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Thursday, September 27, 2012

North By Northwest (1959) - Hitchcock's and Grant's Peak

My Favorite Film of All, "North By Northwest"

French DVD cover North by Northwest 1959

Alfred Hitchcock's studio, MGM, knew that in him it had a hot director sitting around with nothing to do. MGM gave Hitchcock an untitled turgid drama set at sea to work up, known by everybody simply as "the ship movie." Hitchcock hated the very idea of it, but he had nothing else specific going on. Having something official to work on gave him access to the studio's funding, so he nodded with a smile whenever anyone in the MGM hallways inquired about it or jokingly called him "Admiral" but otherwise completely ignored the project.

This about sums it up

Hitchcock really was at the top of his game, having just wrapped "Vertigo" (which leads many lists of the greatest film ever made, though I think "North By Northwest" is better). He didn't take orders about his projects from anyone, especially studio hacks trying to get him to commit to something as bland as the ship movie. Hitchcock was, instead, interested in doing a spy thriller for which he had a few vague ideas.

Alfred Hitchcock in North by Northwest 1959
Hitchcock's cameo

He found a hot young screenwriter -  - and put him on the payroll, officially, for the ship movie. "Forget about that," Hitchcock Lehman. "I have something better in mind." Indeed he did. Hitchcock gave Lehman some general ideas for his spy movie, which included a dramatic finale on Mount Rushmore, a scene at the UN where a delegate falls asleep during a speech, and a body mysteriously appearing in a just-finished car at a Detroit automotive assembly plant. Lehman took it from there. They never did find a way to fit in the Detroit scene.

Grant and Saint in upper berth North by Northwest 1959
This was very risqué for the 1950s but remains quite marvelous

The result was "North by Northwest" (1959). The (now forgotten) ship movie ("The Wreck of the Mary Deare") was handed off to a hack director (and ultimately starred Gary Cooper and promising newcomer Charlton Heston). Reliable Bernard Herrmann (who had introduced Lehman to Hitchcock) began working up the theme for the spy film, and Hitchcock and Lehman were off and running. Hitchcock would come into Lehman's office every day and sit down and review Lehman's progress. They would chat, Hitchock would give Lehman his random thoughts, and then Lehman would go to work again. Any young associate in any major firm around the world is familiar with that drill.

Cary Grant Alfred Hitchcock North By Northwest
Hitchock and Cary Grant discussing things on the set, probably the key airport scene

Cary Grant was hired for the lead role of the spy despite "Vertigo" star Jimmy Stewart, the biggest star of all, begging for the part. Pretty young Eva Marie Saint, who was at the peak of her loveliness and had won an Oscar a few years earlier for romancing Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront," signed on as well despite the studio wanting Cyd Charisse.

Grant and Saint kissing North by Northwest 1959
"Shall I climb up and show you?

"North By Northwest" is a general case of mistaken identity. In this case, it proves almost fatal for ordinary advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Grant) who is mistaken for a mysterious secret agent, one George Kaplan. Ultimately, it proves fatal or at least unlucky for several people around him. Incidentally, it would have been neat if Grant's character had been named Jim Blandings, but that's asking a bit much.

Grant running from plane North by Northwest 1959
I had this on my office wall for years

Thornhill/Kaplan winds up being pursued by gangsters who repeatedly rough him up and try to kill him because they think that Kaplan is on to them. They use very inventive means of killing him, though, rather than just shooting or stabbing him, which ultimately leads to their downfall. In this way, "North by Northwest" presages the same such behavior in the James Bond series that began a couple of years after this film's release (and Grant, incidentally, was Ian Fleming's choice to be the first James Bond, so he must have been a fan of this film).

Grant and Saint on Mount Rushmore North by Northwest 1959
"I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me."

Saint plays a mysterious femme fatale who befriends Grant. Her true allegiance is uncertain for a long while, but that ultimately is sorted out when Roger meets The Professor (Leo G. Carroll). Along the way, she flirts with Grant every chance she gets. Is she just playing him, or does she really want him? That's the tacit subplot which really kicks the kettle boiling.

James Mason North by Northwest 1959
"That isn't very sporting of you, using real bullets"

James Mason plays the heavy, Phillip Vandamm a debonaire spy for an un-named foreign government. Martin Landau is his sidekick Leonard, a somewhat effete but malevolent henchman.

Landau and Grant North by Northwest 1959
Leonard pouring Roger a drink. The thug on the left was a major WWII hero in real life

The action begins in New York City and moves progressively westward and eventually in a northerly and westerly direction. Hence, apparently, the title.

Saint and Grant North by Northwest 1959
Roger Thornhill and Eve Kendall bump into each other at just the right time

Despite the fact that she won her Oscar for an earlier film, Eva Marie Saint truly does give the performance of her career here. In fact, this is the high water mark for just about everyone involved. It is one of Hollywood's enduring mysteries why this talented woman wound up relegated to minor TV roles for the rest of her career.

The Master himself

The career performances includes that of Director Alfred Hitchcock. To say that this is his finest work is debatable, but it certainly was one of his best films. To me, it is his most enjoyable, much more so than "Psycho." It holds up extremely well all these years later, unlike a few of his other renowned films.

Eva Marie Saint hugging Grant North by Northwest 1959
Saint never looked better than in this film

Anyone who watches this will be struck by the raw emotion shown by Eva. Grant carries the exposition, but she all but steals the film right out from under him with her awkward advances and emotional reactions. If Grant weren't at the absolute top of his game, this would have been her film. James Mason also delivers a top performance, with a change in attitude late in the film that drives the conclusion.

Grant, Mason, Saint North by Northwest 1959
Mount Rushmore restaurant scene

My opinion of "North By Northwest" is that it only gets better as the years pass. It definitely makes my "Top Ten of All Time" because of its iconic images and twists. The famous cropduster scene alone provides an iconic image which makes this film immortal. It might even be the best film ever made. You should see this at least once if you enjoy fine films.

Below is the original trailer, featuring a nice introduction by Hitchcock himself:


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