NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) – MGM – Rating: ★★★★★
Color – 136 mins. – 1.66:1 aspect ratio
Principal cast: Cary Grant (Roger Thornhill), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall), James Mason (Philip VanDamm), Martin Landau (Leonard), Jessie Royce Landis (Clara Thornhill), Leo G Carroll (The Professor), Edward Platt (Victor Larrabee), Edward Binns (Captain Junket).
Produced by Alfred Hitchcock, Associate Producer Herbert Coleman
Screenplay by Ernest Lehman
Director of Photography: Robert Burks
Editor: George Tomasini
Original musical score: Bernard Herrmann
Production Design: Robert Boyle
Title sequence designed by Saul Bass
Alfred Hitchcock’s film output during his first two decades in America is astonishing, especially by today’s standards. Between 1940 and 1959, Hitchcock directed 23 feature-length films, an average of one film every 11 months. If that is not impressive enough, during this same time period he still found time to direct 14 episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, 2 TV shows for other anthology programs, and several short propaganda pieces during World War II. He also recorded his personal opening and closing remarks for 167 episodes of his television program, as well as doing extensive pre-production on several film projects that never came to fruition. Whew! I’m exhausted just listing his accomplishments.
So at any given time during this period, it was not uncommon for Hitch to be working on up to three different projects simultaneously. In the summer of 1956, he was going on a promotional tour for The Wrong Man, which he had just finished filming. His next planned film was to be Flamingo Feather, but this movie was scrapped after already being announced in the trades as a Hitchcock feature to star James Stewart. This meant that Vertigo, which was in the screenwriting phase, was moved up to be Hitch’s next feature. And what would follow Vertigo?
MGM was in turmoil at this time. At one time Hollywood’s most prestigious studio, MGM had just fired Dore Schary as studio head and stockholders were in a panic. MGM began courting Hitchcock; if the studio could announce a future Hitchcock film, shareholders would be pacified. So Hitchcock was hired to direct The Wreck of the Mary Deare for MGM upon completion of Vertigo at Paramount.
Hitchcock hired Ernest Lehman to write a screenplay for Mary Deare, but Lehman was struggling with the adaptation. He wanted to quit the project, but Hitchcock told him they would just shelve that screenplay and create something original together. And that original screenplay, which was born out of Hitchcock’s desire to stage a chase scene atop Mt. Rushmore, would become North By Northwest.
North by Northwest begins with a burst of kinetic energy; Saul Bass’ title sequence, a series of intersecting diagonal lines which become the side of a Madison Avenue skyscraper, meld with Bernard Herrmann’s driving music. The skyscraper image is followed by a montage of people in motion, and the title sequence ends with Hitchcock himself missing a bus. The message is clear; the viewer had better keep up, or be left behind. When we first see Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill he is stepping out of an elevator, walking and talking. This film begins as if we are joining a movie already in progress. There is no slow build, no exposition to set the scene; that will come later. Just a few short minutes into the movie Thornhill (Grant) has been kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity. A group of spies have mistaken him for George Kaplan, a government agent. The ringleader of the spies is Philip VanDamm, played by the impeccable James Mason. Mason questions Roger Thornhill at a large Long Island estate, then has his henchmen (led by a young Martin Landau in the role of Leonard) get him drunk and put him behind the wheel of a car, planning to drive the car off of a cliff.
Roger Thornhill manages to escape his would-be assassins and ends up in the hands of the police. We soon meet Roger’s mother, played by Jessie Royce Landis. Landis had played Grace Kelly’s mother in the Hitchcock film To Catch A Thief, and she and Cary Grant established a great rapport in that movie, so it was natural to pair them together again. Landis does a great job in this movie, despite the fact that the actress is too young to be Grant’s mother. (Many people have even said they are the same age, or that Landis is younger than Grant. Let’s put this spurious tale to rest now. Jessie Royce Landis was born on November 25, 1896, while Grant was born on January 18, 1904. So while it is true that Landis is not old enough to be Grant’s biological mother, she is over seven years older).
Thornhill begins a search for the man he was mistaken for, George Kaplan, believing that he will hold the answers to this mystery, and his mother accompanies him as he begins his search. Soon enough the spies are hot on his tail again, and he is framed for a murder at the UN building. Now public enemy number one, he sneaks aboard the 20th Century Limited train en route to Chicago, and meets Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint. It is interesting to note that Saint, the leading lady, does not make her entrance until the 44th minute of the film. And once Eva Marie Saint makes an appearance, Jessie Royce Landis does not appear in the film anymore, nor is she referenced. So Cary Grant’s character is under the thumb of his mother in the beginning section, and that female control transfers to Eva Marie Saint for the duration of the film.
