Alfred Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" is simply one of the finest American films ever made. It is a great example of the skill and mastery that Hitchcock exhibited throughout his career. If you think back, there are few directors that have had as much success as Hitch did throughout his career.
Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is involved in the Madison Avenue ad business. What does he do? It's unimportant, so we don't find out if he is President, an Ad Executive or in the mail room. He is quickly mistaken for George Kaplan, a man that some spies would like to have a word with. Forcibly transported to the estate of Lester Townsend, he is questioned by a man (James Mason). When Thornhill refuses to admit that he is Kaplan and tell them everything he knows, he is dispatched. He escapes and then sets out to figure out who George Kaplan is. Along the way, he meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a beautiful blond, and she becomes his ally. Thornhill's journey takes him from New York, to Chicago, to a desolate corn field, to an art auction, to Rapid City, South Dakota, to the face of Mount Rushmore.
Simplicity is the key to this film and its extraordinary success. The story is convoluted and may be considered improbable, but who is to say it wouldn't happen? I can't say that, especially as it is set during the Cold War and I have heard of many stranger things happening. The story is also very simplistic. We don't learn anything we don't need to know, and, frankly, it is most refreshing. I mentioned that we don't really learn what Thornhill does. He is involved in the Advertising industry, that much is clear, and it helps set up his lifestyle and his character quickly and plainly.
As I watched the film again last night, another thing struck me. In many films today, the filmmaker treats the audience as though they have no attention span and little ability to think. They show us a key piece of evidence, show the character looking at it, show it going into a pocket, later show the character pulling it out of the pocket, looking at it again, getting someone else to look at it again, and then getting some feedback. Each of these acts produces a view of the item in question for the audience. There is a sequence in "North By Northwest" which I want to use to illustrate how Hitchcock did this very differently. Thornhill and his mother (the very funny Jessie Royce Landis, actually only a year older than Grant), visit Kaplan's hotel room at the Plaza. There, Thornhill spots a picture of a group of men which includes the man he thinks is Townsend (Mason), he points it out to his mother and the audience gets to see it. He puts it back on the desk and goes about his business. Later, as he is rushing out, he grabs the picture. Outside the hotel room, he slides it in his coat pocket. We don't see the picture again, but we know it is the same picture. Later at the United Nations, he pulls the picture out and shows it to someone else. Again, we know which picture it is, not because we have seen it again and again, but because Hitch has allowed us to see it once and we are intelligent enough to know what they are talking about.
"North By Northwest" was made after "Vertigo" and before "Psycho". It makes perfect sense. "Vertigo" was reportedly a very personal film for Hitchcock. He put a lot of energy into the film was disconcerted when it did not receive the critical praise or box office that he felt it deserved. This is the first time that Hitchcock took the emphasis away from thrills and went for a more cerebral kind of suspense. He really delves into Scotty's obsessions and paranoia. It is a beautiful film and one of his best, but I can imagine that he was exhausted. It is pretty clear that Hitchcock was at the stage where he wanted to experiment a little. I can imagine that he probably felt that he should return to something that would help him get another hit. MGM purchased a book called "The Wreck of The Mary Deare". Hitch asked Ernest Lehman to adapt it for him. Lehman tried, but a few weeks later, he said he didn't know what to do with it. They talked a bit and then Hitchcock remarked that he always wanted to make a film with a chase across Mt. Rushmore. This single idea prompted Lehman to come up with, as he puts it, "The Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films". "NbNW" certainly explores territory that the director traveled before, but he brings a mastery to the work that sets this film head and shoulders above the rest. It certainly helps that Lehman created some of the best dialogue ever written. More on that later. So, while "NbNW" doesn't exactly push the boundaries of obsession that he was trying to reach with "Vertigo" or the psycho-sexual babble he tried to explore in "Marnie", it does examine the relationship of Thornhill and Kendall. In fact, the entire film is about relationships. The relationship between Thornhill and his mother leads him further into the mystery. Her mocking seems to make him more determined to prove he was abducted, pushing him further into the mystery. Thornhill's relationship with Kendall is erotic, intense and takes many turns, some of which take the story in new directions. Kendall's relationship with Vandamm is threatened by her relationship with Thornhill, causing Vandamm to doubt her sincerity. Vandamm and his henchman, Leonard, have a relationship that causes more friction between Vandamm and Kendall. The relationships in the film are the most intricately plotted part of the production.
