The Directors’ Chair: North by Northwest

The Directors’ Chair: North by Northwest (1959)



north by northwest hitchcock

A case of mistaken identity takes a dull Madison Avenue advertising exec on a journey across the United States, hooking up with a cool blonde, bidding against suave villains and chased over mountainous monuments.

cary grant north by north west, my wives divorced me. i think they said i led too dull a life.
“My wives divorced me. I think they said I led too dull a life.”

Cary Grant, dull??

cary grant, north by northwest, kidnapped in car

The movie starts off with a rousing score by Bernard Hermann over opening credits by the great Saul Bass that gets you going. What I like about what Hitchcock sometimes does is his “Show & Tell & Show” device. He SHOWS us a little of the plot, then has a character TELL us what we’ve just seen… then SHOWS us more of the plot. At least that’s how North By Northwest unspools for me. It’s Cary Grant’s last time at the rodeo in Hitchcock’s ballpark. And it’s his most physical role with the director. This is not a 1930’s Cary “Gunga Din” Grant, but a 54-year old actor who is fit as a fiddle and still gorgeous as all get out. His character, Roger Thornhill, stumbles into his mistaken identity thanks to two henchmen mistaking him for secret agent George Kaplan, who the bad guys want to kill. Grant’s denying he’s that spy falls on deaf ears; he’s got to find the real Kaplan to get him out of this mess. Grant’s search for the elusive secret agent only gets him in deeper and deeper.

Hitchcock villains are almost if not better than those in James Bond. Heading the villainy here is James Mason.

james mason, north by northwest, has anybody ever told you you overplay your roles very severely mr kaplan
“Has anybody ever told you, you overplay your roles very severely, Mr. Kaplan?”

Mason is attractive, cultured, urbane, sophisticated and unruffled. And that smooooooth voice of his… don’t get me started. He doesn’t need to get his hands dirty with all this spy business. That’s what Martin Landau is for.

martin landau, north by northwest, call it my woman's intuition
“Call it my woman’s intuition…”

I love him in this film as the ever-watchful Leonard. Always in the background, he’s like a guard dog or an Iago. He’s the man who deals with the dirty details of murder. 

Continuing his quest for George Kaplan, Cary Grant’s search takes him far from New York, out west to Chicago. It’s on his way to Chicago that Grant bumps into the Hitchcock Blonde: EVA MARIE SAINT. Now, she’s no Grace Kelly…

eva marie saint, north by northwest
eva marie saint, north by northwest, cary grant how does a girl lik you get to be a girl like you
“How does a girl like you get to be a girl like you?”

…And she doesn’t need to be. She coolly sizzles in her own right. She is soft and silky and straightforward. In the train’s dining car scene, she really puts it out there. She’s not coy. She makes no bones about what she (and every woman alive, past present and future) wants from Cary Grant. It’s a titillating and very refreshingly modern scene for a movie on the cusp of Women’s Lib.

cary grant and eva marie saint, north by northwest, train dining car, lighting a cigarette

Ohhhh, to be in her shoes!

North by Northwest is filled with double crosses, betrayal, plot twists and crop dusting where there ain’t no crops. It also contains Hitchcock’s most iconic scene, a chase in South Dakota…over the face of Mount Rushmore. It’s all pulled off believably by Cary Grant who goes from unwitting pawn…to hero, without becoming a dare-devilling James Bond. It’s all pulled off by good guys and bad guys and unwitting guys and cool blondes and Alfred Hitchcock and a train going into the tunnel.

north by northwest - you're trapped living someone else's life - who doesn't exist. well, at least there is one fringe benefit


— Theresa Brown for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Theresa’s Directors’ Chair articles here.

Theresa Brown is a native New Yorker, a Capricorn and a biker chick (rider as well as passenger). When she’s not on her motorcycle, you can find her on her couch blogging about classic films for CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. Classic films are her passion. You can find her on Twitter at @CineMava.

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8 Responses to The Directors’ Chair: North by Northwest

  1. Vienna says:

    Great writing as usual and wonderful photos, Theresa.
    One of my top 20 films.

    • Theresa Brown says:

      Hi there Vienna ~

      Thank YOU so much for reading and commenting. Hitchcock really keeps things moving. He has a bunch of his famed themes in one roller coaster ride. Thanks again.

  2. Tim says:

    This is a great film. I think the ending is so memorable too. Iconic stuff!

  3. Bernard Golden says:

    The score is outstanding. Last time I watched it the music really struck me — especially the chase across Mt. Rushmore. Without the exciting music, it’s just a couple of people crawling across rocks; with the music it’s a chase and life-threatening situation!

    • Hi there Bernard,

      I’d agree and disagree with you. Bernard Hermann’s music is exquisite accompaniment to the chase and well…everything in “North By Northwest.”

      But Hitchcock’s suspense is so riveting to me, his putting people in precarious situations is hardly unexciting. I can think of a moment or two in a Hitchcock film without a score underneath, that totally held my attention.

      Thank you for reading my piece.

  4. Colin says:

    I recently watched Twentieth Century from 1934 with Roscoe Karns as Owen O’Malley. The Twentieth Century train is departing from Chicago to New York. It was a very funny movie, so I watched it again.
    I was just watching N x NW and at 41 minutes or so in Grand Central Terminal an announcement is made about the Twentieth Century train that is departing for Chicago. Is that Roscoe Karns’ voice I’m hearing? I’m too lazy to do homework.

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