North by Northwest is a 1959 American thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason. The screenplay was written by Ernest Lehman, who wanted to write "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures".
North by Northwest is a tale of mistaken identity, with an innocent man pursued across the United States by agents of a mysterious organization who want to stop his interference in their plans to smuggle out microfilm containing government secrets.
This is one of several Hitchcock films with a music score by Bernard Herrmann and features a memorable opening title sequence by graphic designer Saul Bass. This film is generally cited as the first to feature extended use of kinetic typography in its opening credits.
Plot[edit | edit source]
Advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for "George Kaplan" and kidnapped by Valerian (Adam Williams) and Licht (Robert Ellenstein). The two take him to theLong Island estate of Lester Townsend. There he is interrogated by a man he assumes to be Townsend, but who is actually spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Vandamm orders his right-hand man Leonard (Martin Landau) to get rid of Thornhill.
Thornhill is forced to drink bourbon, but manages to escape a staged driving accident. He is unable to get the authorities or even his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) to believe what happened, especially when a woman at Townsend's residence says he got drunk at her dinner party; she also remarks that Townsend is a United Nations diplomat.
Thornhill and his mother go to Kaplan's hotel room. While there, Thornhill answers the phone; it is one of Vandamm's henchmen. Narrowly avoiding recapture, he goes to the U.N. General Assembly building to see Townsend, but finds that the diplomat is a stranger. Valerian throws a knife which hits Townsend in the back. He falls dead into Thornhill's arms. Without thinking, Thornhill removes the knife, making it appear that he is the killer. He is forced to flee.
Thornhill (Grant) on the run, attempting to travel incognito.Knowing that Kaplan has a reservation at a Chicago hotel the next day, Thornhill sneaks onto the 20th Century Limited. He meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who hides Thornhill from policemen searching the train. Unbeknownst to Thornhill, Eve is working with Vandamm and Leonard, who are in another compartment. In Chicago, Eve tells Thornhill she has arranged a meeting with Kaplan. Thornhill (Grant) stopping a truck while being attacked by the crop-duster plane. (Screenshot from the film trailer.)Thornhill travels by bus to an isolated crossroads with flat countryside all around. Another man (Malcolm Atterbury) is dropped off, but he eventually leaves. Then a crop duster dives at him. Thornhill hides in a cornfield, but the airplane dusts it with pesticide, forcing him out. Desperate, he steps in front of a speeding tank truck, which stops barely in time. The airplane crashes into the tanker.
Learning that Kaplan had already checked out before Eve claimed to have met him, Thornhill goes to Eve's room. While he is cleaning up, she leaves. From the impression of a message written on a notepad, he learns her destination: an art auction. There, he finds Vandamm, Leonard, and Eve. Vandamm purchases a Tarascan statue and departs. Thornhill tries to follow, only to find the exits covered by Valerian and Leonard. Trapped, he places nonsensical bids so that the police will be called to escort him away.
Thornhill identifies himself as the fugitive wanted for Townsend's murder, but the officers are ordered to take him to the Professor (Leo G. Carroll), a spymaster. The Professor reveals that Kaplan does not exist. He was invented to distract Vandamm from the real government agent: Eve. As he has inadvertently put Eve's life in danger, Thornhill agrees to help maintain her cover.
In Rapid City, South Dakota, Thornhill (now pretending to be Kaplan) meets Eve and Vandamm in a crowded cafeteria. He offers to let Vandamm leave the country in exchange for Eve, but is turned down. Thornhill grabs her arm, Eve shoots him and flees. He is taken away, apparently dead. Thornhill is actually unharmed, having been shot with blanks. He learns, to his dismay, that Eve, having made herself a fugitive, will accompany Vandamm out of the country that night. The Professor has Thornhill locked up to keep from interfering further.