Cary Grant has always been one of my favorite actors. He accomplished in his career what people like Schwarzenneger and Stallone are trying to do today. No, I am not comparing the two action stars to Cary Grant, but they are trying to break out of the action molds that they have created for themselves and lengthen their careers by trying other genres. Grant had great success in many genres. Of course, he was a handsome leading man in many romantic films. He also had great success in screwball comedies ("Arsenic and Old Lace" and "Bringing Up Baby"), War films (both serious and comedic) and thrillers (primarily, films he made with Hitchcock, but also notably "Charade", one of his last films). He was versatile and enjoyed a long career. If Lehman set out to make 'The Hitchcock Film To End All Hitchcock Films', Hitchcock almost robbed Grant of one of his more memorable roles. They originally considered Jimmy Stewart. Someone suggested Grant and Grant received The Cary Grant Role to End All Cary Grant Roles. Grant is known for his great looks, his sexy accent, his suave character. These all fit perfectly in the role of Roger Thornhill.
Eva Marie Saint is one of the sexiest Hitchcock blondes, perhaps eclipsed only by Grace Kelly. Saint's portrayal of Eve Kendall pretty much defines what this type of character would be in hundreds of other films. She has to play both sides, never revealing too much to anyone, keeping her cool, trying not to fall in love. It is a difficult balance and Saint achieves it beautifully. She and Grant are so sexy together that it makes the films produced today look tame. In every one of their scenes, they are fully clothed, yet manage to create more sparks than any scene in which the actors are partially naked and simulating actual sex. In a couple of scenes, they spar verbally, flirting with each other. One of the sexiest kisses ever is captured in this film. They are kissing in Eve's train compartment and they move around each other, Thornhill's hands roaming all over Kendall.
As much as Saint creates a character that defines the role, Mason creates a villain that is very scary without ever using physical force. His voice is so rich and full of character that pretty much anything he says can be viewed as threatening and menacing. He seems the perfect characterization of a spy about to sell government secrets.
Martin Landau, in one of his first film roles, creates the role of Leonard, Vandamm's sidekick. Leonard is very devoted to his employer and dislikes Eve Kendall. There are slight homosexual overtones to the character which fit beautifully and help to further complicate the relationships in the film.
Hitchcock is a masterful director, but in the case of "NbNW", he had three very notable contributors. Ernest Lehman created a screenplay that is masterful in its simplicity. He created a story that is suspenseful, memorable and efficient. It moves from one point to the next, never boring us with details that we don't need to know. The dialogue in the film is perhaps the most memorable. Everything is slightly veiled. When Kendall and Thornhill are talking in the dining car, everything they say will eventually lead to their romantic evening. The dialogue is rich and entertaining. More importantly it is not cloying and sentimental. The dialogue also becomes threatening at the drop of a pin, as voice by Vandamm and Leonard.
Frequent Hitchcock contributor Bernard Hermann created one of his most rousing scores for "North By Northwest". What struck me when watching the film again is that there are very long passages with no music. You don't hear that in films produced today. John Williams and Ennio Morricone seem determined to prove their worth, overlaying every frame of film with music that is sure to evoke an emotion. In "NbNW", Hermann uses his music to accentuate the suspense or romance, not to substitute it.
The other contributor that deserves mention is Bob Boyle, the production designer. He and his team recreated Mount Rushmore in a studio and did a very good job. Just a few brief moments of the chase reveal that it is shot on a sound stage, remarkable really when you consider that none of it was actually shot on the monument.
The documentary included with the film is a treat in some ways and disappointing in others. It is great to see Eva Marie Saint again, very beautiful, narrating the documentary. It takes us step by step through the film and the sequence in which it was made. Some great production photos are used to illustrate. I found it disappointing that the documentary made various statements, but then provided no examples. For instance, at one point someone says that they felt tension between Hitch and Grant. Why?
"North By Northwest" is my favorite Hitchcock film and certainly my favorite film. It is the first film I remember seeing in a movie theater, on the big screen. It is a perfect example of the magic that Hollywood can create. It is the perfect example of what Hitchcock could create, frightening us, thrilling us, captivating us.