This next section of the movie, as Grant and Saint converse in the train’s dining car, then later rendezvous in Saint’s sleeping compartment, are some of the most sexually charged scenes in 1950’s cinema. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s dialogue walks a subtle line, but there is nothing subtle in the way that Eva Marie Saint looks at Cary Grant; it is a bold and brazen seduction. By the end of the train sequence, the audience knows a few things that Roger Thornhill does not. Hitchcock typically liked to give the viewer information that the protagonist lacked. So by this point the viewer knows that George Kaplan does not exist, and that Eve Kendall is somehow associated with James Mason and the spies. Things are looking rather hopeless for Roger Thornhill.
Eve Kendall sends Thornhill to a supposed meeting with Kaplan on a deserted Indiana highway, where he faces another assassination attempt. The crop duster sequence is not only one of Hitchcock’s greatest triumphs, but one of the most memorable scenes in film history. Couldn’t these spies think of less elaborate ways to kill someone? It certainly seems like a lot of trouble to go to, sending a man to the middle of nowhere, so he can be gunned down by a crop dusting plane. Of course, within the confines of the movie, the viewer does not question the logic of the scene, in part because of the movie’s frenetic pace. Every scene seems a logical follow up to the preceding scene. ( I will do a deconstruction of the crop duster sequence in my next blog entry.)
This sequence marks a pivotal change in the movie; up to now Roger Thornhill has been a victim of circumstances beyond his control. He has been emasculated and manipulated like a pawn. He does not yet understand how all the pieces fit together, but he does know that he can only rely on himself if he wishes to survive. This sets up another fantastic sequence which takes place in a Chicago auction hall, where Roger Thornhill confronts Eve Kendall, VanDamm, and Leonard. VanDamm is standing behind Eve, with a hand on her shoulder, as if he is clutching a possession. At one point in conversation, VanDamm asks Eve if Thornhill was in her hotel room, to which Thornhill replies “Sure, isn’t everyone?” Hitchcock then cuts to a close up of VanDamm slowly removing his hand from Eve, which is as telling as any dialogue could be. Once again it seems that Roger Thornhill will be captured and killed, and once again he uses his wits to escape.
Finally Roger Thornhill meets an American intelligence officer known as the Professor, (Leo G. Carroll), who fills in the blanks for Thornhill. He now realizes that Eve is working for the Americans, and he realizes that he has put her at risk. This sets up the final sequence of events at Mount Rushmore, which involves much duplicity amongst the leading characters, until finally Thornhill and Grant are fleeing for their lives on the monument itself. Hitchcock was not allowed to film on the monument, so this sequence was made with some gorgeous process shots that combine matte painting with a scale model of the Rushmore faces that was build at MGM. The film ends as it began, in motion, and finally the audience can catch its collective breath.
Themes: One of the reasons that North by Northwest is such an iconic film is because it contains all of Hitchcock’s major themes. First and foremost is the innocent man falsely accused of a crime, who is trying to find the real conspirators while staying one step ahead of the police. He had already filmed variations of this theme several times (The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent, Saboteur), and while those are all good films, this movie can be seen as the culmination of his life’s work. Other prominent Hitchcock themes present in this movie include the icy blonde leading lady; the domineering mother; and the debonair gentleman antagonist. There are a handful of Hitchcock films that feature a hint of homosexuality, and there is a slight element of that here in Martin Landau’s character Leonard. Late in the film he utters the line “Call it my woman’s intuition.” And James Mason’s character accuses him of being jealous. There is certainly a suggestion here that Leonard’s feelings for his boss went beyond the professional.
Hitchcock and the censors: Alfred Hitchcock delighted in sneaking sexual subtext past the film censors, and he succeeded many times in his career. There is one line of dialogue in this movie that the censors would not approve, however. When Eva Marie Saint is talking to Cary Grant in the dining car, the original line of dialogue was “I never make love on an empty stomach.” This was unacceptable to the censors, so the line was looped to say “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.” If you watch Eva Marie’s lips, you can clearly see the dialogue does not sync up. It doesn’t really matter what she said, though, because the tone of her voice, the way she looks at Cary Grant, the way she pulls his hand towards her to light her cigarette, are as blatantly sexual as a major movie scene could be shot at the time.
