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A Selection from My Collection: North by Northwest

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By Chris Kavan - 08/13/11 at 10:18 AM CT

Hereís another fine example of a film that I waited entirely too long before watching. Alfred Hitchcock isnít called the Master of Suspense for nothing. While North by Northwest may be more adventure than suspense, it has all the hallmarks of a classic Hitchcock films and remains one of my favorites by the director.

Cary Grant is our lead. With a twinkle in his eye, a hop in his step and just that right hint of rakishness in his voice, he plays the ad executive Roger O. Thornhill with obvious relish. But heís not just Thornhill, oh no, that would be too easy Ė heís quickly mistaken for a non-existent secret agent Ė George Kaplan - after calling for a bellhop at precisely the wrong moment. At 55, Grant may be pushing the age limit for the character, but he still has that leading-man charm and grace and enough pep to make the role his own. Some of his banter may be a bit unbelievable, but despite it all, it works.

On the other side you have Eva Marie Saint as the blonde bombshell of the film Eve Kendall. This is no damsel in distress here Ė she has her own agenda going on. She has a great rapport with Grant and the age difference isnít that distracting. She can go from seductive to sweet to sassy without batting an eye.

Our main villain is played with oily slickness by James Mason. Heís the kind of villain who prefers to use his mind rather than his fists. He actually reminds me of a James Bond villain in that respect Ė he operates behind the scenes but isnít afraid to get his hands dirty if things come down to that. Of course no villain would be complete without henchmen, and Mason has two Ė the somewhat effeminate Leonard (played by a young Martin Landau) and the knife-wielding Valerian (a stone-faced Adam Williams).

The spy business is pretty intense Ė especially when you have no idea whatís going on. After being accosted by the two goons and taken to a palatial estate, a bewildered Thornhill (trying his best to be jovial) is fed a bottle of bourbon and sent on his way Ė drunk and down a cliff. He manages to escape his stupor long enough to make a weaving getaway, only to wind up behind bars. He tries to explain what happens, but finds that his nemesis is one step ahead of him. He canít even convince his own mother that men are trying to kill him, so he does the only thing he thinks will save him: find the real spy.

Thus begins a grand adventure that takes Thornhill for the U.N. building to a dusty field outside Chicago to a fancy auction house the top of Mt. Rushmore. Along the way are some of the most iconic scenes in movie history:

You have the famous crop-dusting scene where Grant is chased by said plane across a desolate landscape and withering fields. I love the introduction to the scene after Grant is dropped off and looks in each direction to sparse emptiness and his brief glimmer of hope each time a car approaches.

You have the famous Mt. Rushmore chase where our couple must escape the henchmen by climbing the faces of four famous presidents. It may not have been filmed on location, but it was a fine bit of fakery that was hatched. Indeed, one has to wonder if the actual monument would have been as interesting.

However, my absolute favorite shot of the entire film has to be Thornhill making his exit from the U.N. building. The top-down shot looking nearly straight-down is, to put it simply, a perfect shot. The colors are so perfect, the escape so crisp it almost looks like it could have been a digital shot. Itís a short scene, but one of my favorite cinematic moments.

I mentioned earlier that Masonís character could be a James Bond villain. Likewise, North by Northwest could be considered a predecessor to the Bond franchise. While Thornhill obviously doesnít hold a license to kill, he has quite the charm and wit of the secret agent. Likewise, the adventurous plot would make an excellent spy thriller. Throw in the love interest and itís a near perfect match for an early Ian Flemming adaptation.

Of course, no Hitchcock film would be complete without two things: a cameo by the director and the MacGuffin. Hitchcockís cameo comes early on Ė after the impressive Saul Bass title sequence, watch for the rotund director to miss his bus and have the doors rudely closed on him. The film could say to have two MacGuffins Ė the first is George Kaplan himself Ė the man Thornhill is mistaken for, and the man heís looking for throughout most of the movie. We realize early on that Kaplan doesnít exist Ė heís a made-up government entity used only to lure in Vandamm. The second is the microfilm which presents itself much later in the film. Whatís on the film? Never divulged, just that itís important enough for a lot of people to want to know its secrets.

I would be remiss if I also didnít mention the excellent score by Bernard Hermann who was a frequent collaborator with Hitchcock (his most recognizable probably being Psycho). The urgent theme of North by Northwest neatly fits in with the spy element and gives a sense of danger mixed in with the adventure.

This is one of my favorite Hitchcock films, but thatís not to say itís without its faults. Some of the dialogue pushes the limits of believability. I get that Thornhill is a fast-talking ad man, but sometimes I find myself thinking: ďReally? He really just said that?Ē And as I said, Grantís age isnít enough to spoil things, but itís also just distracting enough that you question whether a slightly younger leading man would have been a better choice. Itís a question that nibbles in the back of your head for the entire film.

North by Northwest is not flawless, but I have absolutely no qualms about giving it a perfect rating. This is Hitchcock taking his trademark suspense and giving it a spy thriller twist. Eat your heart out James Bond.


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