|North by Northwest (1959)
Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, Leo G. Carroll, Josephine Hutchinson, Philip Ober, Martin Landau
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
There are many moments throughout Alfred Hitchcock ’s filmography which have become so famous that you instantly know from which movies they originate, even if you’ve never actually seen the movies. One such moment can be found on the cover art for the DVD of “North by Northwest”: the shot of Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) being pursued by a cropduster.
“North by Northwest” is one of Hitchcock’s famous innocent-man-on-the-run films, a theme which recurred through his career; none of this motion picture’s “cousins,” however, are nearly as entertaining, and a large amount of that comes courtesy of the always-suave Cary Grant. Although it’s well-documented that Hitchcock had originally envisioned another collaboration with Jimmy Stewart for the film, once you’ve seen Grant in the role, you can scarcely imagine anyone else delivering a line like this:
“Now you listen to me: I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders that depend upon me…and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed!”
Roger Thornhill is an advertising man who, shortly after the film begins, is mistaken for CIA agent George Kaplan. The funny thing is, we quickly learn that there is no George Kaplan; he’s a creation of the CIA, used to throw disreputable sorts like Philip Vandamm (James Mason) and his right-hand man, Leonard (Martin Landau), off the track of real agents. Following Hitchcock’s preference of suspense over surprise, however, this is a tidbit of information that is known neither by Thornhill nor Vandamm, leading Thornhill on a misguided voyage to try and find the real Kaplan, all the while being pursued by Vandamm. In the midst of this, Thornhill meets up with the lovely Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who remains a part of his adventure until its conclusion.
“North by Northwest” is variously a comedy, an action film, and a thriller, and it often veers suddenly from one to the other, always keeping the audience on its toes. Grant’s transition from complete bewilderment about his plight to steadfast determination that he can clear his name is one which happens so gradually and believably that you never question it. There is, however, a particular moment when he officially teeters from one side of the fence to the other…and you’ll know when that moment is; it comes courtesy of a shock delivered so perfectly by Hitchcock that it’ll take your breath away.
The cinematography and camerawork within the film is still fascinating almost half a century later, particularly the desolation that’s captured in the flatlands where the cropduster attack takes place. There are also several directorial choices by Hitchcock which catch the eye, such as the overhead shot of Grant as he leaves the United Nations building, or the excruciatingly accurate depiction of a drunk driver’s point of view when he’s behind the wheel. Perhaps most remarkable, however, is how well the scenes that take place on Mount Rushmore still work; although some long-distance shots of the memorial were indeed filmed on location in South Dakota, everything else was done on a mock-up…and, yet, because the scenes are set at dusk, the near-darkness results in a surprising realistic effect for a film made in 1959.
Final observation: any film that ends with a passionate kiss followed immediately by a shot of a train going into a tunnel deserves five stars, no matter what’s preceded it. “North by Northwest,” however, earns such a rating long before that. It might not be the definitive Hitchcock film, but it’s an undeniable classic.
It’s a tragedy that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t live long enough to see his films come to a medium that would’ve allowed him to do audio commentaries – his wit would’ve almost certainly made them must-hears – but we are provided with the opportunity to hear the insights of “North by Northwest” screenwriter Ernest Lehman. The 40-minute documentary about the film, “Destination Hitchcock: The Making of ‘North by Northwest,’” is extremely fascinating; it’s hosted by Ms. Saint, and it includes reminiscences from Landau as well as Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia. Bernard Hermann fans will appreciate the music-only audio track, and there’s also a gallery of still photos as well as a collection of trailers for other Hitchcock films.