If only his mother wasn’t playing bridge. If only Roger O. Thornhill (“My own personal motto - R.O.T.,” he snidely explains), twice-divorced New York ad man hadn’t forgotten that important facet of his parent’s social calendar. He wouldn’t have rushed to his important meeting with some important clients. He wouldn’t have called on the Western Union boy to send a telegram (explaining to his secretary the locational faux pas). And he wouldn’t have incurred the curiosity of a pair of thugs, hitmen working for a foreign spy desperate to learn the identity of infamous secret agent George Kaplan. That afternoon card game eventually cost Thornhill his security, his safety, and his sanity as he becomes part of a major international conspiracy involving missing microfilm, double agents, and a conspiracy moving ever across the United States.
Scripted by dependable collaborator Ernest Lehman (who set out to create the ultimate version of the Master of Suspense’s style) and featuring film’s singular leading man, Cary Grant (replacing intended star Jimmy Stewart), Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest remains the seminal example of the fabled director’s artistic proficiency. It’s thrilling, sexy, funny, fresh, inventive, exhilarating, and ultimately, a first-class illustration of the “they don’t make them like they used to” adage. Sure, some can argue over the legendary director’s constant shifts in locational perspective (in studio one shot, on location the next) and the highly formal manner in which he handles action, but Alfred Hitchcock is a legend for one obvious reason - he is a true cinematic visionary, someone who literally defined - and then proceeded to destroy - the limits of the motion picture artform.
By mistakenly drawing the attention of two hired goons, Thornhill comes face to face with crafty Cold warrior Phillip Vandamm and his henchman Leonard. Believing his is CIA operative George Kaplan, the duo threatens his life unless he converts to their cause. Of course, our oblivious businessman has no idea what they are talking about. Narrowly avoided an attempt on his life, Thornhill is soon framed for the murder of a United Nations contractor, forcing him on the run and desperate to seek out the real Kaplan. Learning that he might be in Chicago, our hero hops a freight, only to come face to face with sophisticated industrial designer Eve Kendall. She wants to help him. He winds up in ever deeper trouble. Soon, the government gets involved, letting Thornhill know that if he plays along with the Kaplan ruse, his name will be cleared. But there are complications, including how Eve fits into all of this.
Along with Vertigo and Psycho, North by Northwest is indeed the seminal suspense experience. It makes brilliant use of the everyman lost in a world of intrigue and danger ideal, and then amplifies the prospect by making Grant’s Thornhill more adept at these spy games than the villains. True, it takes a lot to show up James Mason and Martin Landau (getting a lot of mileage out of underplaying their roles), but this is Archibald Alexander Leach we’re talking about, the dashing, debonair superstar who more or less gave birth to the mainstream man crush. Grant agreeably gives his greatest performance here, at times both cosmopolitan and comically clueless. Just watch the scene where a completely inebriated and barely coherent Thornhill is trying to tell the police what happened to him. It’s a master class in bridging the gap between post-modern believability and studio system shtick.
So are his entendre-laced clashes with Eva Marie Saint. No slouch as the femme fatale with a couple of troubling secrets up her designer sleeves, she is a flawless foil to Grant’s well-groomed wolf. There is absolutely no doubt about what’s on their mind when they meet, and later, when it looks like they will consummate their newfound friendship, the dialogue is just delicious. In the commentary track to the new blu-ray release (which looks AMAZING, one must say), writer Lehman lets us know about how careful he had to be with the words and phrases he chose to champion. Censors were already nervous about a middle aged man and a twenty-something sharing a train compartment. Several lines were snipped or trimmed when studio moralists believed they were too suggestive. In the end, Lehman actually got his way, if inadvertently. The scene between Grant and Saint in her darkened quarters remains one of the steamiest non-explicit moment between two people ever - all because of the oblique nature of the exchanges and Hitchcock’s handling of same.
But the real North by Northwest showstoppers are the various edge of your seat sequences used to intensify the terror. Grant’s near accident while intoxicated is indeed harrowing and the classic crop duster attack remains a singular cinematic moment. The best is saved for last, of course, as Grant, Saint, and Landau traverse the various cliff-like edifices of Mount Rushmore. That’s right - Hitchcock had always wanted to conduct a chase across the façade of the fabled American monument, and thanks to some tricky F/X work (massive photos of the landmark were created, and then dimensionalized on a equally huge Hollywood set), he pulls it off magnificently. Indeed, watching Grant and Saint juxtaposed against this backdrop renews your faith in the power of filmmaking. While it may seem logistically impossible - or worse, highly improbable - Hitchcock makes it wholly believable. Like all of North by Northwest, his craftsmanship overcomes any shortcomings in “realism”.
As the introductory entry of the Master onto the new digital format, Warners works wonders with the North by Northwest blu-ray. The picture presentation is immaculate - clean, sharp, and loaded with detail. Indeed, there is no arguing with the 1080p transfer. The sound has also been remastered, giving Bernard Herrmann’s memorable score a whole new level of epic urgency. There are also some fascinating added features here, including the Lehman commentary, an hour long documentary on the making of the film, as well as a look at Cary Grant’s career and Alfred Hitchcock mythos. But it’s the chance to see North By Northwest as it was initially conceived - original aspect ratio and as close to theatrical quality as the home video domain can deliver - that really makes this masterpiece a must-own. One can only imagine the kind of optical bliss awaiting blu-ray remasters of Rear Window, or even better, Vertigo.
In a career that spans a stint in British silent movies and as part of television’s grandiose growing pains, it was his stint in Hollywood (and the stunning films he created during that tenure) that took Englishman Alfred Hitchcock from trivial to titan - and North by Northwest is an example of the genius at the height of his professional powers. Indeed, it’s hard to watch a post-modern take on the genre and not see this Cary Grant title as an obvious inspiration. Sure, it’s oddly out of place ‘domineering mother’ subplot makes the Thornhill seem slightly less than macho and we never really find out what Vandamm and his men are after (the classic Hitchcock ‘MacGuffin”). Still, if it wasn’t for that blasted card game, none of this would have happened - and that really would have been a shame. That’s because, as cinematic classics go, North by Northwest is one of the greatest of all time.