North by Northwest is described today as Hitchcock’s most entertaining thriller, and also a foreunner of the James Bond spy movies
Director Alfred Hitchcock was once asked in an interview, “What frightens you?” He replied “I’m scared of policemen” adding, “I’m scared to death of anything that’s to do with the law. Though I’m fascinated by it, I’d hate to be involved with it myself.”
Hitchcock’s fears and anxieties dominate his film work, especially his numerous “wrong man” and “man on the run” themed movies, where innocent protagonists – wrongly accused of a crime – are vigorously pursued by the police.
In early 1958 he had completed Vertigo, which today is considered by many to be his greatest film, but on its release was certainly not a resounding commercial or critical success. Vertigo, with its complex story of a detective driven by his obsession for a woman, had one film critic describe it as, “Just another Hitchcock-and-bull story in which the mystery is not so much who done it as who cares”. A bitterly disappointed Hitchcock now found himself under pressure to show that he could still draw in audiences, and for his next movie he would return to his “innocent man in peril” formula.
MGM studios wanted Hitchcock to develop one of their valued properties as his next project. The Wreck of the Mary Deare was a best-selling novel by Hammond Innes, about an inquest into the mystery of a freighter found abandoned in the English Channel. At the time a more than interested Hitchcock accepted the offer and furthermore coaxed the critically acclaimed screenwriter, Ernest Lehman to write the screenplay. But weeks later Lehman admitted defeat and told Hitchcock that he didn’t know how to turn what is basically a courtroom drama into a “suspenseful Hitchcock movie”. “We’ll do something else then,” said Hitch. A bemused Lehman replied, “But what’ll we tell Metro?” “We won’t tell them,” replied a straight-faced Hitchcock.
There then followed a month of bouncing ideas off of each other. Lehman wanted to write a script that contained wit, glamour, sophistication and suspense. Hitch threw in a few ideas that he had always wanted to put on film – an assassination at the UN, a chase across the Presidential faces of Mount Rushmore, and a hero standing all alone in a wide open space when along comes a tornado. Lehman took off on a research trip across the US from New York to Chicago to South Dakota in order to develop the story.
Back in LA, Lehman wrote the screenplay under the title “In a Northerly Direction” and forwarded it to Hitchcock. He was delighted with Lehman’s witty and sophisticated script, as indeed were MGM when Hitchcock told them what he was planning – for they now thought they were getting two Hitchcock movies. But Hitchcock had no intention of further pursuing the Mary Deare project (which would eventually be directed by Michael Anderson), and used the allocated budget to make his alternative movie.
Hitchcock’s film, retitled North by Northwest, centres on New York advertising executive Roger Thornhill (played by the incomparably suave Cary Grant). Thornhill is put in deadly peril when he stands up at a hotel bar at the wrong moment and is mistaken for government agency operative, George Kaplan, by a ruthless foreign espionage organisation.
Thornhill is kidnapped at gunpoint by two sinister heavies and taken to a large house where he is interrogated by a Mr. Townsend. Failing to convince them of his real identity, Thornhill narrowly escapes death when, after having a bottle of bourbon poured down his throat, he is put behind the wheel of a car at the top of a winding road. He somehow gains control of the car and is promptly arrested by the police for drunk driving.
Nobody believes his kidnapping story so he tracks down Townsend, the owner of the house where he was taken, whom he locates at the United Nations General Assembly building. But when Thornhill confronts Townsend, he is not the man who interrogated him the night before – this man is a bona fide UN representative.
As a puzzled Townsend explains that his house is completely closed up with only a gardener in attendance, he suddenly gasps and falls forward with a knife embedded in his back. Supporting a now rigid Townsend, Thornhill is photographed with the knife in his hand and as a consequence becomes the “innocent man on the run”
On a train to Chicago, still intent on finding the mysterious Kaplan, Thornhill meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who helps him evade the police and railway authorities. But unbeknownst to him, she is working for the enemy spy leader, Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), who was also the fake Townsend.
Eve tells Thornhill that a meeting with Kaplan has been arranged at an isolated spot. But when Thornhill arrives at the designated Illinois highway in the middle of a desolate prairie, he is attacked by a crop-duster plane. We now learn that Kaplan, doesn’t really exist, for he is the creation of the intelligence agency to throw the foreign agents off the trail of the real counterspy the agency has placed within their ranks.
Thornhill finally discovers that Eve is the agency’s counterspy who has penetrated Vandamm’s organisation, but is about to be exposed. The movie’s exciting climax takes place on Mount Rushmore where both Thornhill and Eve are pursued across the Presidential faces by Vandamm’s thugs.
The US Department of National Parks refused to allow Hitch to shoot on the face of Mount Rushmore. Fortunately, the gifted production designer, Robert Boyle, created the amazing faces of the Presidents as well as the interiors of the United Nations building on the sound stages of MGM.
The United Nations had also banned Hitchcock from filming the assassination scenes within its hallowed halls or outside of their building. Not to be thwarted, Hitch hid his cameraman inside a carpet cleaning truck and stole a master shot of Cary Grant leaping out of a taxi, and running up the steps of the UN. If you look closely at that scene you’ll notice a man descending the steps giving Grant a second look as if to say, “My God! That’s Cary Grant!”
This was the fourth film that Grant made with Hitchcock, as together they were unbeatable. But without doubt, Grant’s character of Roger Thornhill is set upon by more hostile elements than any of the director’s other “innocent man ” movies. Grant complained incessantly that he couldn’t make head nor tail of the plot, which constantly twists and turns so much so that he thought the film would be a total flop. But Hitchcock knew that Grant’s confusion would look authentic onscreen – after all, Grant’s character had absolutely no idea what was going on, either.
Hitchcock was correct – the film was an instant box-office hit that swiftly elevated him back to the top of the list of moneymaking filmmakers. North by Northwest is described today as Hitchcock’s most entertaining thriller and also a forerunner of the James Bond spy movies. The iconic crop-duster sequence – with almost no dialogue – is a Hitchcock short story in itself, and has been studied and copied by filmmakers over the years as it never ceases to thrill and amaze in equal measure.
Moreover, North by Northwest is a perfect example of why 38 years after Hitchcock’s death, he still remains a household name.