, 2018

Thornhill is an egotistical chauvinist, totally in control of his (admittedly superficial) world (and is, thus, a potent symbol for America at the height of the Cold War). He's such a hollow man that he even admits his middle initial, "O", stands for nothing.
In addition to the "stands for nothing" line the middle initial also sets up his initials as "ROT". As if to underscore, I believe we're even shown a monogram on a shirtcuff or a matchbook or something, though I couldn't swear to it. But yes, start-of-the-movie Roger is not a person of much depth, which is perhaps an additional reason why VanDamm finds it so easy to mistake him for the fictional cutout he's been pursuing. I'm not sure I'd say he's a person of much depth by the end of the movie, either, but at least he has had to confront his own mortality and come to care about somebody else.
posted by Nerd of the North at 10:26 PM on September 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've rewatched this movie recently and I stand by my earlier judgment. But I have a couple more thoughts, with the film fresh in my memory..
  • The soundtrack is doing a lot of the heavy lifting in the suspense and action scenes, much more so than I remembered and quite a bit more than earlier Hitchcock films. For Hitchcock that might arguably reach its pitch with the famous shower scene music in Psycho but it's already quite noticeable here.
  • That said, the music is up to the task.
  • It's a crying shame that VanDamm's mid-century mansion is not a real house that exists somewhere because daaaaammmnn...
  • Although it makes for one of the most famous scenes in American cinema, the attempted assassination by cropduster is also one of the stupidest and most needlessly complicated murder setups in American cinema. After the overly-complicated drunk-driving gambit they tried (and failed) to pull on Thornhill earlier in the movie I'm forced to conclude that VanDamm and his gang just aren't very good at murder. Though that doesn't help the unfortunate Mr. Townsend at the UN. Seriously, though.. the truck driver whose truck he steps in front of comes closer to killing Thornhill than the cropduster pilot does.
  • I really wonder how the closing shot of the film (train entering tunnel as Roger and Eve consummate their new marriage) played in 1959. Was it the least bit daring or was it cheesy even then?

posted by Nerd of the North at 1:20 AM on February 10

« Older Luke Cage: The Creator...   |  Luke Cage: Can't Front On Me... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments