By the time Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant hooked up to make “North by Northwest” both were starting the last leg of their phenomenal careers. Grant would make six more films before retiring from acting in 1967. Hitchcock would direct seven more features including “Psycho” and “The Birds”. Both were considered among the best of their craft, but they also shared something else in common. Despite their brilliance, shockingly neither ever won an Oscar for their work.
Hitchcock didn’t make it a secret that Cary Grant was among his favorite actors and this was their fourth movie together. The script was written by the great Ernest Lehman (who also never won an Oscar despite a career filled will superb work). Lehman’s ambition was through the roof. His intent was to make “the Hitchcock movie to end all Hitchcock movies”. Not an easy task but one he pulled off mightily.
The story itself takes many of the Hitchcock signatures that had developed over the years, it accentuates them, and then playfully heightens each. They’re all here – the twisty storyline, the beautiful and mysterious blonde, the McGuffin. Lehman works hard to utilize each of his cohorts’ strengths. He creates perfect settings for Hitchcock to build tension and capture grand visual spectacles. He allows Grant plenty of opportunities to show off his natural charm and sharp wit.
At times you’ll wonder if your watching a James Bond prototype. Spies, big action, a mistaken identity, a sizzling but complex romance – all of it can be found here. Grant plays Manhattan advertising executive Roger Thornhill. Or is he Roger Thornhill? A certain mysterious stranger (played with leisurely villainy by James Mason) doesn’t think so. He has two of his goons kidnap Thornhill under the impression that he is George Kaplan, a fellow they have a pretty big beef with.
From there the story makes one wild turn after another as Thornhill scrambles to find out who is after him and why? Following him are the police, the bad guys, and even a shadowy government agency. Complicating matters even more is the sexy, mystifying Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). Thornhill is seduced by her charms but puzzled by how much she knows about him. Saint doesn’t show up until halfway through and instantly injects the film with a new alluring energy as well as yet another thread of mystery.
Another Bond-ish element is how proudly it plays in the absurd and preposterous. Scaling the president’s faces on Mount Rushmore or dodging dive-bombing crop dusters is wild stuff. And let’s face it, the entire story is pretty far-fetched. But I go back to Lehman’s idea – “the Hitchcock movie to end all Hitchcock movies”. “North by Northwest” is intentionally outrageous and serves as a nice change of pace from the two darker movies it sits between in Hitchcock’s filmography – “Vertigo” and “Psycho”.
There are several other components that help make “North by Northwest” such a fabulous whole – a deviously fun Martin Landau, the auction scene (arguably Hitchcock’s funniest), a hilarious comedic turn by Jessie Royce Landis, a masterful score from Hitchcock favorite Bernard Herrmann, that now legendary Cary Grant suit. There are so many entertaining pieces. It’s lighter, flashier, and more stylish than some of Hitch’s other classics, but those are the things that make it a unique but fitting part of Hitchcock’s wonderful filmography.
VERDICT -4.5 STARS