North by Northwest (1959)
“The Master of Suspense weaves his greatest tale!”
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason
Synopsis: A hapless New York advertising executive is mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies, and is pursued across the country while he looks for a way to survive.
North By Northwest sees Alfred Hitchcock returning to one of his favourite themes: the innocent man wrongly accused. This time it’s Madison Avenue marketing executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) who finds himself mistaken for a secret agent by enemy agents when he grabs the attention of a bellboy in a hotel dining room who is paging George Kaplan, a fictional character created by a government agency in an attempt to flush out the enemy spies. Before he knows it, Thornhill is bundled into the back of a car and whisked to a plush home where Philip Vandamm (James Mason), posing as a man named Lester Townsend attempts to grill him for information about how much he knows about his organisation.
When he fails to extract any information from Thornhill after forcing him to drink a bottle of bourbon, VanDamm’s assistant Leonard (a skinny Martin Landau) puts the barely-conscious Thornhill in a car, planning to stage a traffic accident. However, Thornhill revives sufficiently enough to drive off and get himself arrested by the police for drunken driving. The following day, police detectives escort Thornhill to the mansion he claims he was taken to the night before, but a woman there who claims to be a friend of Thornhill’s claims he was there at a party, and drunkenly insisted on driving home.
It’s a far-fetched plot that stretches even further when, wrongly suspected of murdering the real Lester Townsend (Philip Ober), who is knifed in the UN headquarters while talking to Thornhill, our hero flees aboard a train to Chicago where he meets the icy blonde Eve (Eva Marie Saint). In other hands, this daft storyline would have proved unworkable, possibly descending into farce. But Hitchcock keeps things moving at such a frenetic pace that we barely have time to consider the implausibility of it all until after the credits have rolled.
As with most Hitchcock movies, North By Northwest contains a number of classic moments, not least of which is the famous, instantly recognisable, crop-duster scene. While it’s a wonderfully realised scene that makes terrific use of silence in the flat, bleak landscape, there’s an undeniable feel of artifice about it. If you want to kill someone it makes sense to manouevre them to some godforsaken point in the middle of nowhere – although this nowhere seems pretty busy – but why not then drive past and shoot the guy dead instead of going to the bother of piloting a crop duster? No wonder the urbane Vandamm – a wonderfully suave and sinister performance from Mason – comes a cropper (!) in the end…
I could go on about other strange choices – the casting of Jesse Royce Landis, who was only seven years older than Grant, to play Thornhill’s mother, for example – but to do so would perhaps give the wrong impression. After all Hitchcock wasn’t attempting to deliver a movie that was realistic, he was obviously more interested in creating a fast-paced, creatively-filmed piece of nonsense – a sure-fire box-office hit after the comparative failures of The Wrong Man (1956) and Vertigo (1958), his two previous movies. And he succeeded – North by Northwest recouped more than four times its budget in the United States alone.
(Reviewed 3rd September 2012)