When I am asked my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, I can never decide between North by Northwest (1959) and Psycho (1960). Different as any two pictures can be, Psycho is the best of the “creepy” Hitchcock flicks – those that cause you to snuggle on the couch with your significant other when it shows on late-night television. Meanwhile, North by Northwest is the best of Hitchcock’s “adventure” films – those that, often fueled by espionage and/or mistaken identity, take us to exotic locations and place our heroes in dire straits.
Specifically, North by Northwest stars Cary Grant as advertising executive Roger Thornhill, who is mistaken for an operative of notorious art dealer and thug Phillip Vandamm, played by James Mason. As Thornhill attempts to correct the mistaken identity and clear his name, he becomes increasingly involved in a plot to steal a roll of microfilm, supposedly containing government secrets, from inside a sculpture. As government intelligence learns Thornhill is an innocent man, they decide to let the scenario play out, lest Vandamm realize he’s chasing the wrong man and kill him. Later, Thornhill falls for Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a spy working for Vandamm who protects him from the police.
It’s the classic “innocent man caught in a wild plot” story, but it moves along at such a quick clip we don’t even care that we’ve seen this set-up many times before. In fact, North by Northwest is the very best of this type of Hollywood story. It’s been mimicked many times since – I’d even consider Silver Streak to be a humorous version of the “innocent man” story – but never implemented with such stylish tumult as in the hands of the great Hitchcock.
Holds up well
Why does North by Northwest remain a classic after almost 60 years? Well, the microfilm notwithstanding, it dates very well. There’s nothing in Ernest Lehman’s original screenplay that couldn’t take place today.
Direction and cinematography
There’s also a “you are there” feeling to North by Northwest, accomplished by cinematographer Robert Burks’ use of establishing shots and close-ups, infused with an array of red, yellow, and brown hues. Hence, several scenes have become classics. Even those who haven’t seen North by Northwest are familiar with the final shootout on Mount Rushmore. And the scene in which Thornhill is chased by a crop-duster ranks as one of the two most harrowing Hitchcock scenes ever. (The other is the shower scene in Psycho.) Throw in a drunk driving scene on a winding mountain road, and this picture has the makings of a gripping piece of cinema. It’s been called the first James Bond film – thanks to the chic clothing and locations, fused with a sly cold-war undercurrent – and I can’t dispute that categorization.
North by Northwest ultimately succeeds because of its casting and acting. While I’ve always considered Cary Grant to be an underrated comedic actor, he was never better than in this straight-man role. Mating an intelligent, horse-sense mentality with an upper-middle class John Doe sensibility, Grant is nothing short of perfect as the protagonist.
And speaking of “perfect,” who better to play the evil art dealer, thief, and all-around bad guy than James Mason? Mason never met a villain he couldn’t milk for all it was worth, and he too was never better. Through simple yet sly winks of his eyes and a languid delivery, Mason communicated stylish indifference one minute and pure immorality the next. His Vandamm character is the type who’s not above killing a woman, but might do so with a glass of wine in his other hand.
Eva Marie Saint
And while Hitchcock was at first ridiculed for casting pretty, blonde Eva Marie Saint as the femme fatale, she rose to the occasion by combining a loving exterior personality with an exotic and intriguing core. Grant’s character is initially put off, but soon falls for her the way a millionaire might fall for a lady of the evening. It’s a match made in Hitchcock’s mind, and it works.
North by Northwest is one of those films in which I would change absolutely nothing. It’s one of the two best pictures showing this entire season at the Historic Artcraft Theatre in downtown Franklin. (The other plays next week). North by Northwest will show this coming Friday and Saturday at 2:00 and 7:30. Even if you’ve seen this one before, you owe it to yourself to check out the master at work – Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense thriller North by Northwest.