A perfectly crafted and fabulously fun suspense thriller
Some classic films contain messages, others provoke thought, quite a few explore the art of filmmaking, and many induce heartfelt emotion. Then there are those that are made simply to entertain, and one of the best of these is “North by Northwest”. Nearly perfect in every way, its glowing stars, smooth look, riveting story, and spellbinding action easily distract from the fact that this is one consummately crafted film. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, one of the top filmmakers in history, this film is often cited as the quintessential example of his work and among his best films. “North by Northwest” is so good that the American Film Institute rated it the 4th Most Thrilling and the 40th Greatest American Movie of All-Time, the British Film Institute named it the 53rd Greatest Film of All-Time, and Cahiers du cinéma chose it as the 28th Top Film ever made. It was also nominated for three Academy Awards. “North by Northwest” offers 136 minutes of non-stop exhilaration.
As I often do, I’ll leave the story somewhat vague so I don’t spoil things for first time viewers of the film. “North by Northwest” follows the journey of a well-heeled New York advertising executive named "Roger Thornhill”, who cons his way hailing taxis, sends insincere notes with chocolates to women, and tells his secretary, “In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only the expedient exaggeration”. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s about to get a big lesson in truth, lies, and the gray areas in-between.
At the film’s start, "Roger" is kidnapped and his life is threatened by people who mistake him for someone named “George Kaplan”. After he breaks free, the rest of the film becomes a race for him to find “Kaplan” before the kidnappers find him again and mistakenly kill him. His hunt takes him from New York to South Dakota, and along the way he meets and falls for an attractive, mysterious woman named “Eve Kendall”. There’s a fuzzy underlying plot about government secrets, the Cold War, and microfilm, but true to Hitchcock’s style of suspense, none of that matters. This is ultimately a spy fantasy, and many claim its impeccably dashing, well dressed protagonist "Roger" (who attracts ladies and has to maneuver his way out of near death situations) influenced and led the way to the "James Bond" films (which began a few years later with 1963’s “Dr. No”).
Hitchcock was at his entertaining best, and “North by Northwest" is the grandest, fastest-paced, and perhaps most stylish film of his career. It was his first and only at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios (MGM), and it fits well in their repertoire of polished, glamorous films. MGM approached Hitchcock to direct “The Wreck of the Mary Deare”, and Hitchcock chose Ernest Lehman to write the screenplay. The two hit a creative block on the project and without telling MGM, ditched that film and created a new one. Hitchcock had longed to make a film which included a chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore and a scene in the United Nations, and Lehman had been wanting to write an epic chase for the ultimate Hitchcock film. They combined these ideas and came up with “North by Northwest”. Though this film stretches the limits of plausibility (even its title doesn’t quite make sense), they created a thrillingly fun film that ends up being believable.
For the script, Lehman received a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award nomination, and won an Edgar Allan Poe Award. Though he wrote screenplays for just over a dozen films, Lehman’s work was so outstanding he is recognized as one of the most acclaimed and successful screenwriters in Hollywood history. His other screenplays include "Sabrina", "West Side Story", "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf", "Hello, Dolly!", "The King and I", "The Sound of Music”, “Sweet Smell of Success”, and Hitchcock's final film, "Family Plot". Lehman was nominated for a total of six Oscars (almost half his screenplays), never winning, but in 2001 was awarded an honorary Oscar for his body of work (the first screenwriter to win that honor). He was married twice. Ernest Lehman died in 2005 at the age of 89.
For Hitchcock aficionados, “North by Northwest” reads like a “best of” compendium, for it contains elements and themes from many of his films (including "The 39 Steps”, “Notorious”, ”Saboteur”, and "Strangers on a Train”). Trademarks such as humor in the middle of tension, normalcy gone awry, menacing action in everyday places or famous landmarks, fear of authority, trains, heights, sexuality, and a cool blonde are all present, as well as what Hitchcock named a “MacGuffin” (something which motivates the characters and drives the plot but the audience doesn’t care about – in this case, government secrets and microfilm). At its core, “North by Northwest” shows a wrongly accused man robbed of his identity and control, trying to prove his innocence. Scenarios of someone inadvertently losing control colored practically all of Hitchcock’s films, and stemmed from a traumatic childhood experience he often recounted in interviews: “My father sent me with a note to the local chief of police, who glanced at the little piece of paper and then led me along a corridor. And I was locked in a cell for five minutes. And he let me out and said, ‘That’s what we do to naughty boys’”. Hitchcock’s genius is how he used the art of cinema to make an audience directly experience feelings of fear and helplessness, time and time again.
