Most movie-goers will concede that, during his Hollywood years, Alfred Hitchcock crafted four masterpieces: 1954’s Rear Window, 1958’s Vertigo, 1959’s North by Northwest, and 1960’s Psycho. What divides fans and critics about these movies is choosing which one deserves to be crowned the best. Although my sympathies lie with Rear Window, one can find as many boosters for each of the other titles. Setting aside Psycho, which is an altogether different kind of motion picture (the precursor to the ’80s “slasher” genre), that leaves a trio of films that are as interesting for their similarities as for their differences.
North by Northwest was the final of these three to be made, and many consider it (at least from a plot standpoint) to be Hitchcock’s most accomplished effort. The screenplay, written by Ernest Lehman, keeps the viewer guessing but also provides answers in a timely fashion. For example, when things start going wrong for the protagonist near the beginning, we aren’t forced to wait until the closing scenes to uncover the plot against him. Enough clues are provided early that the intelligent viewer can deduce what’s going on and move to the next mystery. Such intellectual participation, always a Hitchcock hallmark, is sadly lacking in most of today’s so-called “thrillers.”
Cary Grant plays the suave and cultured Roger Thornhill – a twice married, twice divorced Madison Avenue advertising genius who finds himself inexplicably caught in a web of intrigue when he is mistaken for an international spy. Suddenly, Thornhill’s tidy life is turned upside down. He is kidnapped by the mysterious Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), nearly killed by a couple of thugs, arrested for drunk driving, and thrown into jail. Once he is released from police custody, he finds himself framed for murder and on the run. He is aided by the beautiful Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who apparently has fallen for his undeniable charms – or has she? And that’s when things are just starting to get complicated.
As is the case with many of Hitchcock’s films, including Rear Window and Vertigo, the director sets up his hero as the only one who knows the truth. His story is so preposterous that no one else believes him without a great deal of convincing. As in Rear Window, the protagonist has a girlfriend who accepts his bizarre story unconditionally, but, like in Vertigo, she’s not everything she initially seems to be. We, of course, sympathize with the hero immediately, because we know that he’s sane and is the victim of a conspiracy – even though we don’t understand what that conspiracy entails.
In his fourth and final outing for Hitchcock, Cary Grant portrays Thornhill with his usual devil-may-care charm and easy smile. It would be hard to dislike Thornhill if he was played by anyone else; it’s impossible with Grant inhabiting his skin. While this may not be the greatest performance of the actor’s career, he’s a solid choice for the part. Curiously, this role was sought by James Stewart (who played the lead in both Rear Window and Vertigo, and would have been a good match here), but Hitchcock rejected him, claiming (at least publicly) that Stewart was too old for the part. The director then proceeded to hire Grant, who was four years older than Stewart, lending credence to the rumor that bad blood had developed between the director and the actor.
Although Thornhill’s predicament in North by Northwest is not unlike that of L.B. Jefferies in Rear Window (both have vital information for the police, who won’t believe them, so they place themselves in danger to gather evidence), the overall approach is significantly different. In the earlier film, all of the action took place within the confines of Jefferies’ room. Even the events in the other apartment building are viewed through the window. In North by Northwest, Thornhill goes on a cross-country trek, beginning in New York and ending at Mount Rushmore, and traveling by plane, train, and automobile.
Another Hitchcockian element evident in North by Northwest is the idea of turning an “everyman” into a detective. This happens in Vertigo, when James Stewart’s Scottie Ferguson seeks to uncover the connection between the apparently dead Madeleine Elster and the very much alive Judy Barton. In Rear Window, Jefferies becomes increasingly convinced that a murder has happened in the apartment building opposite his, and he must find a means of proving it. In Psycho, Lila Crane and Sam Loomis go looking for Lila’s missing sister. Here, in North by Northwest, Thornhill must use clues and intuition to unravel the complicated plot that has put him on the run from the police with his life in danger.
The set designers were kept busy for North by Northwest. Most of the movie was filmed on soundstages rather than on location. There are exceptions – particularly the famous sequence in which Thornhill is forced to flee a cropdusting airplane that is trying to kill him. With only a cornfield and a few ditches as his refuge, Thornhill must repeatedly dodge the plane’s low swipes, as the pilot opens fire while bringing his wheels almost in contact with the ground. Since there was no way this could convincingly be created inside, Hitchcock took the production outdoors.
The final chase sequence across the faces of Mount Rushmore is an example of impressive and realistic design. While it’s apparent that the scenes are not actually filmed on or around the famed monument (permission to do so was denied), the life-size replicas are good enough that it’s not difficult to suspend disbelief. Likewise, the scenes inside the U.N. take place on a mock-up set that offers a strong sense of verisimilitude. The only place where the set-bound approach falters is during the car chase when a drunken Thornhill is being pursued by his would-be killers. This sequence (like many similar scenes in other movies) looks patently fake, especially by today’s standards.
Of course, the hallmark of North by Northwest is the way in which Hitchcock develops tension. It only takes one introductory scene – the one with Thornhill and his secretary in a cab – for us to lend our sympathy to the hero. From that point, with a lone exception, we see things through his eyes. There is only one scene in which we are given information that the protagonist is not privy to – when the camera takes us into a government office to shed light on Thornhill’s situation while adding deeper layers to the mystery. In fact, it’s the complexity of Thornhill’s trap and the seeming impossibility of getting out of it that builds suspense.
Of Hitchcock’s three great thrillers, North by Northwest has the most playful tone, due in large part to Grant’s participation. Vertigo and Rear Window, both with Stewart, are darker movies that invite the possibility that the hero may be losing his mind. From beginning to end, we’re sure of Thornhill’s sanity. And, although there are a few genuinely amusing moments in Rear Window, Hitchcock introduces strong comedic elements into this film. The result doesn’t diffuse the tension, but offers an occasional break from it. For a ’50s film, North by Northwest is also surprisingly forthright when it comes to sexual matters. There aren’t many euphemisms or double entendres in the interaction between Thornhill and Eve.
When it comes to the meaning of the title, there are numerous theories. One cites a quote from “Hamlet.” Another notes that the airline flown by Thornhill is “Northwest.” There’s no conclusive answer, and no reason for there to be one. The words North by Northwest are evocative enough that they doesn’t need an explanation, and, once anyone has become wrapped up in the film’s blend of suspense, romance, and mild comedy, such questions become irrelevant.