NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)

  • Director: Alfred Hitchcock
  • Writer: Ernest Lehman
  • Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau, Jessie Royce Landis, and Leo G. Carroll
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#55), Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 list (#53), Cahiers du Cinema 2008 Top 100 list (#28), 3 Oscar nominations (Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to HBO Max, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

Alfred Hitchcock has become known as the “Master of Suspense,” and one of the ways he earned this title is that, despite basically all being classifiable as thrillers, most of his movies are very different from each other. They get there in different ways. Psycho pretty much invented the slasher flick. The Birds is basically the first and best Sci-Fi Channel Original movie. Vertigo is kind of a bizarro art house movie. To Catch a Thief was a glamorous heist movie on the Riviera that literally turned Grace Kelly into a princess. Rebecca is just this side of straight-up gothic horror. Strangers on a Train is basically a Film Noir. In North by Northwest, screenwriter Ernest Lehman announced going in he wanted to write “the ultimate Hitchcock film,” and not only did he basically achieve this, in the process the two of them basically invented the James Bond movie three years before Dr. No.

Hitchcock usually started his ideas for movies with emotions or images rather than actual plots. In North by Northwest, he had the idea of starting with a murder at the UN and ending with a climax of the heroes clambering over the faces at Mount Rushmore. In the meantime, they never did think of a title, and ended up using an essentially meaningless one that Hitchcock said indicated that “the whole thing is a fantasy.” “North by Northwest” is not even a real direction on a compass, after all. At one point in production, the title was The Man on Lincoln’s Nose, but after the Department of the Interior, much to Hitchcock’s surprise, denied him permission to actually shoot Cary Grant climbing over the faces of the Presidents on Mount Rushmore, they couldn’t figure out how to shoot the exact scene Hitchcock had in mind and the “working title” stuck.

Grant plays a smooth-talking Manhattan advertising executive, who wears the same extremely sharp gray suit for essentially the entire movie, even after rolling around in the dirt. After a brief, overheard misunderstanding in a restaurant, he is immediately kidnapped, forced to drive drunk for reasons, framed for murder at the UN, and eventually gets caught up in a plot by James Mason to smuggle microfilm of some kind into another country. The government catches up with him and forces him to continue to play along, because he’s been mistaken for a fictional secret agent who the government made up to protect the identity of their actual secret agent. In the meantime, he runs into and flirts extremely heavily with Eva Marie Saint, who is suspiciously nice to him but is actually working for the bad guys but is actually a double agent but is actually…

Look, none of this actually matters, even to the movie itself. Hitchcock once said that he dreamed of the day that he could just attach an electrode to the heads of audience members and press a button to make them experience a certain emotion. This movie sort of works like that. All you really need to know is that Grant didn’t do what they say he did, and reality isn’t making sense for him at the moment. Yet somehow he’s keeping his cool and cracking wise from beginning to end. That’s why I compare Grant in this movie to James Bond. It’s not just the spycraft milieu, that had been done before, it’s Grant attitude, his look, the way he approaches situations, and the way he clearly sleeps with Saint’s mysterious Eve Kendall while also clearly suspecting her throughout (“I’m a big girl.” “And in all the right places, too.”). He gets kidnapped and immediately makes a joke about being kidnapped. After he gets attacked by a cropduster, he drives a stolen truck back to Chicago and immediately phones room service and asks them how fast they can clean and press his suit. “Twenty minutes? Good.” In fact, the producers of the first Bond film tried to get Grant to play the part that eventually went to Sean Connery, but he would only agree to a single film and they wanted to make a franchise, so they moved on.

That cropduster scene has turned into one of the really iconic moments in film history, in spite of (or because of?) the fact that it is completely bizarre if you think about it at all. So the bad guys want to kill this guy, right? So they lure him out to the middle of nowhere (still wearing the suit, in the middle of a cornfield), then attack him with a plane? Who is in the plane? We don’t know, and there isn’t a solution that actually makes sense, which is part of the genius of it. None of it makes any sense. Hitchcock said it didn’t matter who was in the plane. The whole thing is a fantasy. One thing I really noticed about it is how, to a modern viewer, it seems to take forever to get going, while that plane whirrs in the distance. Hitchcock doesn’t have one car speed past as Grant waits, he has four. I think the key to understanding Hitchcock is that he, seemingly paradoxically, loved it when things didn’t happen. 

Hitchcock once gave a famous explanation of the difference between surprise and suspense, and why he preferred suspense: 

“We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!” In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.”

As implied by that discussion, Hitchcock also spent a great deal of time figuring out when and how to give the audience different pieces of information. He is less interested in a big final twist than he is in the audience knowing things that at least some of the characters don’t (for example, he had to fight to keep in the reveal that makes the entire third act of Vertigo work, because the studio seemed confused that he didn’t want to keep it back for the very end).  Here, we learn that Eva Marie Saint is seemingly in cahoots with the villains a long time before Grant does, so when she sends him off to the middle of nowhere we already know it’s a set up, and spend that scene of him watching cars go past waiting for something to happen. And happen it certainly does.

The screenwriter of this film, Ernest Lehman, is not exactly a household name today, but he was the first screenwriter to receive a lifetime achievement Oscar, and not without reason. It seemed like he could do anything her wanted. Before he decided to write “the ultimate Hitchcock movie” his most prominent credits were as the writer of the romantic comedy Sabrina and the musical The King and I. He would go on to write the screenplays for West Side Story and The Sound of Music. It’s hard to believe that the same guy basically invented “the hills are alive” and the modern James Bond movie, and very few people know who he is. Though Hitchcock certainly does bring in his trademark suspense, North by Northwest does feel entirely weightless while it’s happening. Even Grant, who should be freaking out, never fully seems to be taking all of this seriously. This is both perhaps the movie’s biggest strength and its biggest drawback. If you’re looking for an escapist few hours, few are more escapist than this. But if you’re looking something with some emotional weight behind it, even in service of an action movie, this ain’t it. Hitchcock himself seemed to feel like he’d taken this particular sub-genre of bombastic thriller as far as it could go. His next several movies, including Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie, were both “smaller” and more character-driven. Though many people tried after him, Hitchcock seemed to think that North by Northwest had maxed out this line of inquiry. And maybe he was right?

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