Being such a supreme filmmaker, dissecting Hitchcock's films shot by shot, hearing him speak about how he constructed sequences, or his meticulous attention to detail leave one stupefied by his unmatched perceptiveness and dead-on filmmaking instincts. He used the tools of cinema (camera angles, types of shots, edits, lighting, color, shadows, sound, music, etc.) with one goal in mind - to direct the audience's emotions the way he wanted. Hitchcock began his film career in the silent era drawing art for title-cards and then branching out into working as a co-writer, art director, production manager, assistant director, and finally a director – soaking up the tools and techniques of visual storytelling all along the way. Unlike many, he embraced the arrival of sound, seeing it as another tool rather than a driving force. As a result, Hitchcock is a very visual director, and when one thinks of his films, action and images come to mind, not dialogue.
“North by Northwest” is no exception, as it contains many famous visuals, in particular the hair-raising scene when “Roger” waits to meet “Kaplan” in the middle of nowhere. The scene lasts nine minutes and forty-five seconds, most of which is silent. The unnerving lack of sound adds to the tension and increases it when sound effects (such as footsteps or an oncoming car) are heard. This scene also shows Hitchcock’s ingenuity in keeping his films fresh and unique, and steering clear of clichés (in fact his films were so original and impactful they themselves generated quite a few clichés). Having “Roger” stand alone in broad daylight with nothing in sight as far as the eye can see goes against almost every typical characteristic found in suspense. We realize he can run but there’s nowhere to hide, which becomes very disquieting. And the juxtaposition of him dressed in a stylish business suit standing in the middle of a flat, barren, prairie-like landscape, cleverly helps contribute to that uneasy feeling that “Roger" is out of place. This entire scene (which I won’t spoil for those new to the film) is so ingeniously setup, conceived, shot, and edited, that its visuals have become among the most iconic in all of cinema.
Vital to “North by Northwest” is its spectacular style and production design by Robert Boyle. The film mixes actual locations with sets, the most prominent being South Dakota's Mount Rushmore National Memorial. As previously mentioned, the sixty-foot high faces of four US Presidents carved atop granite rock cliffs at this location were the impetus for the entire film (which at one point was to be titled “The Man on Lincoln’s Face”). Permission was originally granted Hitchcock to film on the rocks, but was later revoked once National Park Service officials learned there would be fighting and deaths on the President’s faces, feeling it would desecrate the monument (you'll notice no actors walk across the actual faces of the Presidents). It caused quite a controversy at the time. The action sequence was filmed on a set. Boyle went to Mount Rushmore and was lowered down the faces in a chair pulled by ropes, and he studied them in detail. Photographs were taken every ten feet from which he detailed what the film’s action would look like. Matte paintings were made and placed behind life-sized replica sets of portions of the faces. Boyle's stunning work looks incredibly real. Three scenes were filmed on location at the National Park (in the cafeteria, the parking lot, and views of the memorial from a distance).
Other actual locations include the Plaza Hotel and Grand Central Station in New York City, and the Ambassador East Hotel, LaSalle Street Station, and Midway Airport in Chicago. There is also a scene taking place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Once UN authorities read the script, they wouldn't allow filming on the premises, so Boyle studied the interior and recreated it on a set. The shot of “Roger" approaching the UN from outside was filmed on location by use of a camera hidden in a carpet cleaning truck across the street. Boyle managed to create a sophisticated and elegant world perfectly suited to the film’s characters, which proved a stirring counterpoint to all the mayhem and murder. He and his staff (William A. Horning, Merrill Pye, Henry Grace, and Frank R. McKelvy) all earned a Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Academy Award nomination.
Los Angeles born Robert Boyle came to be regarded as one of cinema's top art director/production designers, working on over seventy films (and some TV shows), including Hitchcock’s "Saboteur" (where he recreated the Statue of Liberty), "The Birds", and "Marnie". Some of his other films include "Cape Fear", "It Came from Outer Space", "The Thomas Crown Affair", "In Cold Blood", "Private Benjamin", and "Dragnet". His Oscar nomination for "North by Northwest" was the first of four (the others were "Gaily, Gaily", "Fiddler on the Roof", and "The Shootist"), and in 2008 he was awarded an Honorary Academy Award in recognition for having one of cinema's great careers in art direction (he was 98 years old at the time and became the oldest winner of an Honorary Oscar). He was also awarded an Art Director's Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. He was married once, to actress Bess Boyle, until his death. Robert Boyle died in 2010 at the age of 100.
Cary Grant stars as “Roger Thornhill”, the advertising executive who finds himself in jeopardy. Grant acts with incredible ease and naturalness, making the entire film seem credible and overwhelmingly enjoyable, whether he’s driving drunk, cautiously flirting with “Eve”, or continually trying to clear his name. Lehman’s script is filled with humor which Grant brilliantly handles, even in the most dire situations. One standout example is the scene at the art auction. His deadpan delivery and physicality grow organically out of the situation as he tries to figure out how to stay alive. Appearing in almost every scene in the film, Grant’s understated elegance and charm are a large factor as to why “North by Northwest” is such a delight. This film and role have come to be thought of as among Grant’s best, which is saying a lot considering how many classics this actor has graced with fabulous presence.
Grant and Hitchcock had mutual respect and admiration for one another, though it is often said that they also shared mutual jealously (Hitchcock wanted to be like the debonair Grant, and Grant longed to get the respect admonished upon Hitchcock). Hitchcock once said Grant was the only actor he ever loved. Grant wasn’t MGM’s first choice for the role (they wanted Gregory Peck or James Stewart). Stewart had starred in Hitchcock’s previous film “Vertigo”, and wanted the role, but Hitchcock only wanted Grant. It was not an easy shoot for Grant, who was insecure about the script, telling Hitchcock and Lehman he was confused by it, which made Hitchcock happy (since "Roger" is supposed to be confused). Grant had worked with Hitchcock in three previous films, “Suspicion”, “Notorious”, and “To Catch a Thief”. “North by Northwest” was their last joint effort (though Hitchcock offered him other roles). You can read more about the life and career of Cary Grant in my posts on five of his other classics, “Bringing Up Baby”, “Notorious”, “The Philadelphia Story”, “His Girl Friday”, and “Arsenic and Old Lace”. Just click on each film title for more.
Eva Marie Saint stars as “Eve Kendall”, a beautiful and mysterious woman who “Roger” meets on a train. The beguiling "Eve" can be cold, confident, conniving, sexy, and sweet, and Saint combines all these qualities in a first-rate performance. She makes “Eve” utterly credible as a complex woman with something seemingly amiss. Considered quite risqué in its day, the scene in which “Eve” and “Roger” sit down in the train car to have dinner is another of the film’s most famous, and is often hailed as one of the sexiest ever put in a film. Their entire banter is a blatant preamble to sex, which A. H. Weiler of the New York Times described as being “guaranteed to send viewers’ temperatures soaring”. I’m surprised so much got past the Motion Picture Production Code, though they did make Saint re-dub her line “I never make love on an empty stomach” to “I never discuss love on an empty stomach” (if you watch her mouth as she says the line, you can see her lips not matching).
Saint doesn’t hold back, and the role was a drastic change from her previously established image playing fairly noble type gals. Hitchcock chose her for the role, cut her hair, made her glamorous and sexy, and turned her into the desirable, yet seemingly unattainable smoldering icy blonde type he loved to showcase. He gave Saint only three directions for how to play “Eve”, "Lower your voice, don't use your hands, and look directly into Cary Grant's eyes at all times". Renowned for being painstaking about the look of his leading ladies, Hitchcock went to great lengths to choose everything from their hairstyles, make-up, and clothes, to their jewelry and shoes. This film was no different, and unhappy with the costume sketches MGM provided for "Eve", he took Saint to New York’s luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman, and together they selected "Eve's" wardrobe. A month before filming began Saint had her second child, and although "North by Northwest" made her a top star, afterwards she began to limit her work and spend more time with her family. As of the writing of this post, at 97 years old, she is the oldest living Academy Award winner and one of the last surviving stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood. You can learn more about Eva Marie Saint in my post on the film for which she won her Best Actress Academy Award, "On the Waterfront".
“North by Northwest” is filled with great actors, and James Mason, who plays “Phillip Vandamm”, is certainly one of the best. As the stately, suave villain who wants to kill "Roger" (mistaking him for “Kaplan”), Mason intensifies the alarm of every scene in which he appears. He is flawless at keeping wickedly cool while maintaining a feeling that this man has no limits when it comes to evil. Watch the way he looks at "Roger" and "Eve" during the art auction, showing no sign of being intimidated while evaluating what's happening and being deliciously sarcastic. He is the perfect villain.
