|Cary Grant & Eva Marie Saint get a "rush" of a cliffhanger in this Alfred Hitchcock classic.|
The Alfred Hitchcock catch me if you can classic, North by Northwest, was the film forerunner to the modern summer blockbuster.
North by Northwest was a distinctly commercial venture after Vertigo. Hitchcock had received some criticism in the ‘50s as too smoothly commercial, with his Grace Kelly movies, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and 1959’s North by Northwest. 1960’s Psycho would be his answer to THAT criticism!
|Cary Grant spends the entire time in 'North By Northwest' on the run!|
Here’s the complicated plot of NBNW in a nutshell: Devil-may-care ad man Roger Thornhill is abducted by henchmen and taken to spy Philip Vandamm. He is convinced that Roger is an undercover agent. They then engage in a cross-country game of cat/mouse, when a cool blonde enters into the mix of this smart suspense thriller. The deeper Roger gets entangled into this espionage web, the more he realizes there’s a thin line between the good guys and bad guys.
|Alfred Hitchcock, master of suspense AND master showman, promoting 'NBNW.'|
North by Northwest was Hitch's double whammy with the plot device he called the “MacGuffin.” This was an inconsequential object of a story that sets everything in motion. While the MacGuffin here is microfilm hidden in an antique, I think that George Caplan, a non-existent person who Cary Grant's ad man is mistaken for, is the real MacGuffin here.
|The microfilm revealed late in 'NBNW' may be the official 'MacGuffin,' but for me, |
Grant's Roger Thornhill mistaken for George Caplan is the REAL MacGuffin!
NBNW is the epitome of a mid-century movie: sophisticated yet totally entertaining; a clever plot and plenty of action; sexy yet classy; a star and director's vehicle. North by Northwest’s story takes the audience across the much of the United States, from NYC to Mount Rushmore. This suspense film is what summer blockbusters call a "thrill ride." Unlike many modern versions, North by Northwest was meticulously thought out and filmed, with director Hitchcock at his height of storytelling talents.
|Cary Grant, the essence of movie star cool, and IMO, Hitchcock's best movie hero.|
Roger Thornhill was Cary Grant's last great role, though he appeared in several more popular movies before making a graceful film farewell in 1966. At 55, Cary looks like a million and deserved every cent he demanded. Perhaps the healthiest and best-preserved male movie star of his generation, Grant is stylish, sexy, fit, graceful, and charming—a total catch for any leading lady. Also, Cary’s droll humor is also on full display. Though his role resembles the government agent he played for Hitch over a dozen years earlier in Notorious, Cary is less moody here. Grant is great with a funny line, whether broad or sly, and his body language is fantastic, when playing drunk or playing the fool at an art auction. North by Northwest also demonstrates that had he been a decade or so younger, what a great James Bond he would have made in the coming decade.
|At 55, Cary Grant is still in fine form, and aged better than any of his fellow male stars.|
I've written how understated Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall is the secret weapon of North by Northwest, which you can read here:
|Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and the red & black cocktail dress.|
I’ll recap that Eva brought her acting talent and sly sex appeal to the role of Eve. Saint had a great rapport with Grant and Alfred Hitchcock. I’m always a bit puzzled why Hitch didn’t use Eva Marie Saint again, in some of his ‘60s films.
|Cary Grant & James Mason as hero & villain: Mason's persona makes me think of a dark side version of Grant.|
|"You have to choose ONE of us, Mister!" Martin Landau, James Mason's "loyal" henchman.|
|Left: Jessie Royce Landis, amusing as Grant's exasperated mother, asking these thugs |
if they're really trying to kill her son!
A fine supporting cast goes far in making North by Northwest a smooth ride: Jessie Royce Landis as Grant’s mother; Leo G. Carroll, as the FBI “good guy;” Josephine Hutchinson as “Mrs. Townsend;” and Philip Ober as Lester Townsend; Ernest Anderson as the train porter, and Ned Glass as the station ticket master who’s on to Grant are welcome familiar faces.
|Eye-catching Saul Bass titles & Bernard Herrmann's score get 'NBNW' off to a rousing start!|
Ernest Lehman wrote one of the wittiest Hitchcock screenplays ever in NBNW. The classic opening credits by Saul Bass, paid homage to in Mad Men, still stuns on each viewing. The energetic and slightly exotic score by Bernard Herrmann is one of his best. One of Hitchcock’s favorite cinematographers, Robert Burks was up to the challenge of framing the thrilling set pieces. Perhaps that’s why Burks shot 12 films for Hitchcock. And for a ‘50s movie, the Mount Rushmore mock ups look pretty damn good. Hitch's love of rear projection, matte work, and actual location shooting is mixed just about perfectly in NBNW.
There’s the villain’s heavenly hideout home, even though it’s just a set and a mural/miniature. How amusing that Hitchcock has the villain live in a Frank Lloyd Wright-esque house that’s located next door to Mount Rushmore—totally inconspicuous, right?
|Where else would a spy's hideout be located, but in a Frank Lloyd Wright-style mansion |
next door to Mount Rushmore? Talk about hiding in plain sight!
At 2 ¼ hours, my one “nay” about North by Northwest is that it’s a tad overlong. Studio era movies could be deliberate in their storytelling set up, especially to today’s attention span deprived eyes. And this was especially true of Hitch. I recall at a retrospective showing of Rear Window, there were signs of audience restlessness during the opening scenes. In NBNW, Roger Thornhill’s kidnapping, induced drinking, drunken car ride, and subsequent arrest could be much shorter. Drunk scenes for laughs don’t play well today, and it doesn’t advance the movie much, except to show Grant’s comedic skills, and Hitch’s sometimes heavy-handed humor. By contrast, the near-silent crop duster scene hasn’t a wasted moment.
As with Alfred Hitchcock’s work, North by Northwest can be enjoyed multiple times. There are so many layers to Hitch’s storytelling and he utilizes all the top notch production elements to the fullest. NBNW is a film journey I love to re-visit.
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