Title: North By Northwest
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Release date: 1959
Writers: Ernest Lehman
I recently watched a documentary called Cary Grant: A Class Act and Grant is described as being an actor that was often typecast as himself. This was not so unusual for Grant to be offered certain roles, and to agree to play certain parts. He was able to do this because he, unlike the majority of working actors, had taken himself out of the ‘studio system’. Grant did not have contracts with the studios, but rather chose his own roles and demanded a percentage of profits. A pioneer for his time he was prone to choose roles that represented an innocent time. Cary Grant could play Cary Grant as much as he wanted to because nobody else could.
That being said his relationship with British director Alfred Hitchcock that comprised four films throughout their mutual careers was a unique one. In these films Grant could be a little grittier, a little darker, but still charming and funny nonetheless. Grant and Hitchcock worked together on Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955) and finally on North by Northwest in 1959. This collaboration would be their last and most popular, showcasing some of the most famous scenes in film history, as well as being a front-runner for some completely unique camera techniques.
In North by Northwest we meet Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a successful ad executive whose secretary does everything for him. In a taxi cab racing though the city that Roger lied to get into the secretary calls him out on his lies to which he replies with this gem: “in the world of advertising there’s no such thing as a lie, there’s only expedient exaggeration”. Thornhill’s overall demeanor is such that he seems unaffected by a lot of things, and this does not necessarily endear him to the viewer immediately. Sitting atop his proverbial castle of self-assuredness Roger Thornhill’s exist comes suddenly into focus when he is mistaken for a man named George Kaplan whilst at a business lunch at the Plaza Hotel. When he leaves the dining room to make a phone call he is accosted by two sinister looking men, and is subsequently abducted. Bundled into a car outside the hotel Cary Grant’s flare for dry humor and sarcasm comes through subtly in his interactions with the crooks.
They arrive at a large manor house in the countryside, and meet a man calling himself Lester Townsend. Somehow Townsend and his henchman are under the belief that Thornhill is Kaplan, and even though he tries to prove this case of mistaken identity, the crooks are having none of it. Thornhill refuses to cooperate with them, and they force feed him liquor, put him in a car and force him to drive intoxicated along a very steep coastal road, probably in the hopes of killing himself in the process. Instead of going off the cliffs Thornhill crashes into a police car and is taken into custody. At the police station a very, very drunk Thornhill insists on calling his mother gifting us with another gem: “No mother I have not been drinking. These two men they poured a whole bottle of bourbon into me. No, they didn’t give me a chaser”.
The next morning Thornhill, along with his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) and a couple of detectives return to the house but everything is not as it was. For one thing the so-called wife of Townsend whom he met the night before is adamant that he is Thornhill and not Kaplan as Townsend and the other crooks insisted. She also convinces everyone that Roger was merely a guest at a party of theirs the previous night who left the party intoxicated stealing a fellow guest’s car in the process. When they ask to speak to Townsend she reveals he works at the United Nations and would be addressing the General Assembly that afternoon. This seems to convince his mother and the police that Thornhill may have just been drunk. As they leave the manor, a man pruning the bushes in front of the house turns around to reveal himself as one of the men who abducted Roger from the Plaza.
Roger drags his mother to the Plaza where the illusive ‘George Kaplan’ is meant to be staying. What they find in the room is evidence of a person staying there, but none of the hotel staff appear to ever have actually met Kaplan. Townsend calls the room and of course Thornhill is there to answer which just seems to bury himself deeper into the intrigue. He discovers the call came from within the hotel, and makes the decision to leave the hotel as quickly as possible when his mother is unconvinced of his theories even when the actual abductors appear in the hotel elevator.
Thornhill escapes in a taxi and makes his way to the United Nations building in order to meet Townsend. Once there he discovers Lester Townsend is not the man he met at the manor house but an imposter. Before he can explain himself to this man Townsend is stabbed in the back by an unknown man, and Roger Thornhill is left holding the murder weapon as Townsend collapses in his arms in a room full of diplomats and journalists. He is now on the run as his photo appears on the front pages of newspapers all over the country. Hitchcock’s aerial shot of the United Nations building is phenomenal and pure genius in terms of its symmetry and color.
