About 50 years ago Hitchcock followed his artistic masterpiece with two of the most important movies ever to emerge from Hollywood. Two very different pictures, each was to chart a course for an entire genre. From the first: the modern template for the espionage, man on the run film. From the second: the modern horror. No picture has been made since, in either genre, that didn’t pay some sort of homage to these iconic statements.
North by Northwest
There are other Hitchcock pictures that offer more chills or suspense, but none matches the sheer entertainment bang of North by Northwest. Not as frightening as Psycho or as powerful as Vertigo or as violent as Frenzy or as psychologically intriguing as about a dozen others, North by Northwest is, however, the most fun Hitchcock film of all and, given the sheer amount of set pieces and locale changes and plot gimmicks, it ends up, as relatively light as it is, an accumulation of Hitchcockian devices unlike any of his other films. An Everyman, a mistaken identity, a MacGuffin, inept authorities, bourbon, homosexuality, odd mother-son relationships, murder, trains, blonde dames, black humor—it’s all here, along with Cary Grant, the quintessential Hitchcock leading man.
While Hitchcock gets his cameo out of the way early—missing a bus in the opening montage of NYC bustle—he enjoyed screen time in one of his most memorable trailers in the guise of a travel director offering a cross-country trip of thrills and chills. Thing is, the entirety of the film plays much like a trailer, fast-paced and packed with highlights. Sure, it’s a picaresque Cold-War espionage false-accusation chase-film love story, but it’s really a vehicle for Hitchcock to thread cool but disparate set-piece concepts together, and all hail the great screenwriter Ernest Lehman for making it work. You can imagine Hitch’s conversation with Lehman when pitching the assignment: “A diplomat is murdered at the United Nations! A guy is nearly crop-dusted to death in an isolated cornfield! A gunfight on the faces of Mount Rushmore! Make it work!”
Lehman made it work, and he’s one of a team of craftsmen that Hitchcock assembled who turned in classic work, from Bernard Herrman’s pins-and-needles score to Saul Bass’s iconic title sequences (a pattern of crisscrossing lines melt into the window grids of a skyscraper above Madison Avenue) to one of Hitchcock’s greatest ensemble casts—Grant, James Mason, Eva Marie Saint, Martin Landau, and the great Hitchcock utility man, Leo G. Carroll. Hitchcock was famously prickly about actors, but he loved Grant, and Hitchcock put the 55-year-old actor through his paces in North by Northwest.
It’s a whirlwind performance from Grant—romantic, comic, and athletic. As Roger Thornhill, Grant is both suave and bumbling, shallow and complex, noble and contemptible. It’s also Grant at his most physical on screen, although he was just a few years from retiring from films altogether. Here we get him sprinting away from airplanes, diving from machine-gun fire, scaling building ledges, and dangling from cliffs. And in the cafeteria scene when Eve shoots Roger (with blanks), everyone talks about the little boy in the background who covers his ears just before Eve pulls the trigger—a famous goof—but how about Grant’s acrobatic up-on-the-toes Michael Jackson move once he’s shot? That’s the real moment worth treasuring.
North by Northwest is also one of Hitchcock’s funniest films, and Grant gets most of the best lines although he’s asked to perform in some pretty dippy sequences, especially the scene in which the bad guys try to murder him by pouring an entire bottle of bourbon into him and putting him in a car to make his escape along a curvy cliffside highway; it’s another inspired idea from Hitch—it would be so much easier just to shoot the guy. It’s a hoot to hear Grant’s famous clipped accent dissolve into a drunken slur in the police station, where he calls his mother for help and crawls up onto the interrogation table to pass out.
So Roger Thornhill, as a character, doesn’t carry the psychological depth of other Hitchcockian protagonists like Scottie Ferguson or Jeff Jeffries; still, his maddening confusion and simmering rage over his abduction and false murder charges carry real weight, especially once Saint’s femme fatale, Eve Kendall, gets her claws into him. Hitchcock layers the scenes between Roger and Eve with equal parts sexual tension and latent violence—embracing in the tight quarters of the trainroom, the two perform a rotating slow dance, sort of a modified arc shot, in which Roger threatens to murder Eve. Her response: “Please do”.
Later, when Roger unexpectedly returns from the attempted crop-dusting murder, Eve rushes to embrace him, relieved after genuinely falling for him, and Roger puts his hands up to her neck, not knowing whether to make love to her or throttle her to death. Similarly, in the auction scene, the villainous Phillip Vandamm (James Mason at his most charmingly malicious), admires Eve’s neck as he strokes it lightly with his fingertips, and then, as the camera closes in tight, he squeezes her neck is a possessive vice-grip. That Hitch! Master of Suspense, sure, but by 1959, he was also the master of disturbing interplays of sex and violence.
He pushed the sexual banter as far as he could—Saint even had to overdub one her lines, changing “I never make love on an empty stomach” to “I never discuss love on an empty stomach”. Why? Because Roger follows the line with, “You’ve already eaten”. Her response: “But you haven’t”. In other words, she was referring to making love on his stomach. Yow! Too bad such a snappy exchange was altered, although Hitchcock’s dirty visual pun to close the film stayed in, as did Martin Landau’s gay innuendos, another Hitchcock hallmark.
Saint’s performance is, in fact, a testament to one of Hitchcock’s most overlooked gifts—his knack for coaching his actors. Consider Saint’s role as Edie Doyle in On the Waterfront five years earlier (and did any American actress land two better roles in the ‘50s? Or provide a more confusing trilogy of first names: Eva/Edie/Eve?). Edie was a plain, Catholic schoolgirl who wore no makeup and had never been kissed. But Hitchcock taught Saint how to be a vixen. His advice: Look Grant directly into his eyes, and speak in a deeper register. It worked—Saint smolders on the screen.
Elsewhere, it’s a showcase of brilliant filmic touches: Mason himself creates the sinister lighting in the room by drawing blinds, turning on lamps, and backlighting himself. A camera views the standoff at the Long Island mansion from the ceiling, then switches to a shaky handheld as the henchmen wrestle Roger to the sofa. Hitchcock steals a shot of the UN after being denied permission to film there—love the double-take of the guy who recognizes Grant as he walks up the stairs. The utter silence for several minutes that introduces the cropdusting sequence—no background music at all throughout the entire sequence, a genius move that doubles the eerie juxtapositions and dramatic ironies that makes the scene such a classic.
So Roger has to save the MacGuffin (a little statue full of microfilm, it turns out), catch the criminal masterminds, get the girl, and clear his name. But it’s the Hitchcock exuberance for taking the audience on a dizzying ride that we remember most about this film, and fifty years of James Bond and action-adventure blockbusters and quirky post-modernist plot-smithing have kept alive what Hitchcock started, although most often with diminished returns. Hitchcock emerged from darker thrillers to make North by Northwest, and he would return to them again later, but for this film, it was all right to disregard allegorical overtones in favor of the thrill of the chase and to simply celebrate the riotous creativity of a master at his most devilishly fun.