North By Northwest is one of Alfred Hitchcock‘s glossiest, most strictly entertaining films of his career. After the brooding study of obsession that was Vertigo, this film doesn’t seek to probe the depths of the human psyche. It’s content to be a superbly-crafted roller coaster and better for it.
The plot reaches back to early Hitchcock films like The 39 Steps and Saboteur, with an innocent man accused of a crime and fleeing the police while trying to expose the real spy ring, which, like in Saboteur, has some pretty swanky digs.
Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a twice-divorced Madison Avenue Master-of-the-Universe type who seems to go nowhere without his secretary in tow, jotting down the notes that keep his days scheduled down to the last second. He’s meeting some friends for drinks at a hotel bar when he remembers he has to call his mother. Somehow his hand signals to the waiter are misinterpreted by two shady-looking types, who discreetly wisk a confused Thornhill out of the hotel at gunpoint and drive him to a posh mansion. There a mysterious man (James Mason) and his assistant, Leonard (Martin Landau), are convinced that Thornhill is “George Kaplan.” They apparently have issues with Mr. Kaplan, because they proceed to pour a copious amount of scotch down Thornhill’s throat and stick him behind the wheel of a car on a twisting mountain road. I think the joke here is that the advertising executive is so used to driving drunk that he manages to keep the car under control until he is stopped by the police.
Thornhill is unable to convince the police (or his mother) of his story, so he tries to track down Lester Townsend (Philip Ober), the owner of the house where he was taken. It turns out that Townsend is a United Nations official so Thornhill goes to the UN building and, posing as George Kaplan, has Townsend paged. This ends with Townsend dead and Thornhill suspected of his murder. He manages to reach Grand Central Station and board a train bound for Indianapolis, supposedly Kaplan’s next stop.
On board the train he encounters a well-polished blonde named Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who knows who and what he is but seems to think he’s charming enough that she doesn’t care if he’s a suspected murderer. She offers to help him find Kaplan but she seems to be taking her instructions from Leonard. Her assistance manages to get Thornhill out a lonely farm road being chased by a homicidal crop duster in the film’s signature action sequence.
Unlike most of Hitchcock’s work in the 1950s and 60s, North By Northwest is a fun romp, entertainment for its own sake. While most Hitchcock films feature some degree of the director’s sly but dark humor, this one this is unique in making full use of Cary Grant’s natural comedic gifts. Watching it, I was struck by the similarity to the early Bond films of a decade later. From the suave, cultured hero through the famous, glamorous locations, to the villain’s mountaintop lair, it almost seems like Cubby Broccoli was using this film as much as the Ian Fleming novels when he started shooting his spy movies. James Mason’s house atop Mount Rushmore is highly evocative of Ken Adams’ sets from the Sean Connery era of James Bond. Martin Landau fits well in the role of the villain’s main henchman, another staple of Bond films.
Another Bond trademark is the villains’ overly complicated methods of doing away with the hero, in this case getting him drunk and sticking him in a car, which only allows Thornhill the chance to escape unscathed.
Cary Grant is perfectly cast as the outwardly self-assured executive, and he would have made a hell of a James Bond if only the films had started a decade earlier. Eva Marie Saint is perhaps less successful but then her character lacks the depth of female roles in other Hitchcock films of the era. Still, I think someone like Grace Kelly might have brought a little more to the film, if only she hadn’t run off and gotten herself married to some prince. The role of Phillip Vandamm seems like it was tailor-made for James Mason, who exudes a convincingly menacing brand of sophistication.
I think there’s a good reason that North By Northwest remains one of Hitchcock’s most popular films. It shows the master director at the height of his craft, without all that messy psychological stuff found in his other films. It’s the perfect film for people who found Vertigo a bit too dark for their tastes.