North by Northwest

IMDb Top 50 #37

Directed: Alfred Hitchcock

Written by: Ernest Lehman

Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau.

Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a hapless New York advertising executive that’s mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies. In an attempt to clear his name he becomes obsessed with finding the spy that he’s been mistaken for and gets swept up in a web of espionage across the U.S.

It’s no surprise that we’re seeing lots of films by Alfred Hitchcock in the IMDb Top 50. Hitchcock’s prolific career spawned some of the great classics of American cinema that have had an immeasurable influence on fans and on generations of filmmakers – and North by Northwest is no exception. Hitchcock is the master of suspense. His philosophy especially the distinction between ‘surprise’ and ‘suspense’ are best summed up in the following quote:

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”…In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.[1]

North really demonstrates a Hitchcock at the peak of style and audience manipulation powers. The style is phenomenal. Almost every shot is iconic and memorable. The over-head shot as Thornhill escapes from the hotel is one that I had to watch again and again. He manipulates you by injecting you into the midst of Roger’s day. You don’t have a context for his character. He’s on the way to meet clients, you only get a glimpse of the character before you’re transported, captured, released and hounded about his supposed true identity “George Kaplan”. ‘The Kaplan Identity’ for all intents and purposes is the Hitchcock Macguffin; a plot device in the form of some goal, or other motivator that the protagonist. Hitchcock popularized the term in 39 Steps. Hitchcock has the audience doubting whether he is who he says is – until with the addition of one of his original antagonists hiding on the fringe – we realize that Roger is in the midst of a conspiracy. First he casts a doubt over proceedings, and then he creates a face-less horde of antagonists watching his every move. Without Roger’s need to know who George Kaplan is we wouldn’t be dragged into this web of intrigue. When Vandamm think’s he’s Kaplan nothing is safe, he can’t trust anyone, nothing is out of Vandamm’s reach – even a crop duster. And what would a Hitchcock film be with not one but TWO cameos…keep an eye out.

It’s funny to see Cary Grant’s fast talking charmer Roger Thornhill the New York Ad Man. Now when North was made and Ad Man was a general job for the purpose of establishing a character really far away from Spy, everyone just accepts it. But in the wake of Mad Men I couldn’t help but think of Roger Thornhill in the offices of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price - butting heads with Lane (Jared Harris), flirting with Joan (Hendricks) and drinking with Don (Hamm) and Roger (Slattery). Grant’s really warms the audience to Roger after being slightly aloof in the beginning. I found that the further Roger (Grant) gets drawn into this perilous situation, and the more desperate he became – the more I liked him.

Courtesy DVDBeaver.com

Eve Marie Saint is the typical Hitchcock ‘Femme’ – distractingly beautiful, shot with a soft hazy lens so that you’re actually distracted by her instead of being able to be objective about her character. I still remember the first time I saw Rear Window and Grace Kelly enters Jimmy Stewart’s apartment in an evening gown. I have no idea what’s going on, but I can describe the luminous silver aura surrounding the dress (you get what I mean).

James Mason’s Vandamm is an enigma. His slimy and terribly confident demeanour makes him a harder foe to pin down. At any time that Roger confronts him, he’s not intimidated – it makes each exhange more resonant. The striking and disconcertingly young Martin Landau plays Leonard the brutal henchman. Until North I thought Martin Landau was born 60yrs plus so I was actually quite terrified that he was a young man once.

North by Northwest is a tense disorientating crime mystery; the iconic actors give memorable performances, the story is perfectly pitched and fiercely clever and under the astounding directorial eye of Alfred Hitchcock – American Cinematic God – it’s nearly flawless.  

Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman


[1] Bomb Theory is a phrase coined by Alfred Hitchcock to explain his method of creating suspenseful cinema. The following quote by The Master of Suspense himself is taken from the interview book Hitchcock, ©1983 François Truffaut, Simon and Schuster.