“The Wreck of the Mary Deare” by Hammond Innes tells the mysterious tale of a cargo boat sailing on the English Channel with only one crew member. The boat is discovered by a salvage vessel…where are the rest of the crew of the cargo ship? Why has only one person “survived” whatever it is that has happened? That sounds like a good idea for a movie. It certainly seemed like a good idea for a movie to the people who decided such matters at MGM in the 1950’s and they knew exactly who could turn that story into cinematic gold; Alfred Hitchcock.
“Anyway, you have a beautiful setup in that mystery ship with a single man on board. But as soon as you go into the explanations, the whole thing becomes very trite, and the public is apt to wonder why you didn’t show the events that led up to this point. It’s really like picking out the climax of a story and putting it at the beginning. Since I was committed to Metro to do that picture, I told them that the story wouldn’t work out and suggested we do something else.”
(Alfred Hitchcock, 1962)
The something else that Hitchcock decided on was “North By Northwest”. A year before Hitch had released “Vertigo” which is now widely regarded as the greatest film ever made, it was a complex, psycho-sexual melodrama that now stands as all the evidence anyone needs to prove that Hitchcock is the greatest filmmaker of all time. There isn’t another director from any point in history who wouldn’t swap their entire career for those 128 minutes. It’s impossible to see how Hitch felt that he could make any other film…so he didn’t make any other film, he made another staggering work of genius.
The film starts with the Saul Bass designed opening titles and the Bernard Herrman score. Black lines score a green screen as the cast and crew names burn brilliantly white. Slowly the green fades to reveal that the lines are the outline of the windows of a glass fronted office building. Many Hitchcock films begin with windows; a nod to the notion of voyeurism that also marks many of his films. In the windows we see the reflections of the cars on the street…importantly we see the yellow and red cabs of the city. Planes, trains and automobiles feature prominently in the film as characters chase and are chased across the country.
Cary Grant was a rare talent, because he was the only actor whom Hitchcock didn’t appear to be completely disdainful of. Hitch had often gone on the record about how little respect he had for the “talent” but he was genuinely fond of Grant, this is borne out by the fact that he appeared in four Hitchcock films and was wanted for a fifth, “Torn Curtain”…a role that Grant turned down in favour of another leaving Hitch to settle on Paul Newman. Prior to his turn as Roger Thornhill in “North by Northwest” Grant had appeared in “Suspicion”, “Notorious” and “To Catch a Thief”. Each of those films would sit comfortably in a list of great Cary Grant movies and as comfortably in a discussion over which Hitchcock film was his best. It was a partnership that produced films of real, rare, quality.
“North by Northwest” though is the highlight of their work together. Grant gives a performance that showcases his comic talent, his leading man credentials, his range of emotion and, significantly, he provided the blueprint for a certain big screen spy from England with a licence to kill. That despite the fact that Thornhill isn’t actually a spy.
Roger O. Thornhill is a Madison Avenue advertising executive, a playboy, a bit of a rogue and, importantly, one of the best dressed men in film history. By this point in his career Cary Grant had it written into his contract that he could keep the suits he wore in the film; a nod to the fact that he was, allegedly, a very frugal (some might say miserly) individual. The suit he wears throughout “North by Northwest” is worth an article in its own right (and you can find those if you look) because not only is it beautiful but it is integral to the character.
The suit was created by Savile Row tailors Kilgour, French and Stanbury. It’s a lightweight wool, medium grey and a Glen check. Single breasted. No vents. Three buttons. Forward pleats on the trousers. As one expects, demands, from a Savile Row suit it is a work of art in its own right. When we first meet Roger Thornhill he is on his way for afternoon drinks with some clients, they are all suited too but theirs are black and, very obviously, off the peg. Thornhill in his immaculate suit immediately stands out, he is given an air of suave, sophistication and, yes, cool that an off the peg suit just wouldn’t have given him. It’s the sort of suit a hero wears.
At this meeting a case of mistaken identity sees Thornhill identified as “George Kaplan” by two foreign agents who bundle him into the back of a waiting car and take him to meet their boss. It’s another example of the “innocent man” films that Hitchcock so loved. Poor old Roger Thornhill may well be an impeccably dressed dandy but that’s not a crime…unless you come from Fife. On the way to meet his, as yet, unknown nemesis Thornhill is calm, cool and collected…even his one desperate gesture, when he tries to open the door of the car, is followed by a raised eyebrow and one word delivered with the sort of wry, devil may care attitude that Roger Moore built a career on; “Locked?”.
Thornhill is taken to the home of the Townsend family where he is locked in a library before meeting his captor, James Masons “Vandamm”. Vandamm refuses to accept Thornhills pleading that he is not the man they are looking for and effectively sentences him to death with the assistance of Martin Landau who plays Masons right hand man, Leonard. In truth the relationship between Vandamm and Leonard is more complex than master and servant. Repressed sexuality is another common theme in Hitchcocks films and on more than one occasion in “North by Northwest” meaningful glances and even more meaningful phrases are exchanged between the two. Fortunately for the films running time Thornhill escapes and a glorious game of cat and mouse is played out across the USA.