Hitchcock also delighted in the final shot of the movie, which did not appear in the screenplay; it was Hitch’s own invention. As Cary Grant pulls Eva Marie Saint into the upper berth bed on the train, Hitchcock cuts outside, to a shot of a train entering a tunnel, which was a not-too-subtle mimicking of the act of sexual penetration. Hitchcock was very proud of this shot, telling the story many times.
Hitchcock and final cut: At two hours and sixteen minutes, this is the longest film of Hitchcock’s entire career. But it certainly doesn’t seem like it; the fast pace, the constant shift in location, and the witty dialogue ensure that the movie never lags. A couple of Hitchcock’s later pictures certainly feel longer (I’m talking about you, Torn Curtain and Topaz). But MGM had reservations about the movie’s length at the time. They wanted him to cut one sequence in particular: when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint meet in the woods after she has pretended to kill him, and they say their goodbyes. Hitchcock believed the scene was necessary, and after getting reassurances from his lawyer that the “final cut” clause of his contract was ironclad, he respectfully told the studio that he would not cut a frame. In the end, North by Northwest was the highest-grossing film of Hitchcock’s career to date, a massive hit with critics and audiences. This is one time where the master was right to stand his ground.
Performance: Every single performance in this film is spot-on, from the leads to the minor supporting characters. Cary Grant would remain very proud of this film until he died, and justifiably so. James Mason was so good as the bad guy, it has been suggested that his character was the prototype for a generation of James Bond villains to follow. Eva Marie Saint showed as much range as any female lead in the Hitchcock canon.
Academy awards: North by Northwest received three Oscar nominations: best original screenplay, Ernest Lehman; best film editing, George Tomasini; and best Art Direction – Color. It was another MGM picture that was the big winner at the 1960 Academy Awards – Ben-Hur. That film would dominate the night, winning 11 total Oscars. While it is hard to argue with Ben-Hur in the editing category, I honestly feel that North by Northwest got robbed in the Color Art Direction category. The sets in this movie are simply sublime, to the extent that they influenced many films that followed.
Recurring players: Cary Grant had also appeared in Suspicion, Notorious and To Catch A Thief. Jessie Royce Landis had worked with Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief. Leo G. Carroll appeared in more Hitchcock movies than any other actor, including Rebecca, Suspicion, Spellbound, The Paradine Case, and Strangers on a Train. Malcolm Atterbury would later appear in The Birds. Sara Berner, Len Hendry and Jesslyn Fax had been in Rear Window. Tommy Farrell and Robert Williams were in Strangers on a Train. Kenner G. Kemp and Bert Stevens had appeared in The Paradine Case, and would later be in Marnie. Doreen Lang was also in The Wrong Man and The Birds. Alexander Lockwood was in Saboteur and Family Plot. Frank Marlow had also been in Saboteur and Notorious. Howard Negley and Frank Wilcox were also in Notorious. Jeffrey Sayre was also an extra in Saboteur, Notorious, and Vertigo. Harry Strang and Dale Van Sickel were in Saboteur.
Where’s Hitch? Hitchcock’s cameo in this movie is impossible to miss, coming at the end of the title sequence. At about the 2:09 mark, just as his director’s credit disappears from the screen, Hitchcock attempts to board a bus, which closes the door in his face and pulls away without him.
What the actors said: Eva Marie Saint said that Hitchcock only gave her three simple instructions for her character: “Lower my voice; don’t use my hands; and look directly at Cary Grant in my scenes with him, look right into his eyes. From that, I conjured up in my mind the kind of lady he saw this woman as.”
Cary Grant, speaking of his relationship with Hitchcock, said that “Hitch and I had a rapport and understanding deeper than words.”
James Mason admitted that he enjoyed Hitchcock’s movies and found him a charming man, but admitted that he thought Hitch used actors like “animated props.”
What Hitch said: I’ll include some in-depth comments from Hitchcock in my next entry, about the crop-duster sequence.
Definitive edition: Warner Brothers blu-ray, released in 2009, is the best version available. First of all, the VistaVision transfer is breathtaking. This may be the best looking of all of Hitchcock’s films on blu-ray. The soundtrack is high quality as well. The blu-ray includes a feature-length (1 hr. 27 min.) documentary about the leading man called Cary Grant: A Class Apart, as well as three other documentaries: The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style (57 mins.), Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North by Northwest (39 mins.) and North by Northwest: One For the Ages (25 mins.) Also included is a commentary track with screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a stills gallery, two theatrical trailers, one hosted by Hitchcock, and a TV spot.