Thornhill escapes and sneaks inside Vandamm's mountainside residence. He overhears that the statue contains microfilm. While Eve is away Leonard fires her gun at Vandamm, demonstrating the shooting was faked. Vandamm decides to throw Eve out of the airplane once they are airborne. Thornhill manages to warn her.
On the way to the airplane Eve grabs the statue, and she and Thornhill flee across the face of the Mount Rushmore monument. Valerian lunges at them but falls to his death. Eve slips and clings desperately to the steep mountainside. Thornhill grabs her hand while precariously holding on with his other hand. Leonard appears and grinds his shoe on Thornhill's hand. A police marksman shoots Leonard. Vandamm is taken into custody.
The scene transitions from Thornhill pulling Eve to safety on Mount Rushmore to him pulling her, now his wife, onto an upper bunk on a train. The final shot shows their train speeding into a tunnel.
Cast[edit | edit source]
Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill
- Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall
- James Mason as Phillip Vandamm
- Jessie Royce Landis as Clara Thornhill
- Leo G. Carroll as The Professor
- Josephine Hutchinson as Mrs. Townsend
- Philip Ober as Lester Townsend
- Martin Landau as Leonard
- Adam Williams as Valerian
- Edward Platt as Victor Larrabee
- Robert Ellenstein as Licht
- Les Tremayne as Auctioneer
- Philip Coolidge as Dr. Cross
- Patrick McVey as Sergeant Flamm
- Edward Binns as Captain Junket
- Ken Lynch as Charlie
- Malcolm Atterbury as Man at the crossroads (uncredited)
Hitchcock's cameo appearances are a signature occurrence in most of his films. In North by Northwest, he can be seen missing a bus at the end of the opening credits. There has been some speculation as to whether he made one of his rare second appearances, this time at around the 44 minute mark in drag.
MGM wanted Cyd Charisse for the role played by Eva Marie Saint. Hitchcock stood by his choice.
Origins[edit | edit source]
Alfred Hitchcock had agreed to do a film for MGM, and they had chosen an adaptation of the novel The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes. Composer Bernard Herrmann had recommended that Hitchcock work with his friend Ernest Lehman. After a couple of weeks, Lehman offered to quit saying he didn't know what to do with the story. Hitchcock told him they got along great together and they would just write something else. Lehman said that he wanted to make the ultimate Hitchcock film. Hitchcock thought for a moment then said he had always wanted to do a chase across Mount Rushmore.
Lehman and Hitchcock spitballed more ideas: a murder at the United Nations Headquarters; a murder at a car plant in Detroit; a final showdown in Alaska. Eventually they settled on the U.N. murder for the opening and the chase across Mount Rushmore for the climax.
For the central idea, Hitchcock remembered something an American journalist had told him about spies creating a fake agent as a decoy. Perhaps their hero could be mistaken for this fictitious agent and end up on the run. They bought the idea from the journalist for $10,000.
Lehman would sometimes repeat this story himself, as in the documentary Destination Hitchcock that accompanied the 2001 DVD release of the film. In his 2000 book Which Lie Did I Tell?, screenwriter William Goldman, commenting on the film, insists that it was Lehman who created North by Northwest and that many of Hitchcock's ideas were not used. Hitchcock had the idea of the hero being stranded in the middle of nowhere, but suggested the villains try to kill him with a tornado. Lehman responded, "but they're trying to kill him. How are they going to work up a cyclone?" Then, as he told an interviewer; "I just can't tell you who said what to whom, but somewhere during that afternoon, the cyclone in the sky became the crop-duster plane." Cary Grant in North by Northwest In fact, Hitchcock had been working on the story for nearly nine years prior to meeting Lehman. The "American journalist" who had the idea that influenced the director was Otis C. Guernsey, a respected reporter who was inspired by a true story during World War II when a couple of British secretaries created a fictitious agent and watched as the Germans wasted time following him around. Guernsey turned his idea into a story about an American traveling salesman who travels to the Middle East and is mistaken for a fictitious agent, becoming "saddled with a romantic and dangerous identity." Guernsey admitted that his treatment was full of "corn" and "lacking logic." He urged Hitchcock to do what he liked with the story. Hitchcock bought the sixty pages for $10,000.
Hitchcock often told journalists of an idea he had about Cary Grant hiding out from the villains inside Abraham Lincoln's nose and being given away when he sneezes. He speculated that the film could be called "The Man in Lincoln's Nose" (Lehman's version is that it was "The Man on Lincoln's Nose") or even "The Man who Sneezed in Lincoln's Nose," though he probably felt the latter was insulting to his adopted America. Hitchcock sat on the idea, waiting for the right screenwriter to develop it. At one stage "The Man in Lincoln's Nose" was touted as a collaboration with John Michael Hayes. When Lehman came on board, the traveling salesman – which had previously been suited to James Stewart – was adapted to a Madison Avenue advertising executive, a position which Lehman had formerly held. In an interview in the book Screenwriters on Screenwriting (1995), Lehman stated that he had already written much of the screenplay before coming up with critical elements of the climax.
Production[edit | edit source]
The filming of North by Northwest took place between August and December 1958 with the exception of a few re-takes that were shot in April 1959.
Filming[edit | edit source]
The car chase scene in which Thornhill is drunkenly careening along the edge of cliffs high above the ocean, supposedly on Long Island, was actually shot on the California coast, and in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, according to DVD audio commentary. However the Townsend estate is actually a Long Island Gold Coast mansion that is now the Old Westbury Gardens.
The cropduster sequence, meant to take place in northern Indiana, was shot on location on Garces Highway (155) near the towns of Wasco and Delano, north of Bakersfield in Kern County, California (35°45′38.81″N 119°33′41.52″W). Years later, in a show at the Pompidou Center called "Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences", an aerial shot of Grant in the cornfield, with a "road cutting straight through the cornrows to the edge of the screen", was said to draw on Léon Spilliaert's "Le Paquebot ou L'Estran", which features "alternating strips of sand and ocean blue bands stretch[ed] to the edge of the canvas."
The aircraft seen flying in the scene is a Naval Aircraft Factory N3N Canary, a World War II Navy pilot trainer sometimes converted for cropdusting. The aircraft that hits the truck and explodes is a wartime Stearman (Boeing Model 75) trainer. Like its N3N lookalike, many were used for agricultural purposes through the 1970s. The plane was piloted by Bob Coe, a local cropduster from Wasco. Hitchcock placed replicas of square Indiana highway signs in the scene. In an extensive list of "1001 Greatest Movie Moments" of all time, the British film magazineEmpire in its August 2009 issue ranked the cropduster scene as the best.
The shootout on Mount Rushmore at the end of the film was filmed on a replica constructed in Hollywood.
Set design[edit | edit source]
The house at the end of the film was not real. Hitchcock asked the set designers to make the set resemble a house by Frank Lloyd Wright, the most popular architect in America at the time, using the materials, form and interiors associated with him. The set was built in Culver City, where MGM's studios were located. House exteriors were matte paintings.
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A panel of fashion experts convened by GQ in 2006 said the gray suit worn by Cary Grant throughout almost the entire film was the best suit in film history, and the most influential on men's style, stating that it has since been copied forTom Cruise's character in Collateral and Ben Affleck's character in Paycheck. This sentiment has been echoed by writer Todd McEwen, who called it "gorgeous," and wrote a short story "Cary Grant's Suit" which recounts the film's plot from the viewpoint of the suit. There is some disagreement as to who tailored the suit; according to Vanity Fair magazine, it was Norton & Sons of London, although according to The Independent it was Quintino of Beverly Hills.
Eva Marie Saint's wardrobe for the film was originally entirely chosen by MGM. Hitchcock disliked MGM's selections and the actress and director went to Bergdorf Goodman in New York to select what she would wear.
