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North by Northwest

Updated: Jul 11, 2023


Hitchcock's never had more fun putting an innocent man in danger than he did in the 1959 classic NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

Four years after he and Hitch teamed up for the superb "To Catch A Thief", Cary Grant stars as Madison Avenue advertising executive Roger Thornhill. Polished, funny and successful, Thornhill barely sits down for a lunch meeting cocktail when he's kidnapped at gunpoint by two henchmen.

Taken to a palatial mansion outside the city, Roger meets Phillip Vandamm, perfectly played by James Mason (Heaven Can Wait). Watching Mason and Grant verbally face off is a thrill in of itself, a window to another time in movies when dialogue, style and delivery was everything. Ernest Lehman (West Side Story, Black Sunday, The Sound of Music) provides one of the best screenplays in film history. It's packed with laughs, twists and turns.

Vandamm and his team think Roger is some sort of spy. Roger has no idea what they're talking about and just wants to get back to his lunch cocktail. Vandamm's right hand baddie Leonard (a very scary Martin Landau) pours half a bottle of bourbon into Roger and tries to kill him with a staged car accident, but in just the first of many escapes, Roger manages to evade them.

As Roger tries to prove to local police that he was kidnapped and threatened, he gets pulled into a very complicated plot in which he's clearly being played as the stooge by several groups.

Hitchcock stages it all brilliantly, showing us very early on that the CIA has a stake in this game. They're on the trail of Vandamm and very happy to leave Roger in the middle of one life threatening situation after another.

A very public murder happens and Roger escapes onto a train, where he meets the beautiful Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront, Superman Returns). Eve bails Roger out more than once and the two begin a train-board romance, with Roger confiding his situation to her. Kendall is one of Hitch's most fully fleshed out female leads and Saint is ahead of her time, savvy & seductive around every turn.

The last hour and 15 minutes are non-stop suspense as Roger travels 2000 miles across the country trying to track down the mysterious George Kaplan. He thinks if he can find the real Kaplan that he'll be proven innocent. Nothing is that easy in a Hitchcock thriller.

Classic film sequences pile on top of each other.

Roger gets off a bus in the middle of nowhere to meet a contact. Is that farmer on the other side of the road his man? Cars fly by on their way to distant destinations. Only a crop duster in the distance makes any noise, then arcs up through the air and comes after Roger. It's classic Hitchcock and perfectly staged long before CGI was in play.

Hitchcock tops it with the last 30 minutes, as Roger infiltrates Vandamm's futuristic mountaintop lair next to Mount Rushmore. By the time the bad guys are chasing Roger and Eve down the faces of the President's, you realize you've been on the edge of your seat for a solid hour.

Grant is perfect. He acts exactly like we all would if we were falsely accused and trying to clear our names. Okay, he does it with more wit, panache and perfect elocution than we could. He's Hitchcock's perfect innocent man, pulling us into the predicament alongside him.

During filming, Grant found the screenplay baffling, and midway through filming he famously told his director"It's a terrible script. We've already done a third of the picture and I still can't make head nor tail of it!" Hitchcock knew this confusion would only help the movie; after all, Grant's character had no idea what was going on either.


Jesse Royce Landis is also back from "To Catch a Thief", this time playing Roger's mother in a hilarious series of one-liners that she delivers like daggers. This is NOT a Mom you want at the police station if you're trying to prove you're not guilty.

Leo G. Carroll (TV's "The Man from Uncle", Strangers on a Train) is great as The Professor, the head of the CIA branch hovering over Roger's shoulder.


Two other huge attributes of this all-time great are Saul Bass's opening titles and Bernard Hermann's omnipresent music score. The two would pair up again the following year for the music and titles of Hitch's "Psycho".

NORTH BY NORTHWEST has often been called "The First James Bond" movie and it's easy to see why. The polished, witty hero, location-hopping pursuit of the bad guys and even more directly, that crop duster attack on Roger looks a LOT like the helicopter attack on Bond in "From Russia With Love".

Hitchcock and Grant have never been better.

The American Film Institute named it one of the Top 10 thrilling movies of all time and it's got a spot in the top half of my all-time Top 100.


Roger Thornhill: "Now you listen to me, I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself "slightly" killed."


Superb.

One of Hitchcock's best, NORTH BY NORTHWEST gets an A+ and annual repeat viewings that never get old.






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