North by Northwest is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest films. Released in 1959, the movie tells the story of advertising executive Roger Thornhill, a man mistaken for a non-existent spy.
The story, written by Ernest Lehman, is breezy entertainment, a series of stylish set-pieces. The central plot revolves around a roll of microfilm. However, that microfilm – a McGuffin in the words of Ernest Lehman – is largely irrelevant to the enjoyment of the movie.
Ernest Lehman made the story up as he went along and he freely admitted that occasionally he painted himself into a corner. However, he always managed to extricate himself, and his characters. The finest example of this is the scene where Eve Kendall, Eva Marie Saint, pulls a gun on Roger Thornhill, Cary Grant. If you look closely, in the background you will see a young boy, one of the extras, as he places his fingers into his ears before the gun goes off. Clearly, this was not the first take and the boy was anticipating the noise. Nevertheless, Hitchcock selected this take for the final cut of his movie.
North by Northwest developed from a series of conversations between Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman. Hitchcock wanted to make a movie that included a chase scene across the famous faces at Mount Rushmore, an idea Lehman liked. Another scene that developed from Hitchcock’s fertile imagination was the aeroplane chase scene across a barren landscape. For the best part of eight minutes nothing happens in this scene, but it is gripping nonetheless.
The casting is excellent with James Mason and Martin Landau suitability menacing as the villains. However, it’s interesting to note that Jessie Royce Landis, who played Roger Thornhill’s mother, was only one year older than Cary Grant at the time (!)
The star of the movie, in my eyes, is Eva Marie Saint. She doesn’t appear until a third of the way into the movie, but from then on her combination of beauty, elegance and vulnerability is enchanting. One of her first lines is, “I never make love on an empty stomach.” However, the censors changed this to, “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.” Watch her lips in this scene and you will notice the subtle difference.
While directing Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock offered the following advice, “Lower your voice, don’t wave your hands around, and when you speak always look into Cary Grant’s eyes.” Advice that, in the movie, works to stunning effect.
North by Northwest was the working title for the movie. At one stage the title of The Man in Lincoln’s Nose was suggested, but thankfully that was rejected.
The movie includes many of Hitchcock’s trademarks, including a cameo appearance by the director at the very start of the film and his generous use of subtle lighting and overhead shots.
The film isn’t perfect, and the Studio worried that it went on for too long. The drunk driver scene at the start was inserted for humour, but it isn’t funny and it does go on for too long. The dramatic cliffhanger at the end, classic Hitchcock, is spoiled in my opinion by an abrupt ending and a cut that placed the characters on a train. That train then disappears into a tunnel in a metaphor for sex that was a cliché even in the 1950s.
Overall though North by Northwest is fine entertainment, and if you haven’t seen it you are in for a treat.