English born James Mason began dabbling in theater while earning a degree in Architecture at the University of Cambridge. Developing a love for acting, he continued performing, eventually appearing at London’s Old Vic Theatre and on other prestigious stages. He started appearing on-screen in "quota quickies" (British films made at a minimal cost at maximum speed for US distributors) beginning with a lead role in 1935's "Late Extra”. He appeared in 1939's "I Met a Murderer", alongside actress Pamela Kellino, and the two fell in love, even though she was married to the film's director, Roy Kellino. She left her husband and married Mason in 1941. Known for his rich, mellifluous voice and an air of sophistication, Mason became a popular leading man and reigned as the #1 box-office star in the UK in 1944 and 1945, the most popular international star in 1946, and was voted Canada's #1 male star in 1948. He and Pamela moved to Hollywood, where his first film was 1949’s “Caught”. In 1951, he signed a contract with 20th Century Fox and worked in Hollywood for about the next decade and a half. After a disastrous divorce from Pamela, Mason found himself broke and moved to Switzerland in 1963 where he began a transatlantic career, taking almost any role offered him (for the money), including supporting roles. He earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination opposite Judy Garland in 1954’s “A Star is Born”, followed by two Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations (for 1966’s “Gregory Girl” and 1982’s “The Verdict”), never winning the statue. His many other nominations include two BAFTA nominations (for "Lolita" and "The Deadly Affair”), two Golden Globes nominations (“Lolita" and "The Verdict"), and one Golden Globe win for "A Star is Born”. While sporadically appearing on stage, Mason acted in more than thirty TV shows and over 120 films in a career spanning fifty years. He appeared in many classics and notable films, including "Age of Consent", "Odd Man Out", "The Desert Rats", "The Fall of the Roman Empire", "Julius Caesar", "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea", "Heaven Can Wait", "Journey to the Center of the Earth", and "The Seventh Veil". His second marriage was to actress Clarissa Kaye-Mason in 1971. James Mason died in 1984 at the age of 75. He is an actor I love!
Jessie Royce Landis is marvelous as “Clara Thornhill”, “Roger’s” riotous mother. Landis makes "Clara" sarcastic and mischievousness enough for us to believe she is "Roger's" mother, and her comic timing is a joy. Though only briefly seen, Landis makes an impact and has one of the film's most memorable lines, which she delivers in an elevator. Though she plays Grant’s mother, she was only seven years his senior.
Chicago born Jessie Royce Landis won a drama school scholarship and joined a stock theater company at sixteen. In 1926, she made her Broadway debut in "The Honor of the Family", and began a steady stage career in New York and London, including twenty-five Broadway shows through 1945 alone. In 1950 Landis won a Best Performance of the Year award for the comedy "Larger Than Life" at the Duke of York's Theatre in London. After two film appearances in 1930, she began appearing on television in 1948. While continuing her stage work, she amassed forty-two film and TV credits, often playing older wealthy aristocrats and mothers, including mother to Grace Kelly twice – in Hitchcock's 1955 film "To Catch a Thief" (also starring Grant), and 1956's "The Swan". Some of her other films include "Mr. Belvedere Goes to College", Anatole Litvak's "Goodbye Again", "Gidget Goes to Rome", and "Airport". In 1954, she published her autobiography, "You Won't Be So Pretty (But You'll Know More)". She was married three times. Jessie Royce Landis died in 1972 at the age of 75.
Martin Landau plays “Leonard”, the right-hand man of “Phillip Vandamm”, who is just as ruthless as his boss. Landau asked to play “Leonard” as a gay man to give extra motivation to his character being jealous of “Eve” and wanting her out of the way, and Hitchcock gave him the go-ahead. Lehman helped by adding what he called “a hint of homosexuality”, with “Leonard’s” line, “Call it my woman’s intuition, if you will” (a daring line in its day). Unknown to Grant, Hitchcock took Landau to Grant’s personal tailor, Quintino of Beverly Hills, where they made his suit for the film according to Grant’s specifications. This did not go unnoticed by Grant, who asked Landau where his suit was made, saying there were only two tailors in the world who could produce it. And Grant’s gray suit in this film is often cited as the greatest in film history, ranking at the top of many lists such as in Esquire Magazine's 2015 list of The Greatest Suits in Film).