After the cars of this opening act the action switches to a train when Thornhill makes his get away from New York after being wrongly identified as the murderer of a United Nations dignitary. The train itself is a wonderful reminder of the grace and style that defined the 1950’s and 1960’s. A restaurant car that served real meals, beautiful sleeper cabins and uniformed crew. It’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s here that we meet Eve Kendall played by Eva Marie Saint. She is the obligatory Hitchcock blonde but, here, she is something more than just eye candy or a girl in need of being rescued (although she is both of those things too), she is independent, intelligent, sexually liberated and brave. Thornhill falls for her charms within seconds of meeting her and seems to forget that he is a man on the run from the police when the prospect of a night in a cramped cabin appears to be on the cards (another classic Hitchcock theme is that of confined spaces; bathrooms and bedrooms particularly) and even manages to ignore the fact that the numbers of her cabin add up to thirteen…a sure sign of impending doom.
What Thornhill doesn’t know is that Eve is in the employ of Vandamm and she sends him on a fools errand to meet the man he has been mistaken for when in actuality he is being sent to his death. Rather than simply have Eve kill Thornhill and claim self-defence Hitchcock instead delivers one of the most iconic scenes in all of cinema history. Roger makes his way to Prairie Road to await the enigmatic Kaplan. As he waits on this lonely, dusty road he is chased and attacked by a crop duster ‘plane. It’s a magnificent scene as the dapper Thornhill flings himself into the dusty road in an attempt to avoid the hail of bullets firing from the ‘plane and even taking refuge in a field of corn. Eventually the crop duster fails in spectacular fashion and Roger is able to make his way to where he believes Kaplan may be.
When Thornhill next encounters Eve he has worked out that she is in cahoots with Vandamm and he uses their meeting to find out where he is going to be…an auction room where he is attempting to purchase a statue, which is being used to secret microfilm out of the USA and into the hands of a foreign enemy. To avoid being killed by the same two goons who first kidnapped him Thornhill stages an elaborate game in order to have the police called to the auction rooms. This scene calls to mind an earlier Hitchcock film, “The 39 Steps” and, for many “North by Northwest” is simply a reboot of that film. When the police do arrive they do not take him to the nearest police station as he had hoped but, instead, deliver him into the hands of the Professor…a CIA agent who explains exactly what is going on, including revealing the fact that Eve is indeed a CIA operative working undercover to expose Vandamm.
Out of a love of his country and a desire to free the woman he has fallen in love with Thornhill agrees to an elaborate ruse designed to help Vandamm cast aside any suspicions he may have about Eve. This concludes with Eve shooting Roger in a very public place, a cafe near Mount Rushmore, before she flees the scene leaving Vandamm convinced of her loyalty. Of course she has used blank bullets and Roger is alive and well. What he doesn’t know is that Eve is not going to be set free from her strange captivity but is instead being returned to Vandamm to continue her reports on his activities.
All of this leads us to one of the most thrilling endings to a film of all time as Roger rushes to the home of Vandamm to rescue Eve. There he learns that Leonard has worked out that she has used blanks in her gun and Vandamm agrees to “deal” with her by throwing her from the ‘plane that is winging its way to his home at the top of Rushmore to take them out of the country. Roger and Eve are pursued across the faces of the Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln by Leonard and others in the Vandamm army (which sounds like a Danny Dyer film in its own right) before ultimately triumphing. It’s another classic Hitchcock moment, using public spaces and famous monuments to stage important moments in his films. Here though he outdid himself and gave audiences of the time something they could never have imagined.
Innocent man wrongly accused of a crime? Check.
Grand set pieces in famous locations? Double check (not only is there the Rushmore scene but the murder of the UN official takes place inside the UN building).
Repressed sexuality? Check (Vandamm even accuses Leonard of being jealous of Eve).
The number 13? Check (both rooms where Eve is staying have numbers that add up to 13).
The blonde? Check.
There are other recurring Hitchcockian motifs that appear in “North by Northwest” too but it would take another 2000 words to go through them all.
Hitchcock obsessives will make very compelling arguments for the likes of “Vertigo”, “Psycho”, “The Birds”, “Notorious” and “Strangers on a Train” (as well as several others) being his best films. Most of them would include “North by Northwest” in those discussions but they may well feel that it isn’t as worthy a film as the others but it’s my favourite. It’s funny, sexy, exciting, thrilling and gorgeous to look at. Such is the brilliance of Hitchcock though that by the time I’ve hit the publish button on this article I will have changed my mind and settled on another as my favourite.