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North by Northwest (1959)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau, Leo G. Carroll

Written By: Ernest Lehman Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

The Short Version

Definitive Alfred Hitchcock.  (That counts as a full positive review in one sentence.)

Brilliant balance of wit, sizzle, and thrills.

And let’s not forget the world’s most famous crop duster.

Eva Marie Saint’s performance is minimalistic, but wow.

North by Northwest is compulsory viewing; this is just too good to miss.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


A master at work delivers a superb creation.

Pairs Well With...


Though if you’re going to polish off the bottle, please don’t drive afterwards.

“These two men, they poured a whole bottle of bourbon into me!  No, they didn't give me a chaser!”

“Now you listen to me!  I'm an advertising man, not a red herring.  I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself "slightly" killed!”

Have you ever wanted to be a superspy or some similar hero, travelling to exotic locales while trying to foil the dastardly villain, stay one step ahead of his evil henchmen, and, if you’re lucky, spark up a romance with the beautiful female lead?  (Can you even imagine being reluctant about such a thing?)

All right, you pragmatic types; if that seems a bit unrealistic, how about just being mistaken for such a person?  You still get all of the benefits, just not the lifetime of training beforehand to help you deal with them!  (Your upside is that you can start immediately simply by raising your hand at an inopportune moment right after a hotel clerk calls out someone else’s name.)

In North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock gets to indulge in one of his favorite bits of whimsy by dropping a character into exactly that scenario.  And because Hitch is at the controls and that character is played by Cary Grant (Arsenic and Old Lace), the results not only repel any notions of slapstick or parody, but indeed come away with the distinction of being one of cinema’s signature thrillers… albeit one with a healthy sense of fun.

The secret here is that Hitchcock makes sure that his cast plays it as straight up as possible, and that only screenwriter Ernest Lehman (and, of course, the audience) gets to have any laughs with the story.  This is important, because if the players – especially Cary Grant – were to fully acknowledge the absurd elements of the premise, the thriller aspect would fall apart.  (This is particularly true during the first act, wherein Lehman’s otherwise taut and indeed near-perfect script takes the “mama’s boy” aspect of the main character too far.)  Instead, they play things as seriously as life and death – which everything is, by the thriller count – and so even as the audience gets a few grins at watching Cary Grant’s character try to control a car while stone drunk in order to avoid being killed, the fact that said character is indeed trying to avoid being killed remains at the forefront.  The same holds true whenever he’s called upon to do something ridiculous to save his skin; the audience can smile and enjoy it precisely because the character himself isn’t laughing.  This pays further dividends down the road when there’s nothing at all funny about the predicaments that our hero finds himself in, for those dramatic moments become all the more dramatic thanks to the way he’s handled himself before.

Indeed, taking a few steps back, the straight laced delivery of often wickedly comedic dialogue during absurd situations that the audiences need to be able to accept as serious ones can be seen as a model for decades of action thrillers to come… especially those featuring a certain agent of the British Secret Service.  (Whose original novels, I cannot help but imagine, surely must have provided some bit of influence on this screenplay.  Hooray for big circles.)  Come to think of it, so can a lot of elements of this movie.

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s aims with North by Northwest was to present a travel adventure for his audience; indeed, a promotional reel for the film was dressed up as a tourist’s travelogue.  The regular changes of venue help to provide the viewer with the impression of a pace that’s perhaps quicker than the reality of the clock, and give every audience member a taste of something new, regardless of where he or she might be from.  The film crew, of course, was especially proud of the Mount Rushmore material – and rightfully so – despite the fact that the National Park Service would not allow them to actually film the climactic chase scene on the real monument.  Yes, the matte paintings and model sets may look a little obvious on modern high definition sets, but the sense of adventure that the well-established notion of the location gives to the scene cannot be denied, especially after the buildup provided by all that has come before.  However, though Hitchcock’s initial dreams of North by Northwest would have the Mount Rushmore chase as its ultimate signature moment, history has gone on to choose a different one of which he was also quite proud: the crop duster scene.

The location for this sequence is utterly drab and barren compared to the rest of the North by Northwest experience… and that’s exactly the point.  Hitchcock reasoned that all of the dastardly assassination attempts seemed to happen in dark alleys in the middle of the night; he wanted to approach things from as much of a polar opposite perspective as possible.  The result is an open plain of rather brown looking farmland with a single roadway running down the middle and the sun shining down from overhead without a single cloud to get in its way.  Shadows?  Corners?  None.  And forget the high powered rifle or the knife as a weapon; those would be too obvious, just as it would be obvious to make the guy standing across the street be the assassin.  Instead, Hitchcock chooses the most off the wall weapon he can think of: a crop dusting plane.  Having chosen his set pieces, he spends a very, very long time setting them up for the audience – no modern director would be that brave with the clock – and then… the magic happens.  Hitch gets everything he wanted, and more.  He gets one of the most memorable scenes in the history of motion pictures.  All by playing against the rules.  Many have tried to imitate the moment since; none have really succeeded.

And yet, Hitchcock and company are more than capable of playing by the standard set piece rules, as well.  The closed in confines of trains have long been settings for danger, intrigue, and yes, seduction, and North by Northwest takes full advantage of its own locomotive ride.  It is there where the audience first gets to meet – hmm, is she the femme fatale or the damsel in distress? – Eve Kendall, played brilliantly by Eva Marie Saint (Superman Returns) with a combination of minimalism and depth that leave most Bond girls in the dust.  Sure, everyone stays dressed on camera (check the date), but the moves she puts on Cary Grant are some of the sexiest stuff you’ll ever see, and she makes it more than apparent that this seductive appeal is backed up by something much more substantial.  It marks the difference between a character that’s been carried along with the tide and one who continues to fascinate even decades down the line.

Tack on the delightfully droll intellectual villain portrayed by James Mason (Journey to the Center of the Earth) and an outstandingly creepy henchman turn from Martin Landau (Ed Wood) – both of which would, again, be right at home in… oh, you get the point – and you’ve got an expertly played thriller made under the watchful eye of one of cinema’s true masters.  And though I will not join those who have called North by Northwest Alfred Hitchcock’s ultimate achievement, I will agree that it is one of his greatest signature pieces.

Bottom line, North by Northwest is Hitchcock at the top of his game with an amazing cast along for the ride.  A thriller with just the right amount of fun and sizzle tossed into the mix, this is a must-see for any movie fan, period.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, February, 2013

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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