Wedged between two landmark Hitchcock films in Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), North by Northwest is iconic in its own right, but it boasts sprawling adventure and a bit of a lighter tone. It’s rather like Teddy Roosevelt wedged in between Jefferson and Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore but that comes later.
Supposedly the film was once to be called In Lincoln’s Nose, but when the now famous slanted North by Northwest logo hits the screen you instantly know you’re in for something extraordinary. The title sequence is wonderfully exciting given a boost by yet another impeccable score from Bernard Hermann.
This film is once again beautifully shot in color (VistaVision), but it covers more ground than Vertigo and has far more elaborate set pieces. The action begins ordinarily enough at an office building where advertising man Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) makes his way out of the office. It’s a busy day at the office, but Roger has a dinner engagement and an evening at the theater to look forward to. His plans and his whole life are put on hold after he fatefully flags down a waiter. His actions don’t go unnoticed and two menacing men lead him off at gunpoint as he tries to head to a phone. He is utterly confused, but we know it has something to do with the name George Caplan. These men think that’s who he is, and not to be persuaded otherwise, they take him to their leader (James Mason), who is very interested to meet him. Over the course of a harrowing evening, Thornhill is left on the edge of the road in a completely drunken state to die. But instead he gets brought in on a drunk driving charge and of course, no one will believe his cockamamie story, even his skeptical mother (Jesse Royce Landis).
Next it’s onto the U.N. Building to find out who Lester Townsend is, but of course, his captors are on his trail and just like that Thornhill is framed for murder and a fugitive on the run from the thugs and the cops. He tries to get away train ticket out of town, but in order to evade the law he ducks onto a train and meets the pretty blonde Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Sainte), who extends a favor. Little does he know what her angle is. Right now all he cares about is a little tete a tete and perhaps an amorous evening.
Kendall wistfully sends her new lover off to meet Caplan. Instead, he is met by a bi-plane and once again running for his life. But the build-up of this now iconic scene is wonderful. Hitchcock utilizes his background in silents to allow the scene to progress without hardly any dialogue and it unfolds ominously. However, he proves that even on an isolated roadside stop danger can still be present. Thornhill has new opinions of Kendall now and continues following the trail of Caplan which leads him to his old nemesis (Mason) and wouldn’t you know, Eve is by his side.
Roger feels like he has everything figured out, but he gets a visit from the mysterious Professor (Leo G. Carroll), who helps straighten him out with all the business surrounding the elusive George Caplan. With this new insight, Roger goes to the Professor to Rapid City and the one and only Mount Rushmore. It’s the perfect spot for a Hitchcockian finale to satisfy the director’s flair for the thematic.
North By Northwest is fun because we get to be right alongside Grant when he gets caught up in the whole mess. Although we see the picture a little more clearly than him, all the details are not handed over to us. So in a sense Hitch lets us in on a few secrets without showing us his entire hand. The staging is also wonderful whether it is the U.N. Building (with that marvelous aerial shot), or desolate Bakersfield, and even the soundstage set up to look like the surrounding area of Mt. Rushmore. It’s such a contrast to Rear Window and it uses the scenery very effectively similar to Vertigo. Ernest Lehman’s script simply put is a lot of fun, because we have our villains, we have our romantic leads having a lot of great scenes together, and the pacing is surprisingly good. I am amazed how spry Cary Grant looks for his age (especially compared to aging Jimmy Stewart). Eva Marie Saint is great and in my estimation, she is the second best Hitchcock Blond following Grace Kelly, but you can easily disagree. James Mason plays yet another debonair villain and there are a handful of fun appearances by the likes of Martin Landau and Edward Platt.
One reason I’m constantly drawn to this film is that it feels rather like a road trip as we slowly cross the continental United States with Cary Grant. Furthermore, it’s simply good, unadulterated fun. There’s not a ton of analysis or commentary to mull over or to think deeply about (maybe some implications to the Cold War). But I’m content to sit back and watch with glee as a crop duster nearly clotheslines Cary Grant. Movies don’t get much better than this, seriously.