Editing and post-production[edit | edit source]
In François Truffaut's book-length interview, Hitchcock/Truffaut (1967), Hitchcock said[where?] that MGM wanted North by Northwest cut by 15 minutes so the film's length would run under two hours. Hitchcock had his agent check his contract, learned that he had absolute control over the final cut, and refused.
One of Eva Marie Saint's lines in the dining car seduction scene was redubbed. She originally said "I never make love on an empty stomach," but it was changed in post-production to "I never discuss love on an empty stomach." It is said[by whom?] that the censors felt the original version was too risqué.
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Release[edit | edit source]
The trailer for North by Northwest features Hitchcock presenting himself as the owner of Alfred Hitchcock Travel Agency and telling the viewer he has made a motion picture to advertise these wonderful vacation stops.
The world premiere took place at the San Sebastian International Film Festival.
Reception[edit | edit source]
Time magazine called the film "smoothly troweled and thoroughly entertaining." A. H. Weiler of The New York Times made it a "Critic's Pick" and said it was the "year's most scenic, intriguing and merriest chase"; Weiler complimented the two leads: "Cary Grant, a veteran member of the Hitchcock acting varsity, was never more at home than in this role of the advertising-man-on-the-lam. He handles the grimaces, the surprised look, the quick smile, ... and all the derring-do with professional aplomb and grace, In casting Eva Marie Saint as his romantic vis-à-vis, Mr. Hitchcock has plumbed some talents not shown by the actress heretofore. Although she is seemingly a hard, designing type, she also emerges both the sweet heroine and a glamorous charmer."
During its two-week run at Radio City Music Hall, the film grossed $404,056, setting a record in that theater's non-holiday gross.
The film earned an estimated $5.5 million in rentals in the US and Canada during its first year of release.
The London edition of Time Out magazine, reviewing the film nearly a half-century after its initial release, commented:
Fifty years on, you could say that Hitchcock’s sleek, wry, paranoid thriller caught the zeitgeist perfectly: Cold War shadiness, secret agents of power, urbane modernism, the ant-like bustle of city life, and a hint of dread behind the sharp suits of affluence. Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill, the film’s sharply dressed ad exec who is sucked into a vortex of mistaken identity, certainly wouldn’t be out of place in Mad Men. But there’s nothing dated about this perfect storm of talent, from Hitchcock and Grant to writer Ernest Lehman (Sweet Smell of Success), co-stars James Mason and Eva Marie Saint, composer Bernard Herrmann and even designer Saul Bass, whose opening-credits sequence still manages to send a shiver down the spine.
Author and journalist Nick Clooney praised Lehman's original story and sophisticated dialogue, calling the film "certainly Alfred Hitchcock's most stylish thriller, if not his best".
North By Northwest currently holds a 100% approval rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, based on 61 reviews. The site's consensus calls the film "Gripping, suspenseful and visually iconic" and claims it "laid the groundwork for countless action thrillers to follow." The film ranks at number 98 in Empire magazines list of the 500 Greatest Films of All Time. The Writers Guild of America ranked the screenplay #21 on its list of 101 Greatest Screenplays ever written.
Themes and motifs[edit | edit source]
Hitchcock planned the film as a change of pace after his dark romantic thriller Vertigo a year earlier. In his book-length interview Hitchcock/Truffaut (1967) with François Truffaut, Hitchcock said that he wanted to do "something fun, light-hearted, and generally free of the symbolism permeating his other movies."Writer Ernest Lehman has also mocked those who look for symbolism in the film. Despite its popular appeal, the film is considered to be a masterpiece for its themes of deception, mistaken identity, and moral relativism in the Cold War era.
The title North by Northwest is a subject of debate. Many have seen it as having been taken from a line ("I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.") in Hamlet, a work also concerned with the shifty nature of reality. Hitchcock noted, in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich in 1963, "It's a fantasy. The whole film is epitomized in the title--there is no such thing as north-by-northwest on the compass."
Lehman states that he used a working title for the film of "In a Northwesterly Direction," because the film's action was to begin in New York and climax in Alaska.Then the head of the story department at MGM suggested "North by Northwest," but this was still to be a working title.Other titles were considered, including "The Man on Lincoln's Nose," but "North by Northwest" was kept because, according to Lehman, "We never did find a [better] title."
The Northwest Airlines reference in the film plays on the title.
The film's plot involves a "MacGuffin", a term popularized by Hitchcock: a physical object that everyone in the film is chasing but which has no deep relationship to the plot. Late in North by Northwest, it emerges that the spies are attempting to smuggle microfilm containing government secrets out of the country. They have been trying to kill Thornhill, whom they believe to be the agent on their trail, 'George Kaplan'.
Sign near Mt. RushmoreNorth by Northwest has been referred to as "the first James Bond film" due to its similarities with splashily colorful settings, secret agents, and an elegant, daring, wisecracking leading man opposite a sinister yet strangely charming villain.
The film's final shot – that of the train speeding into a tunnel during a romantic assignation onboard – is a famous bit of self-conscious Freudian symbolism reflecting Hitchcock's mischievous sense of humor. In the book Hitchcock / Truffaut (p. 107-108), Hitchcock called it a "phallic symbol... probably one of the most impudent shots I ever made."
Home media[edit | edit source]
North by Northwest was released on the Blu-ray Disc format in the United States on November 3, 2009 by Warner Bros. with a 1080p VC-1 encoding. This release is a special 50th anniversary edition. A 50th anniversary edition on DVD was also released by Warner Bros.
Awards[edit | edit source]
North by Northwest was nominated for three Academy Awards for Best Film Editing (George Tomasini), Best Production Design (William A. Horning, Robert F. Boyle, Merrill Pye, Henry Grace, Frank McKelvy), and Best Original Screenplay (Ernest Lehman). All three awards went instead to Ben-Hur. The film also won, for Lehman, a 1960 Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. In 1995, North by Northwest was selected for preservation in theNational Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
In June 2008, the AFI revealed its "Ten top Ten" – the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres – after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. North by Northwest was acknowledged as the seventh-best film in the mystery genre.
American Film Institute recognition
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies – #40
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – #4
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
- Phillip Vandamm – Nominated Villain
- AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores – Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – #55
- AFI's 10 Top 10 – #7 Mystery Film
Influences[edit | edit source]
The film's title is reported to have been the influence for the name of the popular annual live music festival South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, started in 1987, with the name idea coming from Louis Black, editor and co-founder of the local alternative weekly The Austin Chronicle, as a play on the Hitchcock film title.
The Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror XX" contains several scenes from the film as well as other Hitchcock films in its first segment, "Dial 'M' for Murder or Press '#' to Return to Main Menu". Bernard Herrmann's main theme from the soundtrack of North by Northwest is used extensively during that part of the episode. The Simpsons also referenced the film in a scene from the episode "Fear of Flying", when Marge and her mother (in flashback) are attacked by a biplane in a cornfield.
In the NCIS episode "Enemy on the Hill" (Season 9, episode 4), the prime suspect being pursued is named "George Kaplan" and appears to exist only on paper. Towards the end of the episode Tony realizes that their Kaplan may have been inspired by the George Kaplan in Hitchcock's North By Northwest. This ultimately leads to the arrest of the real suspect.
In the film Charley Varrick, just prior to a variant of a crop duster chase scene, a romantic scene references directional lovemaking in a round bed, specifically "south by southwest".
The third episode of the Doctor Who serial "The Deadly Assassin" includes an homage to North By Northwest, when the Doctor, who like Hitchcock's hero is also falsely accused of a politically motivated murder, is attacked by gunfire from a biplane piloted by one of his enemy's henchmen.
In the Rockford Files season 4 episode "South by Southeast," Jim Rockford is mistaken for a federal agent and sent on a mission to Mexico despite protesting his identity. Parts of the plot of the episode parallel that of "North by Northeast."