North By Northwest

Year 1959


Cary Grant as  Roger O. Thornhill
Eva Marie Saint   as Eve Kendall
James Mason as Phillip Vandamm
Leo G. Carroll as   The Professor
Martin Landau as   Lester Townsend
Director - Alfred Hitchcock
Screenwriter - Ernest Lehman
Music   - Bernard Herrmann  

Alfred Hitchcock returns to the cold war espionage genre for North by Northwest. In a case of mistaken identity, advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Grant) becomes embroiled in a murder, wrestles with foreign spies, and falls in love with Eve Kendall (Saint).

The movie has some great scenes but doesn't really capture any sense of supsense or urgency. Hitchcock is widely praised as being some sort of master director. These are the same type of people who think that Liberace was a master musician. They mistake flair for competence. Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), Sidney J. Furie (The Ipcress Files), and Peter Yates (Bullit) are worth watching before Hitchcock if you want a good yarn. Hitchcock? Capable, but the whole is usually less than the sum of the parts.

Take North by Northwest. It has some really worthwhile scenes. There's the iconic scene of Thornhill being attacked by a biplane in the middle of the corn belt. There's also the chase scene across the faces on Mount Rushmore. There's even the scene where Thornhill disrupts an art auction in order to get arrested.

All of these vignettes are entertaining. They're not plausible but they are entertaining.

Most of the movie is not plausible. The most memorable scene is when Thornhill, trying to clear his name by attempting to locate a fictitious character named Kaplan, ends up on a back road in the middle of farm country. He takes a bus to the land of dust in order to meet with Kaplan. A biplane with a machine gun attempts to kill him. Let's see... Middle of nowhere? Check. Empty street? Check. Chance to kill Thornhill while he's alone? Check. Chance of escaping by walking away? Check.

How would I do it if I were a villain? Drive up in a car, abduct Thornhill, take him to any of the nearby fields, shoot him six times in the head. Maybe even bury the body. What do these wise villains of filmdom do? Aerial assault! Somehow the bad guys got ahold of a biplane with a front mounted but rear shooting machine gun. (The bullets are fired from the front of the plane but don't hit the ground until after the plane has passed. Weird gun.) Then, the plane decides to deliberately crash into a passing oil or gas truck, which of course explodes into flames. I love those on-call exploding trucks. 1-800-IGOBOOM. It's a great scene but nonsensical.

Then there's the chase across George Washington's face. The leader of the spies, Phillip Vandamm (Mason), has a house atop Mount Rushmore. The movie asks us to believe that sitting atop Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, is a solitary house in the middle of a forest where all the spies hang out. It's within five hundred yards of the face (faces?) of Mount Rushmore. Even if such a place existed, and it was somehow allowed to be constructed on federal parkland, there would be more than one house there.

Then there's the nick 'o time ending.

I won't get into the whole thing about how Hitchcock was refused permission to film on Mount Rushmore. There're enough other things to talk about. Like Thornhill sleeping with Kendell out of wedlock, which was pretty racy for the Cary Grant image at any time and any movie in 1959.

Goofs in the movie, like a Red Cap outfit perfectly fitting Thornhill even though he took it from a man at least a half-foot shorter than him, are distracting but not to the point where they'll ruin the movie.

The dialog is pretty sharp throughout the movie. Grant's repartee with all characters is the primary reason for watching this one.

Kendall: I'm a big girl.
Thornhill: Yes. And in all the right places, too.

Thornhill: Apparently the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.
Vandamm: Your very next role. And you'll be quite convincing, I assure you.

Thornhill: Now what can a man do with his clothes off for twenty minutes? Couldn't he have taken an hour?
Kendall: You could always take a cold shower.

Kendall: I never discuss love on an empty stomach.
Thornhill: You've already eaten.
Kendall: But you haven't.

Thornhill: Well didn't you hear what I said? I want to be taken to police headquarters. I'm a dangerous assassin. I'm a mad killer on the loose.
Police Sergeant Flamm: You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

Patient surprised by Thornhill: Stop!
Thornhill: Oh, excuse me.
Patient after putting on her glasses: Stop?
Thornhill wagging a finger: Ah, ah, ah.

The music, even though not catchy, is well done and fits the tone of the movie.

It's not a great movie, so if you don't watch it there won't be a hole in your life. But, thanks to Grant it's entertaining. He even manages to make Hitchcock's usually mind numbing extended set-up scenes entertaining.

One final tidbit. The movie title comes from Shakespeare's Hamlet. In Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet says, "I am but mad north-north-west." It means that average guy Thornhill is suddenly in the crazy zone.

There's no nudity or profanity. I think I recall an instance or two of blasphemy. There's chick flick potential thanks to Grant and the lust story between his character and Kendell.

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