Brooklyn born Martin Landau began as an editorial cartoonist (working with Gus Edson on "The Gumps"), and at twenty-two years old decided to pursue acting. After a few small roles on television (staring with "The Goldbergs" in 1953), he began studying at the famed Actors Studio, taught by Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan (and became best friends with fellow student James Dean, and briefly dated another student, Marilyn Monroe). While continuing to appear on TV, Landau began performing on the New York stage and appeared opposite Edward G. Robinson as macho husband to Gena Rowlands in a road production of Paddy Chayefsky's "Middle of the Night". Hitchcock happened to see it and immediately cast Landau as "Leonard" in "North by Northwest", which was his second film (after a small part in "Pork Chop Hill"). Landau continued to work on television, appearing in just a few more films until the 1970s, including "Cleopatra", "The Greatest Story Ever Told", and "Nevada Smith". One of his most famous roles came in 1969, as "Rollin Hand" in the first three seasons of the classic TV series "Mission: Impossible". In the mid-1970s, Landau starred in the British science-fiction TV series "Space 1999" for two seasons. His film career took off in 1988 with Francis Ford Coppola's "Tucker: The Man and His Dream", earning him his first Best Actor Academy Award nomination, followed the next year by a second nomination for Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors". Landau won his only Academy Award portraying Bela Lugosi the 1994 Tim Burton film, "Ed Wood", giving what I consider one cinema’s great performances. Working steadily until his death, he amassed over 170 film and TV credits, which include the films "Meteor", "The Adventures of Pinocchio", "They Call Me Mr. TIbbs!", and "The Majestic", and TV shows such as "The Untouchables", "The Twilight Zone", "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour", "Gunsmoke", "Entourage", and "Without a Trace". In addition to his Oscar win and nominations, he earned six Emmy Award nominations. He was married to actress Barbara Bain, divorcing after just over thirty-five years, and is the father of actress Juliet Landau. I met him briefly years ago and remember him being kind and incredibly tall. Martin Landau died in 2017 at the age of 89.
A brief mention of two actors who’ve appeared in films I’ve previously written about – Leo G. Carroll and Edward Platt. Leo G. Carroll plays “The Professor”, the man who comes to help “Roger”. Hitchcock frequently used Carroll, and this was their sixth and final film together. You can read more about Carroll in my post on “Strangers on a Train”.
Edward Platt appears in one scene as “Victor Larrabee”, “Roger’s” lawyer. Primarily a TV actor (who appeared in over 100 TV shows), he is best known as “The Chief of Control” in the classic 1960s TV show “Get Smart”. Platt also appeared in nearly two dozen films, including "Pollyanna", "Designing Woman", "Written on the Wind”, and another classic already on this blog, "Rebel Without a Cause", where you can read a bit more about him.
“North by Northwest” was expertly edited by George Tomasini, who earned a Best Film Editing Academy Award nomination (surprisingly, his only). A close collaborator with Hitchcock, he edited nine Hitchcock films, beginning with "Rear Window" in 1954, and including the classics "To Catch a Thief", "The Birds", "Psycho", and "Vertigo". Other classics from the 22 features Tomasini edited include "The Misfits", "Stalag 17", "Cape Fear", and his final film, "In Harm's Way" in 1965. He was married once, to actress Mary Brian, until his death. George Tomasini died of a heart attack in 1964 at the age of 55.
The film’s electrifying musical score is by Bernard Herrmann, the composer most closely associated with Hitchcock. He scored seven Hitchcock films ("The Trouble with Harry", "The Man Who Knew Too Much", "The Wrong Man", "Vertigo", "North by Northwest", “Psycho”, "Marnie"), and was sound consultant on "The Birds". Their collaboration ended with disagreements over the score for Hitchcock's 1966 film "Torn Curtain". Ranked among the world's top film composers, Herrmann composed music for approximately eighty films and TV shows, including many classics, up until his death in 1975 at the age of 64. You can read more about Bernard Herrmann in my posts on "The Day the Earth Stood Still", "The Birds", and "Citizen Kane”.
Filled with laughs, romance, and suspense, this week’s classic is a delectably tantalizing case of mistaken identity made by Alfred Hitchcock, the man they call “The Master of Suspense”. Be sure to look for his quick cameo appearance. Enjoy the highly enjoyable “North by Northwest”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
As he does in many of his films, Alfred Hitchcock makes a very fast cameo appearance in “North by Northwest”. In case you missed it, he turns up immediately after the opening credits say “Directed by Alfred Hitchcock”, seen trying to get on a bus just as its doors close and it drives away.
A highly celebrated image in “North by Northwest” is its last shot of a train going into a tunnel. It slyly and humorously symbolizes the sexual act taking place between “Roger” and “Eve”. It might seem cliché to some people today, but this film used it first.