NORTH BY NORTHWEST: Quintessence of Hitchcock and Rarified Genre

Written by Christine Bamberger

U.S.A, 1959. 136 min. MGM / Loew’s Inc. Cast: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, Martin Landau; Music: Bernard Herrmann; Cinematography: Robert Burks; Produced by: Alfred Hitchcock; Written by: Ernest Lehman; Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock

During the 1950s and early 1960s there arose a type of film that I nebulously think of as the “cheerful Technicolor sex comedy.” Including such points on the spectrum as Daddy Long Legs, the Doris Day-Rock Hudson vehicles, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Bell Book and Candle, and I’d Rather Be Rich, these films have dated noticeably, but that’s part of the fun of watching them. Their particular brand of romance, especially if it had a cat-and-mouse quality, was found to blend nicely with an element of adventure. If you imagine a tale of such ilk crossed with an ultra-stylish suspensor of the noir mien, you get North by Northwest.

At the outset of the film, Roger Thornhill’s knowing secretary reminds him that he already has used a certain line with a certain girlfriend, and his mother is skeptical of everything he tells her, leading one to believe that our hero isn’t always the sincerest of men–and yet we are quickly endeared to him. Similarly, we not only forgive North by Northwest its implausibility, but find the film all the more appealing for it. Omnipresent is a kind of airy sophisticated humor that contrasts handily with the murder and mayhem that ensue, but somehow also interweaves with it. “So horribly sad,” muses one of the intelligence officers as he and his colleagues realize that Thornhill has been mistaken for the non-existent Kaplan, “how is it I feel like laughing?” Alfred Hitchcock strikes again, reminding us of the absurdity of it all.

To some extent the director had already combined all these seemingly disparate elements in Rear Window, but what makes North by Northwest even more emblematic is its neat collection of so many other recurring Hitchcock themes and trademarks. Whether screenwriter Ernest Lehman was conscious of it or not, it’s a veritable homage to every other Hitchcock film, and, like every other Hitchcock film, part of its very charm is that it never takes itself too seriously.

Like the James Bond spy thrillers that were yet to come, North by Northwest hinges on a series of incredible plot points. Why go to such elaborate lengths as to hire a crop-dusting airplane to assassinate an assumed spy when you could just meet him on an isolated Midwestern road and dispatch him with a gunshot? Because our hero’s close shave with the marauding plane is more exciting and all the more horrifying for its setting in a plebian and sunlit cornfield (portrayed in our movie by a California wheat field).

In contrast to the dark alleys and seedy walkups of film noir, North by Northwest is filled with such seemingly safe and pleasant places where nightmarish things happen: the Plaza Hotel is the site of a kidnapping, a Long Island estate a setting for interrogation and near-torture, the inside of the United Nations the scene of a stabbing (the United Nations was not too crazy about the use of its building as a setting, and Hitchcock in fact had to sneak his exterior shots of the real thing). Thornhill is menaced in the midst of a sedate Sotheby’s-style auction, shot at in the snack bar at Mount Rushmore, and finally forced to hang for dear life onto the very face of said monument.

This was not the first time Alfred Hitchcock had staged scenes of suspense in connection with notable landmarks of some kind. In Blackmail the climax of the film occurs at the British Museum; in both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, it’s the Royal Albert Hall. Farley Granger spots Robert Walker at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. in Strangers on a Train. Like the confrontation between heroes and villains scampering across the faces of Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest, Saboteur ends with a highly suspenseful denouement at the top of the Statue of Liberty.

Hitchcock’s signature theme of an innocent man/woman on the run or defending a conviction mistrusted by law enforcers is here more skillfully imparted than in any of the other 14 films from his canon that contain some variation of that guilty-until-proven-innocent scenario (Even in Hitchcock’s Notorious the heroine must prove that her character is not a “tramp,” but rather a woman going beyond the call of duty for her country–yet another aspect of the plot of North by Northwest).

Recalling Mr. Memory, who is forced to reveal the truth in The 39 Steps, the chief villains of North by Northwest (Mason and Landau) are helpless to prevent Thornhill’s public escape during the auction sequence. Usually in Hitchcock’s films we see the crowd believing along with the police or the villain that the hero is guilty when he is not, but here the crowd unwittingly forms a safety net for him–and the public place becomes safe again. Audiences laugh often during this tense but funny scene, just as they laughed earlier when Thornhill stood with a knife in his hand over a man who had been stabbed, and cried, “Listen to me, I had nothing to do with this!”

Joining a dozen marvelous “Hitchcock blondes” in the role of Eve Kendall is Eva Marie Saint as a woman who is not all she seems, but who still must operate to a degree of heartlessness to accomplish her mission. After she inexplicably protects Thornhill as he flees the police, she seduces him with an attitude startling in a (character who just may be a) good girl in a late 1950s film (“How did a girl like you ever get to be a girl like you?”). How she manages to be icy and warm all at once is a mystery, but it’s believable that Roger Thornhill would trust her so readily and then be shattered when he realizes her betrayal.

So our movie represents two kinds of film constancy: that of Hitchcock unto himself, and that of all the elegant, witty thrillers over the generations. 1959’s North by Northwest recalls the repartee in the midst of danger between William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man movies or Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in their Paramount teamings, or Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in His Kind of Woman and Macao. It also presages such films as Charade, Romancing the Stone, and the Indiana Jones yarns. In each of these, the boy and girl know the score and flirt humorously around it, even the villains are glamorous, and the suspense is real even when you know it will all turn out OK. An intoxicating mix.

Chris Bamberger Written by: