I recently had the pleasure of attending a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” at the beautiful Astor Cinema, which was the premiere of its new restored DCP version of the film. Previous screenings of this great film had been in a banged up and seriously damaged 35mm print, so watching the film again in pristine quality as if it was opening night back in 1959 was something of a revelation. It was almost like watching “North By Northwest” for the first time again as it suddenly became apparent just how great a film it is. Right from Saul Bass’s imaginative titles you can feel how big a film this was, everything has a grand look to it, and my appreciation of it greatly improved (if that was possible).
After being mistakenly identified as government agent George Kaplan, advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill is kidnapped by Phillip Vandamm. Vandamm is an importer / exporter of government secrets, and wants to know just how much Roger knows of his operations. When Roger refuses to co-operate (simply because he has no idea what Vandamm is talking about), the gang try to murder him. He survives the murder attempt, which causes the enemy spies to try and locate him and to, this time, succeed in their attempts to kill him. While escaping from both the police and Vandamm’s men, Roger meets up with Eve Kendall, who hides him from his pursuers, in her room on a train. They immediately spark up a romantic relationship, but is Eve really who she claims to be? To find out exactly what he is being accused of, Roger tries to track down the man he is being confused with, George Kaplan. After finding Mr. Kaplan’s hotel room, he discovers that no-one at the hotel has ever seen the man. Is Mr. Kaplan dead or alive? Did Mr. Kaplan ever even exist?
“North By Northwest” is often regarded as the quintessential Hitchcock picture, an opinion that initially I had trouble digesting. Similar to “Rear Window”, it took me multiple viewings of the film to really understand just how great a film “North By Northwest” was. While I always enjoyed the film, it was nothing more than a mere diversion to me and not the masterpiece everyone claimed it, however after my first theatrical screening of the picture, my opinion changed greatly. I suddenly saw what everyone was seeing, and understood the brilliance of the filmmaking talents on display, and my recent viewing has only elevated this opinion. While I still do not think the film is a 5-star masterpiece (as I do “Rear Window”), I can now see what all the fuss is about and why people think it is the most Hitchcock of Hitchcock films. The film is basically an excuse for Hitchcock to do as many suspense set-pieces he can, disguised in a very entertaining spy yarn.
The absolute star of this film is Ernest Lehman’s very entertaining and extremely witty script. No other film made by Hitchcock has as many brilliant one-liners as “North By Northwest”. There are just too many to single out just one as a favourite. Aside from the sparkling dialogue, the actual spy story is also really great. There is basically no set-up for this film, because as soon as it begins, Roger Thornhill is immediately kidnapped on the assumption that he is really George Kaplan, a CIA agent on the trail of the villain, Phillip Vandamm. From the opening moments, the film starts with the action and suspense and doesn’t stop until the very end, with the exception of a small romantic interlude in the cabin of a train.
With the rapid-fire dialogue of this film, it was a great choice to get Cary Grant (still very tanned) to play the lead role of Roger O. Thornhill (“What’s The O stand for?” “Nothing”). As seen in the screwball comedies he appeared in, Cary is brilliant at delivering this sort of dialogue in a believable and charming fashion. In fact it is perfect casting, as Cary is just so likable and we, as an audience, identify with him immediately. The whole picture is well cast and as such, there is no weak link at all. Eva Marie Saint plays the ice-cold double-agent, Eve Kendall. She is fantastic as she goes from being a very romantic leading lady type when she is on the train, to a very efficient spy willing to sacrifice an innocent man’s life for her own. She seems so warm and inviting, but can also turn and be cold and ruthless. James Mason plays the quietly spoken and gentlemanly villain, Phillip Vandamm. Although he never raises his voice once or speaks in a dark tone, he always feels so deadly and dangerous. This probably is because he takes all the emotion out of killing someone, it has to be done for his own survival, and because of this it feels like he could kill Roger at any moment. Another performance that needs to be mentioned is that of Vandamm’s right hand man, who is played by Martin Landau. He plays him more like the traditional role of a heavy, and is also very intimidating. In fact, at the end when Vandamm is blinded by his love for Eve, it is he that works out that Eve is actually a double-agent, which sets up the thrilling finale of “North By Northwest”. The final performance that needs to be mentioned is the small role of Roger’s mother, who is played by Jessie Royce Landis (who played Grace Kelly’s mum four years earlier in “To Catch A Thief). She is absolutely hilarious in the role, as she never believes what Roger is saying even while helping him try to prove his story of his kidnapping. It is a shame that she is only in the film for such a short amount of time, because the times that she is on screen, she stars.
At this point in time Alfred Hitchcock was really at the top of his game. He had just come off the simply amazing “Vertigo” one year earlier (although at the time of its release was amazingly considered a failure), and while “North By Northwest” has a much lighter tone than that previous film, the directorial flourishes are no less brilliant. There are a number of scenes that are worth mentioning in “North By Northwest” from the opening kidnapping, to the (very funny) auction scene, to the romantic scene on the train, but there are two standout scenes. The first is the finale of the picture which is situated on top of Mount Rushmore. While it is obviously very fake and includes both a combination of sets and matte paintings, it is always suspenseful. Both Roger and Eve are trying to get away from the villains, and they must descend onto Mount Rushmore to hide from them. The villains follow and well……..look it involves heights, so I’m sure you can guess the rest. I suppose that this scene has dated a little because of the film-making techniques employed, but if you can let that go and enjoy the action, it really is a stellar scene.
As good as the above scene is, the most well-known scene (and deservedly so) of “North By Northwest” is the crop-duster scene. This scene is brilliant in its execution, and is a standout of the whole film. The set-up to the suspense is as brilliant as anything Hitchcock did in his career. It starts so innocently with Roger being dropped off by bus into the middle of nowhere, where he is to meet the real George Kaplan. He waits at the bus stop in the middle of barren land. There is nothing in the huge open space (although a corn-field does appear near the end of the scene). He keeps looking around for Mr. Kaplan, but no-one else is around. In the background, a plane can be seen and heard. Finally, a car pulls up and a man steps out. Roger assumes the man is Mr. Kaplan, but it turns out he is being dropped off to the bus stop on the other side of the road. The men stand quietly opposite each other, with the noise of the plane still in the background. Finally, Roger crosses the road to speak to the other man, when that man’s bus arrives. As he about to step onto the bus, the man says “That’s strange. That plane is dusting crops where there are none.” The bus pulls away, and Roger is alone again. We can then see in the background, the crop duster turning and heading towards Roger in an attempt to kill him. The suspense is unbelievable, as he has no idea the plane is coming. The rest of the scene is a brilliant action scene, and the image of Cary Grant running from a crop duster is one of those iconic images of American cinema. Another note regarding this scene that makes it so amazing is that the whole scene is done without any music. The suspense is all built around the sounds of the plane coming closer and closer. In fact, the music does not kick in until the danger has passed.
Speaking of the music, “North By Northwest” once again has another magnificent score by Bernard Herrmann. While not as great as his previous score for “Vertigo” (often claimed as his masterpiece) it is as easily recognizable. Like the tone of the film, the score is much lighter and very exciting during the action scenes. As well as Herrmann, Hitchcock’s other regular collaborators show up again with Robert Burks handling cinematography duties and George Tomasini working his magic via his seamless editing. In fact I would almost go so far to say that they editing in “North By Northwest” is perfect. Every cut is timed to perfection, and helps immensely in the creation of the films suspense.
A lot of people do have a problem with the finale of this film, as it is just so sudden, but personally I do not subscribe to that, quite the opposite in fact. It is very romantic and a fitting end to the picture. I suppose the symbolic image of a train going into a tunnel, is a little corny by today’s standards, but back in 1959 it was considered quite a sophisticated way of implying sexual intimacy, while dodging the censors of the time.
With all this praise, are there any negatives in regards to “North By Northwest”? Well, not really. The only negative is that it is about ten minutes too long, but it all comes down to personal taste. This film lacks the emotional depth of “Vertigo”, but does that make it any less of a film? Personally, I prefer my films to be darker in tone, which “North By Northwest” certainly isn’t, and this is the only reason that I wouldn’t score it as highly. It truly is a brilliant film that any Hitchcock fan or any fan of cinema would enjoy.