North by Northwest

  • Title:  North by Northwest
  • Director:  Alfred Hitchcock
  • Date:  1959
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Genre:  Suspense
  • Cast:  Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Leo G. Carroll, Edward Platt, Martin Landau
  • Format:  Technicolor, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Hello? Hello, Mother? This is your son, Roger Thornhill…”  — Roger (Cary Grant)

“Apparently, the poor sucker got mistaken for George Kaplan.” — Anonymous Spy 1
“How’d he get mistaken for George Kaplan, when George Kaplan doesn’t even exist?” — Anonymous Spy 2

North by Northwest is a very fun, enjoyable, romantic (in both senses) and exciting Hitchcock film. The film’s entire plot rests on a case of mistaken identity. Grant is Roger Thornhill, an Madison Ave (NY) advertising executive, who is meeting some friends and business associates in a hotel bar, when he realizes he needs to send a telegram. He raises his hand to call over the hotel telegram boy just as the telegram boy is calling out for George Kaplan. This is observed by two foreign agents, and thus the snowball starts to roll downhill. The agents assume Thornhill is Kaplan, and kidnap him, taking him to a house in the country. There, he is questioned, and forced to drink a bottle of bourbon. They then pour Thornhill into a car, hoping he will have a nasty accident. Thornhill, however, is somewhat familiar with drunk driving, and he’s able to make his escape, though he is spotted by the police and arrested for drunk driving.

The next morning, Thornhill and his lawyer, played by Edward Platt, attempt to explain what happened. Of course, there is no evidence at the country estate that anything happened, and the hostess who answers the door puts on a performance, claiming she was worried after he’d gotten tipsy at a dinner party. Thornhill pays his $2.00 fine.

Thornhill then returns to New York, searches Kaplan’s hotel room and goes to the United Nations building to meet Townsend, the man who kidnapped him the previous night, he thinks. But the man he meets isn’t the Townsend (James Mason) who kidnapped him. Before he can get any answers, or straighten out the mess, Townsend is killed by a thrown knife. Thornhill, like an idiot, picks up the knife — and his picture is snapped as he does so. With no other choice, he goes on the lam, sneaking aboard a train bound for Chicago, because that was where Kaplan was scheduled to go.

Meanwhile, we meet “The Professor” (Leo G. Carroll) and his merry band of spies. They discuss the issue of Thornhill, and their fake agent “Kaplan”, as well as their real agent who will be in danger, if they step in and clear Thornhill. “The Professor” declares they must do nothing.

On the Chicago-bound train, Thornhill meets Eve Kendall, who hides him. Grant and Kendall immediately have a connection, trading flirty dialogue. In Chicago, Kendall arranges for Grant to meet Kaplan; but we also see her talking to Leonard (Martin Landau), Townsend’s chief henchman, on the phone. Kendall’s directions lead Thornhill to a dry, dusty, deserted road in the middle of a cornfield. He’s attacked by a crop duster.

Thornhill survives that, confronts Kendall, and Grant’s performance is excellent. He’s very icy and cold when he confronts her — subtlely seething with anger that she betrayed him. He then follows her to an auction. Townsend (Mason), his henchmen, and “The Professor” as well as Kendall are all there. When it looks like he’s going to be caught by Townend’s goons, Grant makes a scene at the auction and gets himself arrested. But he’s released and taken to the airport by Carroll. “The Professor” explains more of the plot, before taking him, by plane, to South Dakota.

There, by the Mt. Rushmore monument, the film winds down to it’s conclusion.

Hitchcock uses a lot of very high angle shots in North by Northwest, almost like a kid with a new toy, but it does work. Grant is fantastic as the confused innocent. Eva Marie Saint plays Kendall with icy maturity, even in her more romantic scenes with Grant. The supporting cast is great. Leo G. Carroll, of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. plays a very Mr. Waverly-like character as the un-named head of some un-named security organization. In fact, the entire film almost seems like a pilot for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. at times, but with a much bigger budget. Martin Landau is menacing, and quiet, as Leonard, James Mason’s henchman. And James Mason himself has a cold, sophisticated, frightening evilness about him. Edward Platt, of TV’s Get Smart, as a brief but fun role as Thornhill’s overworked lawyer. Overall, the film is great fun. The bi-wing crop duster chasing Grant in the cornfield, and the climatic chase across the face of Mt. Rushmore are famous movie scenes, that are also quite enjoyable to see intact and in context.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Notorious

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