North By Northwest

(Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)

There is actually no such direction...

There is nothing I could say about North By Northwest that hasn’t already been said. Well, that’s not strictly true, it has probably never been said that Cary Grant’s stunt double was just a suit stuffed with pork sausages, but apart from absurd lies there is nothing I could say about North By Northwest that hasn’t already been said. It was written by Ernest Lehman with the express intention of out-Hitchcocking Hitchcock. As such, it features all the director’s hallmarks in spades; a case of mistaken identity, a sexy blonde, unsettling events in familiar surroundings, plot twists, suspense, murder and intrigue. And a few giggles along the way.

Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is an advertising executive leading a busy but fairly ordinary life, until he is mistaken for government agent George Kaplan by enemy spies. This happens because, whilst lunching with his high-powered businessman friends in a hotel, he calls for the bellhop who has been paging Kaplan. All Thornhill wants to do is send a telegram to his mother, but the spies make an ass out of you and me, ya dig? After being kidnapped, interrogated by someone claiming to be “Townsend” (James Mason), force-fed bourbon and left in a car to have a near miss with the edge of a cliff, Thornhill is arrested for driving under the influence. The police are skeptical about his kidnap story, as is his mother (Jessie Royce Landis), but he is determined to find the real Kaplan and clear his name. He tracks down Kaplan’s unoccupied hotel room, but is again mistaken for him after foolishly answering the telephone and finding his captors on the other end. He is even blamed for the murder of the real Townsend, a United Nations representative who doesn’t look a bit like James Mason. And all for a telegram!

"I told you, I'm not Kaplan, I'm Archibald Leach!"

Strangers on a Train...

On the run from the law and the spies, Thornhill hops a train and meets seductive “Hitchcock blonde” Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). She knows precisely who he is, but she is happy to shelter him from the law. Her room only has one bed, what a shame. Eve helps Thornhill evade his many assailants but she isn’t what she seems, and is in fact working for Phillip Vandamm (that’s James Mason). Later on it transpires that, in fact, she isn’t what she seemed to not be what she hadn’t seemed to’ve been. Ahem. Anyway one thing leads to another, as things tend to do, and Thornhill is subjected to a vicious attack by a crop duster plane (how did he not see it coming? It’s famous that bit!), a brawl at the auctioneer’s and finally a chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore.

North By Northwest is surely essential Hitchcock. Made between the deeply personal Vertigo and shocking slasher Psycho, this more lighthearted piece is a welcome addition to his catalogue. Unlike the aforementioned films, great as they are, North By Northwest‘s suspense is tempered with comic relief supplied by a witty script and realised by Cary Grant. The scene in which Thornhill breaks into a lady’s hospital room and is told twice to stop, first in panic and then in desire, never fails to make me laugh. Another highlight is a scene in which he shaves with the minuscule complimentary razor from the railway men’s room. When Eve asks why he was gone so long, he simply replies: “Big face, small razor.” And the fact that Roger O. Thornhill’s middle initial stands for nothing is a wry dig at Hitchcock’s mortal enemy, producer David O. (also stands for nothing) Selznick: Raymond Burr was also made to look like Selznick as the villain in Rear Window.

Confucius say, "man with tiny blade take long time."

Cary Grant sneaks a peek, Stone Lincoln is mortified.

Excuse me while I nerd-out for a moment, but the cast list is incredible. Obviously there’s Cary Grant using his comic timing to great effect, and being rather dashing if you like that sort of thing. There’s James Mason, who delivers his lines with a delightful dry wit, especially his final quip; “That wasn’t very sporting, using real bullets.” Henchman Leonard, played by Martin Landau, carries out his henching duties with appropriate menace and a touch of effeminacy, at one point referring to his “woman’s intuition” – sadly only villains were allowed to be gay in them days. Composer Bernard Herrman demonstrates his versatility with a rousing score, a great contrast to his haunting music for Vertigo and the terrifying stabbing strings of Pyscho. Finally there’s scriptwriter Ernest Lehman, who wrote one of my favourite films Sweet Smell of Success, as well as working on West Side Story and Billy Wilder’s Sabrina. Oh and I think the director did a few other things too.

My friend Tom, after reading my review of God On Trial, asked me if I thought art was best if it wasn’t manipulative. I had never really thought about it before, and it made me realise that all films are manipulative by their very nature. They are made to elicit a response from the audience, and usually the filmmaker has a specific reaction in mind. This is especially true of Hitchcock, who was famously quoted as saying he wanted to play his audience like a piano. The measure of a good film is not whether it manipulates you, because it undoubtedly does. Instead, it’s like that cliché about good acting; it’s most effective when you don’t notice it. On reflection (pardon the pun… oh sorry, wasn’t there one?), Hitchcock transforms me into an unwitting piano on a regular basis, and I’m glad for it. Play on, Hitch!

Four and a half big faces

5 Responses to “North By Northwest”

  1. One thing that has always struck me about Hitch’s films is the comment by Raymond Chandler when he said “Hitchcock’s films don’t make sense”. There are lapses in logic, the characterizations are always two dimensional, largely because Hitch was more interesting setting up a neat shot or introducing some clever McGuffin than he was working with actors. Hitch lived a life that didn’t put him in contact much with the “proles” of the world so he had little or no understanding of how real people actually lived and talked. That’s why he gave his characters jobs like architects–no one knows what an architect does so Hitch wouldn’t have to take time to explain…

  2. I respect Raymond Chandler greatly, I’m a film noir enthusiast and he was responsible for many of the best ones (either by writing the original book or scripting the film), but I’d say accusing Hitchcock of not making sense is kind of rich coming from him. He wrote The Big Sleep and didn’t know who killed the chauffeur, and he once said that if he ran out of ideas, he’d just have a man come into the room with a gun. I agree that Chandler was more in touch with reality though, Hitch was a most unusual man. But in a way they have something in common, in that their work was largely an exercise in style – which is fine by me because in both cases, it was damn fine style.

  3. Ally, you make me wish I had time to watch these films, damn it.

    Why do I have to have a *job*?

  4. Great to meet a fellow Chandler fan. Have you read the mystery novels of James Crumley? He’s staggeringly brilliant, a cross between Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson.

  5. Yes, I enjoyed this very much. Not as much, I should say, as ‘Rear Window’ but, nevertheless, very much. I am also now going to drag the poignant tones here (as in those above) to the shallow end of the proverbial pool, and say: damn, I wouldn’t mind knowing where Eva Marie Saint got that rather splendidly striking coral lipstick from…

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