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
"North By Northwest" (1959).

Alfred Hitchcock's studio, MGM, knew that it had a hot director sitting around with nothing to do. He recently had made a string of films such as "Rope," "Rear Window" and "To Catch A Thief" (also with Cary Grant) that were classics and very profitable. To give him something to do, MGM assigned Hitchcock an untitled turgid drama set at sea. It was 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 The Ship Movie or jokingly called him "Admiral." Otherwise, Hitchcock completely ignored the project and tried to come up with other ideas. The one he pulled out of thin air was "North By Northwest" (1959).

North by Northwest 1959
This about sums up "North By Northwest."

Hitchcock really was at the top of his game, having just wrapped "Vertigo" (which leads some lists of the greatest film ever made, though I think "North By Northwest" is better) with James Stewart and Kim Novak. 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 in "North By Northwest."

He found a hot young screenwriter -  - and put him on the payroll, officially, for The Ship Movie. "Forget about that," Hitchcock told Lehman. "I have something better in mind." Indeed he did. While filming "Vertigo," Hitchcock had started outlining another possible film. He gave Lehman these general ideas for his spy movie, which included a man mistaken for a spy, 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. It was just a list of bullet points, without a plot or anything else. Lehman took it from there. They never did find a way to fit in the Detroit scene, but everything else formed the basis of "North By Northwest."

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

The result was "North by Northwest." The Ship Movie (which became "The Wreck of the Mary Deare") was handed off to hack director Michael Anderson (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 untitled 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, Hitchcock would give Lehman his random thoughts, and then Lehman would go back to work. Any young associate in any major firm around the world is familiar with that drill, the big boss checking in each morning.

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

Cary Grant, Hitchcock's first choice, was hired for the lead role of the spy film despite "Vertigo" star Jimmy Stewart, the biggest star of all, begging for the part (this led to an intricate dance between Hitchcock and Stewart, with Hitchcock actually offering him the part after Stewart was committed to something else and had to turn it down). 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 MGM wanting Cyd Charisse.

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

As developed by Lehman, "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 "North By Northwest" photo 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 debonair spy for an unnamed 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 in "North By Northwest." The thug on the left was a major WWII hero in real life. This was Martin Landau's breakthrough role.

The action begins in New York City and moves progressively westward and eventually in a northerly and westerly direction. Hence, apparently, the film's title, though there is some disagreement as to how appropriate it is.

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

Despite the fact that she had won her Oscar for an earlier film and did not for "North By Northwest," 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, Eva Marie Saint, wound up relegated to minor TV roles for the rest of her career.

North by Northwest 1959
The Master himself, Alfred Hitchcock.

The career performances includes that of Director Alfred Hitchcock. To say that "North By Northwest" is Hitchcock's finest work is debatable, but it certainly was one of his best films. To me, "North By Northwest" is his most enjoyable film, much more so than "Psycho." "North By Northwest" holds up extremely well all these years later, unlike a few of Hitchcock's other renowned films that have become dated or involve issues that no longer resonate as they did when made. Hitchcock's cut was sent to theaters virtually intact, with only five seconds or so of the entire 136 minutes cut out.

Eva Marie Saint hugging Grant North by Northwest 1959
Eva Marie Saint never looked better than in "North By Northwest."

Anyone who watches this will be struck by the raw emotion shown by Eva Marie Saint. Grant carries the exposition, but Saint all but steals the film right out from under Grant with her awkward advances, apparent indecision about who she works for, and emotional reactions. If Grant weren't at the absolute top of his game, this would have been her film - but this is Cary Grant's career performance, too. James Mason also delivers a top performance, with a change in attitude late in the film that drives the conclusion. Let's give title designer Saul Bass props for crafting one of the absolute best title sequences in film history, too, using kinetic type for the first time, and director of photography Robert Burks credit for fantastic framing. Just as "Mary Poppins" became a career high for almost everyone involved in the 1960s, "North By Northwest" does the same in the 1950s.

Grant, Mason, Saint North by Northwest 1959
Mount Rushmore restaurant scene in a lobby card for "North By Northwest."

My opinion of "North By Northwest" is that it only gets better as the years pass. I am among those who believe that "North By Northwest" created the template that developed into the spy-film craze of the 1960s, including the "James Bond" franchise that began two years later. "North By Northwest" easily makes my "Top Ten of All Time" list because of its iconic images and twists. The famous crop duster scene alone provides an iconic image which makes "North By Northwest" immortal. "North By Northwest" might even be the best film ever made, though that's a very tough call with a lot of competition. You should see "North By Northwest" at least once, and preferably multiple times, if you enjoy fine films.


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