North by Northwest (1959)

“Now you listen to me — I’m an advertising man, not a red herring!”

Synopsis:
Successful advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is kidnapped by spies (led by James Mason) who think he is a U.S. secret agent named George Kaplan. When the police don’t believe his story, Thornhill accepts the help of a mysterious blonde (Eva Marie Saint) he meets on a train — but can she be trusted?

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
North by Northwest, one of Hitchcock’s “most enjoyable pictures”, features “outstanding performances, technical brilliance, a great deal of humor, terrific locations for suspense scenes, [and] one of Bernard Herrmann’s finest scores.” As Peary notes, even at 136 minutes, Hitchcock “keeps the picture moving” without a single dull moment, as “his characters move quickly from one locale to another”, and new plot developments continue to crop up.

North by Northwest may be the perfect movie to show new film fanatics who aren’t yet familiar with Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Not only is it consistently great fun, but it deals with some of Hitch’s favorite themes: false accusations, mistaken identities, and “everyday” men who are forced into situations where they must rise to the occasion and help those in need. The remarkably risque romance between Grant and Saint (those endless kisses in the train compartment!) is classic Hitchcock as well: it develops logically out of the proceedings, and serves as the perfect motivation for Grant’s final heroic actions. Scene after scene in North by Northwest is both memorable and humorous — and, though we suspect that everything will turn out okay in the end (it has to!), we’re never really sure how; that was Hitchcock’s genius.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Cary Grant — pitch perfect in the lead role as a man who finds himself thrust into a nightmarish situation beyond his control
    Cary Grant
  • Eva Marie Saint as Grant’s mysterious love interest
    Eva Marie Saint
  • James Mason as Phillip Van Damm, cold-hearted head of the spy ring
    Mason
  • Martin Landau in a bit role as Van Damm’s right-hand-man
    Martin Landau
  • Jessie Royce — only one year older than Grant in real life — as his mother
    Mother
  • Grant getting himself strategically thrown out of an auction
    Auction
  • Grant entering the bedroom of a strange woman, who immediately falls for him
    Bedroom
  • Grant running for his life from a lethal cropduster
    Cropdusting
  • The final climactic scene on Mt. Rushmore
    Mt. Rushmore
  • Bernard Herrmann’s riveting score

Must See?
Absolutely. This remains one of Hitchcock’s most entertaining movies, and merits repeat viewing by all film fanatics.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “North by Northwest (1959)”

  1. A once-must, mainly because it remains a well-loved Hitch flick and it does have its pleasures.

    I just don’t like it very much. But that’s my own taste. I find it kind of flimsy overall. To me, it has a great opening sequence – but then all of the intrigue about mistaken identity becomes suspect. Wouldn’t the bad guys wanting to capture the right guy be very concerned about capturing the right guy? Isn’t confirmation what they count on? I know that the mechanics of the film are aimed at the film being a crowd-pleaser – and we’re to suspend disbelief to an extent…but getting wrapped up in it has always eluded me.

    That’s not to say it doesn’t have fun stuff in it. The crop-dusting sequence remains creepy. (“He’s crop-dusting where there aren’t any crops.”) And I do think Saint gives one of her better (and sexier) performances here. I also like that Landau is quite obviously gay. (Not only does he speak of his “woman’s intuition”, but Mason suspects him of being “jealous” of Saint.) But I find certain things under-developed: Grant being so intrepid; his relationship with his mother. I could easily have watched 15 more minutes of richer detail. (Interesting how a 136-minute film is here considered long.)

    I’m also deeply disappointed that Mason gives one of his least interesting performances – hog-tied as he is to very little dialogue. I also don’t think it’s among Herrmann’s best scores, though it’s certainly as rousing as it needs to be – as if Hitch simply said, “Be rousing.”

    I always perk up (as most of us do) near the end – starting with the section taking place where Mason and Landau are hiding out in a (wonderfully) chaotically designed fortress. That is a dynamic scene (especially when Saint finds the matches). And, of course, all leads to Mount Rushmore – a dynamite, brilliantly executed and very cinematic finish! (Though the final shot is a tad school-boyish – in an ‘Aren’t we naughty?’ sort of way.)

    No, I’m not a huge fan of ‘NBN’. But I’ll concede that it should be seen.

    Hitch would soon go in a very different direction with his next film…and what a direction that would turn out to be!

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