THE MASTER OF SUSPENSE PRESENTS A 3000-MILE CHASE ACROSS AMERICA!
According to one biography on Alfred Hitchcock, it was Bernard Herrmann who introduced screenwriter Ernest Lehman to the director. They hit it off and decided to make a movie together. Lehman told the director that he wanted to do the ultimate Hitchcock movie. Hitchcock then told Lehman that he always wanted to do a chase across Mount Rushmore. That is how North by Northwest was conceived and the collaboration did indeed spawn one of the best films ever made. The formula of having a man run from evil powers, failing to be believed by anybody, was often explored by Hitchcock in the past, but this where he perfected it.
Mistaken to be George Kaplan
The story begins with Saul Bass’s gorgeous titles accompanied by Herrmann’s exhilarating and often imitated music score. We’re introduced to Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a New York ad executive, who is mistaken by a pair of enemy agents to be a man called George Kaplan. He’s taken to Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) who grows frustrated when Thornhill insists that he is not Kaplan. Vandamm’s agents try to kill him but he manages to escape… although not in a very dignified way and he ends up in the custody of his mother, Clara (Jessie Royce Landis), who knows her son and doesn’t really believe in his story.
When Thornhill returns to Vandamm’s house, there is no trace of him or his agents. He does however find enough clues that lead him to the United Nations building. Shockingly, a diplomat that Thornhill meets there is murdered and our hero accidentally touches the knife in his back; the event is captured by a photographer. Realizing that his situation has become difficult to explain to the police, Thornhill goes on the lam. On a train to Chicago, he meets the lovely Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). Should he trust her? Will he find Vandamm?
Shot in striking colors
No one would describe Grant as one of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, but he did have a presence and charm that is absolutely irresistible. Grant’s star quality is on full display here whenever flirting with Saint in shameless ways (the dialogue is full of interesting innuendos), mixing action with comedy; the results are awesome. His funniest moments are with Landis (only eight years older, but still a convincing mother to Grant), who certainly loves her son but would never give him the benefit of a doubt. Saint does an excellent job, even though her character isn’t very believable. And Mason? He could play the villain in his sleep.
Shot in striking colors, the film offers more entertainment than most others, but what viewers might remember in particular are two brilliant action sequences. The first is set in the middle of nowhere where Thornhill expects to meet the real Kaplan and ends up being chased by a crop duster; thanks to Hitchcock’s brilliant set-up, the lack of logic has never bothered anyone.
The other great moment is the final showdown between Thornhill and the bad guys on Mount Rushmore. Filmed in a studio, the scene is nevertheless convincingly executed, even if Grant doesn’t end up inside Lincoln’s nose, which was one of the original ideas.
Some may say this film is too smooth, too Hollywood in a way, and that they prefer the early predecessors, like The 39 Steps (1935). But one should remember that this is the kind of perfection that Hitchcock was aiming for. It is with mathematical precision that he decides when to employ the ingredients of the film, when it needs humor, romance and spectacular excitement. He knew that because he had spent the previous four decades practicing. Ultimately, this movie really is the only education any mainstream filmmaker needs.
North by Northwest 1959-U.S. 136 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay: Ernest Lehman. Cinematography: Robert Burks. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Editing: George Tomasini. Production Design: William A. Horning, Robert Boyle, Merrill Pye. Cast: Cary Grant (Roger Thornhill), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall), James Mason (Phillip Vandamm), Leo G. Carroll, Martin Landau, Jessie Royce Landis.
Trivia: James Stewart and Gregory Peck were reportedly considered for the lead, Cyd Charisse for the part of Eve and Yul Brynner for the part of Vandamm. The original title may refer to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, where the prince tries to convince people of his sanity (his line: “I am but mad north-northwest”).
Quote: “Nothing.” (Roger O. Thornhill (Grant) explaining what the “O” stands for; it’s a reference to David O. Selznick who once gave the same reply)
Last word: “Just like [Hitchcock] said, ‘I always wanted to do a dolly shot in an auto factory,’ he said, ‘I always wanted to do a chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore.’ And I thought, ‘Hey, I really like that idea.’ And that was the seed of the flower that took eleven months to grow. But I had to ask myself, ‘Who’s chasing whom over the faces of Mount Rushmore?’ and ‘How do they get there?’ and ‘Why?’ And that took quite a bit of doing on my part. I remember that I used to squeeze out a tiny bit of the screenplay every day, fully convinced that it would never actually become a movie. There were many nights when I would be driving home from the studio thinking that we were just kidding ourselves — and wondering how long the charade would go on. The truth is, even with all my experience, I really didn’t know how to write the script. I’d never written a movie like that before, but gradually I eked it out — or, at least, the first sixty-five pages — and then Hitch went off to make ‘Vertigo’. So I’d sit there in my lonely office, and many times I’d go home at night having written less than half a page, completely discouraged.” (Lehman, Creative Screenwriting)