With North by Northwest (1959) Alfred Hitchcock finally hit peak Hitchcock. It has many of the tropes from his past movies such as an accidental hero with slight mother issues, a sexy blond female co-star, international villains, and a MacGuffi. However it also goes further than any of Hitchcock’s previous work by having the well-dressed protagonist embark on a crazy adventure that takes him to various set pieces that each become and more and more dangerous. On the surface it may all seem terribly silly, but crucially it is also incredibly fun.
I got the movie on DVD as part of an Alfred Hitchcock essentials collection a few years ago for Christmas, but its action set pieces are so iconic I had already seen them be parodied in pop culture many times before. For instance, the sequence where the hero is attacked by a crop duster is replicated in the spoof Wrongfully Accused, but because it is a Leslie Nielsen comedy the crop duster is a small toy plane. Then there is the final standoff at Mount Rushmore that is replicated in an episode of Pinky and the Brain of all things. As a kid I of course didn’t get the reference at the time, but both the show and the movie are Warner Bros. properties so looking back it kind of makes sense.
To be honest, I am still not 100 per cent sure what the words “North by Northwest” actually mean or have to do with the movie, but maybe like the actual plot it is irrelevant. What matters is that the main character, New York City advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a man with no extraordinary skills who ends up going on an extraordinary adventure by sheer accident. Once he raises his hand at the wrong time while at a restaurant dangerous thugs assume he is answering a call for a George Kaplan, government agent.
Held at gunpoint, Thronhill is taken to the mansion of Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) who is convinced he has captured a long-sought enemy. Thornhill of course tries his best to convince Vandamm he has kidnapped the wrong man, but either henchman Leonard (Martin Landau) is told to stage a car accident to eliminate Thornhill. Fortunately Thornhill survives the accident, so instead the bad guys up the ante by having him framed for the murder of a United Nations diplomat. Now instead of just having armed goons on his trail, Thornhill has to worry about the police, the F.B.I, or getting spotted by a complete stranger since his photo is now on the front page of the newspapers with the word “Murderer” written above.
From there the action kicks into high gear as Thornhill runs for his life and must clear his name. It is not all bad since the one person who manages to recognize him is the beautiful Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who decides to spend the night with him while on a train to Chicago. Thankfully Eve is not just a random one-night stand who immediately falls for Thornhill, but a capable character with her own agenda that she initially keeps secret from him. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the two of them have great banter over dinner.
All the intrigue, lies, and danger would drive an average man out of his wits, and Thornhill is indeed scared at various moments throughout the story, but what makes him an interesting character is how irritated he becomes with his predicament. When he finally comes face to face with an actual government operative partly responsible for this whole mess he decides to give him have a piece of his mind: “Now you listen to me, I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself ‘slightly’ killed.” Don Draper could not have said better.
Between the Saul Bass opening credits, the spy intrigue, the beautiful female lead, and a villain’s lair located at the top of Mount Rushmore I truly believes this not only feels like a movie all Hitchcock fans should own, but also an unofficial James Bond adventure. Although the stakes may not be as high, the blueprints for the screenplays are very similar and they both feature a protagonist who wears a great suit while dodging bullets.