The Directors’ Chair: North by Northwest (1959)
NORTH BY NORTHWEST ( 1959 ) ~ TO BE or NOT TO BE THE SPY WHO LOVED ME
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, dull??
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.
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.
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…
…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.
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.
— Theresa Brown for Classic Movie Hub
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.