North By Northwest
US (1959) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
This is another one of Hitchcock’s most revered entries in his extensive catalogue of celebrated and seminal works being viewed for the first time by yours truly. It is one that most will recognise as “the one with crop duster plane scene” but in fact it there is a lot more to it, especially the cleverly crafted mystery thriller that is born out of the central plot.
New York advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) arrives at a lunch meeting when he is mistakenly abducted by two men Valerian (Adam Williams) and Licht (Robert Ellenstein) who are after a “George Kaplan”. Thornhill is taken to the expensive country mansion of Lester Townsend (James Mason), where he and his associate Leonard (Martin Landau) ignore Thornhill’s protests of innocence. Leonard is instructed to get rid of Thornhill via a drink driving accident which Thornhill somehow survives and is picked up by the local police, who refuse to believe his story. The next day when Thornhill takes the police to Townsend’s house, a woman he never saw before claiming to be Mrs. Townsend (Josephine Hutchinson) concocts a story that counters Thornhill’s story. Thornhill takes it upon himself to track down George Kaplan and uncover the truth, which seems to move further away the gets closer to it.
Such is the influence of North By Northwest that one film critic referred to it as “the first James Bond film” and it is not difficult to see why – there are secret agents involved, the suave protagonist gets to bed the girl, there is some outlandish vehicular destruction and a literal cliffhanging climax. But Bond is about the gadgets and the indestructible playboy agent while this story has depth, subtle observations and allusions behind it. But 007’s screen presence was still three years away and Hitchcock was still in his prime as THE suspense movie director when story was still king.
This film marked the fourth collaboration between Hitchcock and Grant, seeing the latter moving into an edgier direction opposed to the usual smooth player he was known for. Thornhill though, is slightly similar to those previous roles – a well to do divorcee with an eye for the ladies who still keeps in close contact with his mother (Jessie Royce Landis), who initially follows Thornhill’s in his investigation to find George Kaplan. She’s not much help though – in one scene while at the hotel Kaplan was staying at, they share a crowded lift with Valerian and Licht and Mrs Thornhill – who doesn’t believe her son’s story – tactfully turns to the two thugs and says in front of everyone “You’re not really trying to kill my son are you?”. You can see Thornhill die from embarrassment as everyone in the lift starts laughing!
Having tracked down Townsend at his work at the UN building, Thornhill discovers that the man he met at the house was an impostor but the real Townsend (Philip Ober) is killed by a knife to the back, which Thornhill foolishly took out and was photographed with, turning him into a wanted killer. Fleeing by train to where Kaplan is supposedly staying, Thornhill finds a more helpful partner in blonde passenger Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who aides Thornhill in some tricky situations and is rewarded in kind. If this seems too good to be true, it is – Kendall is the lover of the impostor Townsend – real name Phillip Vandamm – who is trying to sneak a microfilm out of the country and Kaplan was the secret agent on their trail. So why don’t they believe that Thornhill isn’t who he says he is? And what about the mysterious man who comes to Thornhill’s rescue (Leo G. Carroll)?
A lot of elements make up this sprawling and intricate story from writer Ernest Lehman who manages to keep them all in check, with each development amazingly fitting neatly into the story no matter how outrageous, although the occasional logic gap slips in here and there. With a lot of material cover Hitchcock successfully keeps the pace going at a steady rate for the two plus hour run time, aside from a slightly bloated section on the train in which Thornhill and Kendall flirt with each other. True to form from the “Master of Suspense”, there are numerous moments throughout the film in which we are left biting our nails rather than having to wait until a crescendo is built up.
As ever there are experiments with the camerawork and photography, the first example coming in the opening credits which are cited to be the first to use kinetic animated titles. Elsewhere some vertiginous aerial shots from the top of the UN centre looking down on the ground are hugely impressive, presumably shot guerilla style since the UN wouldn’t give Hitchcock permission to film there! And of course there is the famous, much copied and lampooned crop duster moment which in actual fact is just one a few highlights to sit alongside others such as the chase on the faces of Mount Rushmore, or the drunk driving sequence at the beginning.
It’s interesting that you can put all the films from Hitchcock’s golden Hollywood period side by side and while they are all different in subject matter, story and presentation they are all distinctly the product of the same man. North By Northwest stands as one of his most famous works with many prepared to argue its case as his best film while others will argue against it. The story holds up extremely well although it has been retold numerous times in its wake, while the style is very much of its time which modern audiences may find hard to relate to. For the rest of us this is very a much an intelligent and tense thriller which sees Hitchcock in escapist mode to great effect.