North by Northwest (1959) / Thriller-Adventure
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG for some violence and mild innuendo
Running Time: 136 min.
Cast: Cary Grant, James Mason, Eva Marie Saint, Jessie Royce Landis, Martin Landau, Leo G. Carroll
Cameo: Edward Platt, Alfred Hitchcock
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Ernest Lehman
Review published February 16, 2008
Although many people associate the famous scene of Cary Grant (To Catch a Thief, Suspicion) being chased out in farm country by a crop-duster with the movie as a whole, that stretch of film alone isn't what makes North by Northwest one of the most enduring pieces of entertainment in cinema. Nor is it the Mount Rushmore finale. Though they are certainly memorable, they are but the dessert in the decadent seven-course meal served up by Hitchcock (The Trouble with Harry, Rear Window) in one of his very best films.
This is a rare case where all of the elements work in harmonious fashion to become a work of true craftsmanship of the highest order, from Alfred Hitchcock's perfect pacing, Cary Grant's consummate romantic comedy leading man persona, Bernard Herrman's (Citizen Kane, Journey to the Center of the Earth) sumptuous scoring, and perhaps most impressive of all, a stellar script full of quotable lines delivered by Ernest Lehman (The Sound of Music, West Side Story) . Although from an artistic standpoint, it's hard to argue that North by Northwest is a masterpiece by traditional methods, for the pure joy of being a blissfully entertaining experience, there are few that can compare. Action, intrigue, comedy, mystery, romance, thrills, and adventure are just some of the genres the film touches upon, and easily ranks near the top of every list of examples of each for the perfect balance of comedy and thriller elements. It's marvelous motion picture that sets the proper tone and never wavers throughout.
Cary Grant stars as Roger Thornhill, an advertising exec mistaken by a couple of hired thugs for another man named George Kaplan. Roger is forcibly taken at gunpoint by the men to meet a mysterious and powerful man, Phillip Vandamm (Mason, Heaven Can Wait), who, despite Roger's assertion of a mistaken identity, won't hear any of it and commissions his dispatching for being a government agent. Through luck, Thornhill manages to escape with his life intact, though hardly anyone believes his tale, especially as they retrace his steps and can find no signs of foul play. As Thornhill seeks to get to the bottom of why the men are after him, he finds it easier to give in under the assumed identity of Kaplan, and while doing so, he is implicated in the murder of a diplomat. With all sides out to get him, Thornhill has no choice but to bring down Vandamm's operation on his own and clear his name, first succumbing to the beguiling advances of a young woman on a train named Eve Kendall (Saint, Because of Winn-Dixie), who becomes his accomplice, though she may be more than what she seems.
Hitchcock had made his share of thrillers involving a plot whereby an innocent man is accused, as well as ones involving mistaken identities, so the plot of North by Northwest could be seen as rather old hat for his style. However, the joys of the film don't reside in the plotting, but rather, the use of the plot in order to serve as a springboard to laughs, romance, and moments of adventure. The laughs aren't just silly or slapstick either, though they can be physical on occasion. They are surprisingly witty, featuring turns of phrase and ironies that you'll still be discovering after repeat viewings.
Here are my two favorite examples of the terrific, sophisticated banter in Lehman's script. It is worthy of note that the theme of theater, life being a stage, and assuming false identities would be a recurrent one in the film, just as it is in the works of William Shakespeare, the playwright whose Hamlet coincidentally inspires the title of the film "I am but mad north-north-west":
Vandamm: Has anyone ever told you that you overplay your various roles rather severely, Mr. Kaplan? First you play the outraged Madison Avenue executive who claims heís been mistaken for another man. Next, you play the fugitive from justice, trying to clear his name of a crime he knows he didnít commit. Finally you play the peevish lover, stung by jealousy and betrayal. Seems to me you fellows could use a little less training from the FBI and a little more from the Actorís Studio.Ē
Thornhill: Apparently the only part thatíll satisfy you is the one where I play dead.
