Great entertainment and cinematic art happen so rarely in the movies that we’re usually grateful to get just one or the other. But after over thirty years in the business, director Alfred Hitchcock seamlessly combined both, in a little number called North by Northwest (1959).
This movie also combined two of Hitchcock’s favorite motifs, the innocent man in dangerous circumstances and the cool, icy blonde. Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive who is constantly on the go between martini sessions. One day at a restaurant luncheon, he makes the worst move of his life, simply by summoning a bellboy to send a wire to his mother. This gesture is misinterpreted by some very bad men who are on the lookout for a CIA spy named George Kaplan. With that fatal gesture, The bad guys abduct Thornhill, and against his loudest protests, he becomes George Kaplan. Along the way, Thornhill/Kaplan is helped (or at least he thinks he is) by Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a certain female of platinum hair and behavior.
To tell any more would spoil the fun for any first-timer. Just be on the lookout for some of these signposts: An opening sequence (featuring great titles by Saul Bass and a memorable theme from Hitchcock vet Bernard Herrmann) that gets your blood pumping before the story kicks in. Hitchcock’s inevitable cameo appearance (shortly after his credit). A drunk-driving scene that ought to be shown in every driver’s-ed class through eternity. A man and a knife. A man alone in a field, save for a crop-dusting plane. The most intense auction scene ever filmed. A trip across Mount Rushmore, literally. And oh, that glorious closing shot, putting one over on the 1959 movie censors.
Here are a few more kickers to amaze your friends at trivia time. The movie’s screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, came up with the movie’s famous highpoints first and then worked with Hitchcock to build a movie around them. Cary Grant, whose role was that of a fairly youthful bon vivant, was 55 years old when he made this movie. And the woman who played his mother (brittly witty Jessie Royce Landis) was 10 months younger than Cary Grant.
Finally, let us not neglect two of Hitchcock’s most slithery villains, fey Martin Landau (with his “woman’s intuition”) and droll James Mason (whose dialogue fairly swan-dives off his tongue). All of these elements make North by Northwest a delight, either to study in film class or enjoy with other moviegoers.
Here’s a terrific trailer for the movie, narrated by The Master himself: