One of Hitchcock’s crowning achievements, North By Northwest remains as fun as ever and serves as the finest example of a genre it helped to create.
It’s the late 1950s, and Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) flits through Manhattan’s art-deco labyrinth like he was built from the same steel and glass that props up Madison Avenue itself. Slick, well-dressed, twice-divorced, he cuts in line at taxi ranks and dictates love letters in the same clipped, barking tone as he shouts directions. Soon enough, a mix-up at a hotel bar in which Thornhill is mistaken for a man named George Kaplan results in his kidnapping and interrogation at the hands of the ruthless Phillip Vandamme (James Mason), who refuses to take Thornhill’s ignorance as an answer and puts together arrangements for his murder. Thornhill, of course, survives, and it is his relentless attempt to satisfy his curiosity that sets North By Northwest’s chaotic mess of affairs into motion – a desperate chase across the United States as Thornhill finds himself hunted by the police, the CIA, and Vandamme’s thugs all at once from New York to Chicago and beyond, with only the stranger on a train, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who seems to be on everybody’s side except Thornhill’s.
If this sounds like a plot from one of the more far-fetched Moore-era James Bond movies, it’s not without good reason. The campy spy thrillers of the 60s and 70s owe more than a little of their DNA to the magic woven throughout North By Northwest, as do the blockbuster CGI-fests of the 90s and beyond, even extending as far as the ubiquitous algorithm-generated superhero films that dominate the modern screen; there is no route from 1940s Hollywood to modern action cinema that doesn’t stop off at a couple of Hitchcock’s most entertaining endeavours.
The pace and tone of North By Northwest are benchmarks for what came after it, and yet they have never quite been fully replicated. While the film solidly refuses to ground itself in anything but the silliest of set-ups and propositions, Hitchcock never refrains from moments of truly discomforting tension and fear that intermingle perfectly with his odic, almost romantic pastiches of the classics he builds upon.
Beyond tribute, one can possibly even view North By Northwest as a direct parody of the movies it went on to bring about. Thornhill is far from the rugged, stoic protagonists that dominated the action thrillers of the post-war era: he bemoans his awful luck out loud, almost pathetically, to anyone who may deign to listen, and his masculinity is prone to frequent ridicule and humiliation. This especially manifests itself in the form of his mother, insistent on tagging along and never fully appreciative of the danger her son faces.
Most importantly of all, despite the grand machinations and mishaps that occur behind the curtain throughout the movie, the audience is only very occasionally granted any more information than Thornhill himself. While the plot drags him from city to city and landscape to landmark, Thornhill, just like us, is only aware of one step to be made: the next one. This rule of withheld information is only broken once or twice, and each time narrative parity is restored as soon as possible after that small gap in knowledge has been exploited with the full force of Hitchcock’s bravado.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in North By Northwest ’s calling card of a sequence, in which Thornhill is sent to meet the real George Kaplan by the side of a dust road in rural Indiana. As viewers, we have already been let into the only two secrets that Thornhill hasn’t quite caught up on yet (spoilers for a 60-year-old movie ahead): Kaplan never existed to begin with, and Kendall has arranged the meeting on Vandamme’s orders.
From the outset, the situation reeks of something more than a little suspicious, and the glorious wide shots establish an open, sunny and completely unenclosed space as a site of suspicion and terror, with the iconic crop duster lurking just off in the distance. By the time Thornhill himself begins to realise what’s afoot, as a passer-by mutters to himself, “That’s funny – that plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops”, it is far too late, and from the moment the plane begins to bank towards the camera the action speaks for itself as one of Hitchcock’s most white-knuckle and iconic set pieces.
The temptation, as with any film by a director who falls into that traditional pantheon of auteurs, is to place all credit for the success of North By Northwest squarely at Hitchcock’s feet. This isn’t exactly fitting. Hitchcock’s prolonged success as one of the great mid-century directors was due, in no small part, to his ability to select and retain a cast and crew that ticked along and maintained his own idiosyncratic rhythm, often to his supervising studio’s chagrin.
Here, Cary Grant’s return as long-standing co-conspirator is nothing short of inspired, in a role that would perhaps have ill-suited Hitchcock’s other first choice star, James Stewart, while James Mason and Eva Marie Saint slip effortlessly into roles that look as though they were specifically crafted for them. The script, written to specification by Ernest Lehman, clearly bears Hitchcock’s mark of inspiration upon it, but is nonetheless a wondrous entity in and of itself; melodic and evocative on the page in a way that seems as though it could have simply been read aloud, the images conjuring themselves alongside. While this is Hitchcock’s grandest and most defining picture, it is his supporting cast that elevate it to become so.
North By Northwest remains, over the six decades since its release, one of the most eminently watchable thrillers ever filmed. Simultaneously convoluted and clear-sighted, enigmatic and yet invitingly accessible, it is so superbly parodic that it transcends mere pastiche and becomes the utmost shining example of the genre it inspired. It is as charming as it is deadly, with as much adrenaline-induction as any high-budget blockbuster that attempted to reach its heady standards, and it does so all with a hand tied behind its back and its tongue firmly in cheek. Looking back with the benefit of sixty years of hindsight, it shines in one of cinema’s most celebrated canons as the truest mark of Hitchcock’s versatility and remains standing to this day (as it likely will for many years to come) as one of the truly indefatigable stalwarts of twentieth-century film.
North by Northwest premiered at the Venice Film Festival on September 1, 1959, and was released worldwide in October-December 1959. The film is now available to watch on Digital and DVD.