Vandamm: Your very next role, and youíll be quite convincing, I assure you.
Also, the passionate scene between Eve and Roger, as they speak between kisses:Thornhill: Tell me, why are you so good to me? Kendall: Shall I climb up and tell you why? I've been thinking...it's not safe for you to roam Chicago looking for this George Kaplan you've been telling me about. You'll be picked up by the police the moment you show your face. It's such a nice face, too. Don't you think it'd be a better idea if you stayed in my hotel room while I located him for you and brought him to you? Thornhill: I can't let you get involved. It's too dangerous. Kendall: I'm a big girl. Thornhill: Yeah, and in all the right places, too. Kendall: You know, this is ridiculous. You know that, don't you? Thornhill: Yes. Kendall: I mean, we've hardly met. Thornhill: That's right. Kendall: How do I know you aren't a murderer? Thornhill: You don't. Kendall: Maybe you're planning to murder me, right here, tonight. Thornhill: Shall l? Kendall: Please do. Thornhill: Beats flying, doesn't it? Kendall: We should stop. Thornhill: Immediately. Kendall: I ought to know more about you. Thornhill: What more could you know? Kendall: You're an advertising man, that's all I know. Thornhill: That's right. What else do you know? Kendall: You've got taste in clothes, taste in food.... Thornhill: And taste in women. I like your flavor. Kendall: You're very clever with words. Kendall: You can probably make them do anything for you. Sell people things they don't need, make women who don't know you fall in love with you. Thornhill: I'm beginning to think I'm underpaid.
Lehman's script captures the fears in the minds of many single white men in the 1950s. The Cold War coming home to roost, the shallowness of the corporate life, the inability to get out from under one's mother's glare, the lack of maintaining a quality home life, and to see the success one has built up all get taken away with one simple misunderstanding. Indeed, the entire film takes the man from his sheltered and comfortable life out to the open spaces of America, where the hustle and bustle of the New York City streets are nowhere to be found. It is here that we learn that Roger Thornhill's middle initial is O., and when asked what it stands for, he replis, "Nothing." Some might see this as Hitchcock's homage to his former producer, David O. Selznick, whose middle initial was also a fabrication, but it also applies to who Thornhill is as a man. In the middle, he is nothing, empty, insignificant. Would we expect any less from the most vapid of occupations, a soulless Madison Avenue ad man?
Bernard Herrman delivers another fantastic score, giving us the chaotic sounds of what a busy downtown street may be like, as the opening credits play against the industrial geometry of a high-rise building, another in a line of fantastic intros by graphic designer Saul Bass. The words fly in fast and orderly, while the music changes quickly and effortlessly, and psychologically setting the plate for the mystery, danger, and twists within. Above and beyond the sounds, the sights are just as impressive. It's interesting to see how the film's title is used, literally, as many items point in a north by northwesterly direction, from roads to buildings. Fantastic locale work, impressive Oscar-nominated art and set design, and very good use of the widescreen process makes the images flow by with portrait quality. It's easy to just sit back and watch the images go by even without the dialogue.
In the Hitchcock filmography, North by Northwest is right at Hitchcock's peak, falling right between Vertigo and Psycho, considered two masterpieces of cinema. While North by Northwest isn't as artistic or technically brilliant as those films, it is much more universally appealing, and together, they are arguably the three best back-to-back films put forth by any director of any era (I would say four, if you count The Birds, though Coppola fans might protest, given his four masterworks of the 1970s.) North by Northwest would be a crowning achievement in nearly any director's repertoire, which goes to show what a cinematic master Hitchcock was to direct and produce such entirely different films before and after that could very well claim to be better. Regardless of how you come down, I'd say that while others may be "better" to particular people's preferences, as far as films meant for pure no-overhead enjoyment, only Raiders of the Lost Ark might best it in terms of films that deliver action, adventure, thrills, comedy and romance, though even that is subject to debate. It's a powerhouse of entertainment by any measure.
©2008 Vince Leo