With a climax at Mount Rushmore, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest is easily one of the director’s best films of all time.
In an alternate universe, advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) could have been portrayed by Jimmy Stewart. Film audiences should certainly be grateful that Grant got the part instead. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role to be honest. Grant’s manners are also perfect for the role, too.
Where do we begin? Thornhill is mistaken for being George Kaplan. Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) kidnaps him and takes him to Lester Townsend’s estate on Long Island. Thornhill manages to escape from them. Lucky for him, he also gets arrested. The problems only get worse for Thornhill. He encounters the real Townsend at the United Nations. Townsend would also be murdered on the scene. If you’re guessing what happens next, you’ll probably be correct. Are you guessing? I’ll hold…anyway, in trying to escape Vandamm and his crew, Thornhill meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) on the train. The rest is history.
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman struggled while trying to adapt The Wreck of Mary Deare. The classic case of writer’s block? Maybe. If not for struggling, North by Northwest probably would not have become a reality. Lehman and Hitchcock started brainstorming. The result is one of the most thrilling films of all time. You name it, this film probably has it. A murder to open the film–so maybe not at the immediate beginning. A thrilling chase atop Mount Rushmore. A crop-duster plane trying to kill Thornhill. The list goes on and on. The film’s composer, Bernard Herrmann, should also get some credit for introducing the screenwriter to the famous director.
The climax that really makes this film what it is. The crop-duster assault, too. Both are also the film’s best set pieces. Meanwhile, Grant and Saint benefit from a lenient Production Code Administration. By the time North by Northwest entered production, Code reviewers weren’t as strict as they were in prior years. Psycho was still a few years away when Hitchcock would really send his message. Hitchcock is a genius filmmaker. He knows what he wants. Very little of the script or footage were sacrificed in order to please the censors. If Breen were still in charge, the film wouldn’t be the same. Breen was stricter in his views and Hitchcock would argue for his vision.
I like the chemistry on screen between Grant and Saint. Never mind the age difference. Though I’d still like to see the film where Thornhill ends up sneezing in Lincoln’s nose.
By today’s standards, North by Northwest is a tame film. A thriller it may be but still tame. Regardless, it’s one of the best thrillers of all time.
DIRECTOR: Alfred Hitchcock
SCREENWRITER: Ernest Lehman
CAST: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis