The wittiest, most sophisticated thriller ever made, North by Northwest is one of the crowning achievements in the careers of its director, Alfred Hitchcock, and its star, Cary Grant. Released in 1959 to both critical and public acclaim, this classic spy chase comedy has gone on to take its place as one of the best-loved films in motion picture history—and one of the most imitated.
No one has been quite so bold as to steal the entirety of North by Northwest‘s plot—cooked-up for Hitchcock by top screenwriter Ernest Lehman—but any number of incidental aspects of this film about an advertising man mistaken for a key C.I.A. operative who finds himself thrust into a series of improbable, hair-raising adventures, have found their way into any number of movies. The exotic chases and hairsbreadth escapes of the James Bond series are derived from it. Films as diverse as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Romancing the Stone, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind have attempted to ape its self-mocking sense of humor, startling visual style, and wittily incongruous use of locations. None of them, however, have North by Northwest‘s extraordinary technical skill or martini-dry sense of fun. And none of them have Cary Grant.
In North by Northwest, Hitchcock constructs the most elaborate variation imaginable of one of his favorite plots—an innocent man, accused of a crime he didn’t commit, on the run from the authorities, and menaced by circumstances beyond his control. Hitchcock used it in The 39 Steps (1935) and Saboteur (1942), adding murdery-mystery variations to this basic recipe in Strangers on a Train (1951) and To Catch a Thief (1955). In North by Northwest he places this story against the broadest possible backdrop—the landscape of America itself—and uses as his pivotal figure that icon of American success, the advertising man. The very image of modern power and authority, this ultimate urban animal finds himself thrust into a different sort of jungle. Instead of the dark streets and alleys of the typical crime film, he’s at the tender mercies of a broad daylight film. Here danger lurks in hotel lobbies, Long Island mansions, United Nations waiting rooms, and empty cornfields. In such circumstances a man like this has only his wits to rely on—and that is where Cary Grant comes into the picture.
Grant’s Roger Thornhill is the quintessence of the urbane man of the world the actor had created over the years, with a new, ever-so-slightly smug undertone. Dictating to his secretary as he rushes to an important business lunch, he steals another man’s cab in the process by claiming that his secretary is “a very sick woman.” “In the world of advertising there’s no such thing as a lie,” he reminds her, “only the expedient exaggeration.” This being a Hitchcock film the expedient exaggerations come thick and fast as our harried hero, momentarily leaving his lunch guests to make a phone call, finds himself kidnapped by a pair of smoothly menacing types—business-suited like himself. From then on in it’s one damn thing after another—Hitchcock style—chases, escapes, killings . . . and romance.
Once, questioned about the “meaning” of his films, Hitchcock replied, “to put the audience through it.” The process of the film’s spectacle, he felt, was an end in itself. Dismissing the majority of films as “pictures of people talking,” Hitchcock consistently strove to create what he called “pure cinema” -- films in which every sight and sound, every shot and camera movement worked to make the viewer not a passive spectator, but an active participant. To this end Hitchcock created his own unique brand of suspense pictures.
They were never conventional “mystery stories,” nor did they derive from plots concerned with the criminal “underworld” shown in routine crime fiction. Utilizing character POV (point of view) shots in a style whose degree of sophistication has not been equaled save by Fritz Lang, Hitchcock consistently put his audience in his character’s shoes. We not only saw what they did, but were encouraged to experience it as well—particularly under moments of extreme stress (as in the hotel lobby kidnapping scene in North by Northwest). Aiding and abetting the entire process is the Hitchcock sense of humor—a uniquely mordant, understated wit, with subtle anarchistic undertones. And in North by Northwest, thanks to Cary Grant, this wit is put on spectacular display. In a role tailor-made to his movie persona, Cary Grant gives his most original, risk-taking performance. He approaches everything he does—even standing still—with scrupulous care. He takes advantage of every one of the script’s sparkling lines and gives added spice to the most ordinary of them (few actors can run the changes Grant does on “I’ve never been in Pittsburgh!”) He’s well supported by Eva Marie Saint as the mysterious woman in the case—sexily snuggling with him in a sleeping car in a scene that is as sensual today as it was when it first raised audience eyebrows. James Mason is equally effective as the villain of the piece—giving Grant a run for his money in the suavest-man-on-the-screen sweepstakes every time they appear on screen together. Martin Landau is deliciously nasty as Mason’s henchman, and Jessie Royce Landis is hilarious as Grant’s mother, asking the villains, “You gentlemen aren’t really trying to kill my son, are you?”
The biggest star of any Hitchcock film is, of course, Hitchcock himself. And in a project that offers at every turn opportunities for the “master of suspense” to demonstrate his skill, Hitchcock outdoes himself. The cropdusting sequence (Chapter 14) in which the hero, awaiting an assignation in a cornfield, finds himself attacked by a machine-gun-equipped cropdusting plane, has been justly celebrated as one of the most remarkable scenes in film history. Presented in its original wide-screen format, this scene can be enjoyed by the laserdisc viewer again and again, marveling at this peerless example of film editing. But then it is only one of many things to marvel over in this masterpiece of pure entertainment.