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
Easily a Top 5 Hitchcock film for me, alongside The Lodger, Psycho, The Birds and Rebecca. Love it.
Same here. Big fan and probably in my Top 10 as well. Find something new every time I see it.
Never tire of this Hitchcock classic. Come to think of it, should make time to watch it once more. Fine look at this, Keith.
Thanks so much. It is always fun to revisit. This particular viewing was with my kids. Trying to introduce them to the work of Hitchcock. It was a lot of fun.
One of Hitchcock’s best movie
Agreed. I never get tired of it. And Grant is so incredibly good.
I look forward to watching this in the near future. It’s this and Rear Window I’ve been dying to see for a long time and for whatever reason, still haven’t been able to. Good work Keith, this review puts it over the edge for me
Rear Window too? Oh that is a great one. My favorite Hitchcock film (if forced to choose one). Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it.
Nice review Keith. Undeniably one of Hitchcock’s best and one of my favorite movies as well. While I wouldn’t consider it Hitchcock’s strongest picture, North by Northwest is the film that in my opinion is the best exhibition of his directorial skills.
Pinpoint direction from start to finish. Never misses a beat. And I adore that performance from Grant.
This is among my 5 favorite movies of all time. This is a lot of fun and if it were to be put back in theaters and it had a good marketing team behind it. It would do very well. Thanks for posting this
You know, I think you’re probably right. It is such a great movie with all of the qualities that would still appeal to modern audiences.
Great review! I really need to see this one! I put it on my Netflix watch list – should definitely just get to it.
Absolutely. It is so good. Great Hitchcock direction and fine performances throughout. None better than Cary Grant.
Excellent review – hits all the high points that make this a classic and make you want to watch it again. I’ve always thought NNW was a precursor to Bond but I was thinking today – which films are precursor to NNW? There were spy movies, mystery romances, and perhaps notably, Hitch played in those genres. But I’ve a hard time thinking of anything that does anything quite the way Hitch does it in NNW. Anyway, thanks for the review! 🙂
Thanks so much. I love what you say. Hitch does indeed play with all sorts of genres but as you say, who does it better than he does here? Its interesting, every time I see it I find myself admiring something new I discover.
I have meant to get back here for a week to comment on your fine post about what may well be my favorite Hitchcock film (depending on what i have seen most recently). The helicopter chase in “From Russia with Love” was inspired by the crop duster sequence here. There was even talk at one point of Grant playing Bond, but that did not get far, even though it is perfectly obvious why they would have thought of it after this film.
The music for the movie always brings me in and makes the film feel taut and romantic. I love the titles and the sequence in the house behind Rushmore is great, the payoff with the blanks in the gun manages to get a laugh without diminishing the danger of the situation. The conversation between Eva Marie Saint and Grant on the train should get an R rating, it was hot without being explicit.
Martin Landau and James Mason were both great in their villainous turns, and the effete snobbery of Mason toward the CIA and Thornhill was played like it was set in Britain rather than in the States. Great stuff.
Thanks so much my friend. Everything you mention is spot on. The movie clicks on practically every level. Every angle has something pleasing to appreciate. The cast, the direction, the score, the cinematography, the pacing. Pure brilliance.
One of my favourite Hitchcock films…up there with The Birds, Psycho, Rear Window and Vertigo in my predictable top 5! I think Grant is ace in this film – very funny and extremely charismatic, while I love the set pieces you mention. Great fun and pure escapism.
Ace for sure! Grant is a favorite of mine but here he offers such a perfect glimpse at his talents in comedy, romance, and suspense. WOnderful performance.
Well duh, you KNOW I’m totally gonna dig this review. Epic work here, my friend. NbNW is in my top 10 list of fave Hitch films. Nicely done!
LOL, not surprised you’re a fan. Isn’t it a great mix of genres? I really do think it is hard to find a flaw with it.
You did the movie justice with your review, such a classic.
Thanks so much. I do love this film.
It is such a stylish and well paced movie.
Absolutely. Great mixture of humor and suspense. And that Grant performance is so perfect.
Cary Grant was a suave cool cat.
Reblogged this on Creativity, Cats & Moving Pictures and commented:
My second favourite Hitchcock movie. Great review