As Thornhill’s escape and crime becomes nationwide knowledge the pace of the film quietens as we are shown what appears to be a conference room surrounded by government agents very calmly discussing Roger Thornhill’s future. It appears that there is no George Kaplan, in fact there never was a Kaplan. The government agents made him up in order to divert the attention away from a real agent working for them to spy on Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), a known criminal.
Directly after the incident at the UN building Thornhill is now officially ‘on the run’ and escapes the police by hiding on a train. On the train he meets the beautiful blonde Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who hides him in her sleeper carriage, claims to know exactly who he is, and seduces Thornhill. The next day we realize Eve is working for Vandamm, who we also find out is the Townsend that Thornhill met when he was abducted. Eve helps Thornhill escape by pretending he is a porter and claims to have arranged a meeting between Thornhill and the real Kaplan.
The meeting between Kaplan and Thornhill never happens. We already know this because we know that Kaplan doesn’t exist. Thornhill is not aware of this though and is dropped off by bus on to the side of a deserted road in the middle of ‘nowheresville’. Nowheresville is simply a quiet road crossing cornfields. It is here where Roger Thornhill will run for his life during the iconic scenes involving a rogue crop duster.
He survives the attack, but he has also realized that Eve, whom it seems he has developed feelings for, is working for the enemy. At an auction attended by Eve and Vandamm Thornhill gets himself arrested, and instead of being taken to prison when he reveals himself to be ‘the Roger Thornhill’ who stabbed a UN diplomat, is recruited by the police to bring down Vandamm. Thornhill’s reaction to the nonexistence of Kaplan, and the government’s request for his help is such: “I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders dependent upon me. And I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed.” Roger Thornhill has a brusque sense of humor but it is Cary Grant that must deliver these lines, and I guess it’s safe to say that as much as Grant became Thornhill I am reasonably convinced that there was a lot of Grant in Thornhill, reiterating the previous statement I made about Cary Grant quite often playing alternating versions of himself.
It is then that Roger Thornhill will be told that Eve Kendall, the woman he loves, is an agent working for the government. Thornhill arranges a meeting with Vandamm at Mount Rushmore, and offers a trade for Eve. She declines and instead shoots Thornhill in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Thornhill’s body is removed from the restaurant and brought to a secluded location to meet Eve where the whole setup is revealed. Thinking the two of them will dash off somewhere Thornhill is shocked to realize that Eve plans to continue going undercover and will be traveling by plane with Vandamm that night. She leaves.
Thornhill’s determination to get Eve away from Vandamm leads him to an art deco house right next to the famous faces of Mount Rushmore. Whilst doing a little spying he overhears Vandamm’s henchman attempting to convince the crook that Eve is a traitor. The clever henchman shoots Vandamm with the very same gun that Eve shot Thornhill with in order to convince him that Thornhill/Kaplan was dead. The bullets are fake and Vandamm now knows that Eve is playing him. The problem is that Eve doesn’t know this and Roger does. Thornhill sneaks into the house and writes a warning note in a matchbook which he tosses to Eve. She reads the note but continues to play along with Vandamm. At the last minute though she will escape with Thornhill across the faces of Mount Rushmore, and this will all end when the crooks are caught or killed – thus ending one of the most convoluted plots in film history.
The penultimate scene is of Roger Thornhill and Eve Kendall sitting in a train carriage kissing, embracing and finally falling into each other’s arms on the bed. As the scene fades a shot of the train they are on rushes though an open tunnel thus concluding the scene, concluding the film and teasing the audience’s imagination with a dash of not so subtle symbolism.
Alfred Hitchcock was known for picking a certain type of female lead – blonde and waif-like as in the examples of Tippi Hedren, Grace Kelly and Janet Leigh. Eva Marie Saint will prove to be one of the most agreeable actresses Hitchcock will ever work with. For his leading man, Cary Grant, this would be the last time the two would work together which was unfortunate because their working relationship had always been favorable.
This film will forever be deemed one of Hitchcock’s most ambitious and the most popular with audiences around the world.