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North by Northwest

North by Northwest(1959)

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teaser North by Northwest (1959)

SYNOPSIS

Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a successful New York advertising executive, is implicated in a murder at the United Nations and is forced to flee. He is soon captured by a spy ring who are convinced he is George Kaplan, a U.S. agent who is in possession of a top-secret microfilm. After a bungled attempt on his life by his captors, Thornhill goes to the police but they don't believe his story. In an attempt to discover who the real George Kaplan is, Thornhill embarks on his own cross-country investigation, while being pursued by both spies and government agents. The only person who appears willing to help him is a cool, mysterious blonde (Eva Marie Saint) he meets along the way.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producers: Alfred Hitchcock, Herbert Coleman
Screenplay: Ernest Lehman
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Art Direction: William A. Horning, Merrill Pye
Cast: Cary Grant (Roger O. Thornhill/George Kaplan), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall), James Mason (Phillip Vandamm), Jessie Royce Landis (Clara Thornhill), Leo G. Carroll (The Professor), Martin Landau (Leonard), Philip Ober (Lester Townsend).
C-136m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.

Why NORTH BY NORTHWEST is Essential

Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959) is one of those rare films that expertly encapsulates all the favorite plot devices and themes that have marked a film director's entire career. It has an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances, a glamorous but enigmatic blonde, an array of sophisticated and diabolically cunning villains, and the expected cameo appearance by the director. The plot is also a distillation of the best espionage film cliches while displaying an ingrained fear of the police and American institutions like the U.S. government. North By Northwest is exactly what screenwriter Ernest Lehman intended; "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures."

At the time of the film's release, Hitchcock was at the peak of his popularity with American audiences, mainly due to his weekly presence in American homes via the hit television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He capitalized on this popularity by delivering a motion picture brimming with his trademark suspense, humor, and glamour that are still the measuring stick for chase thrillers.

The studio, however, wasn't quite so appreciative. They wanted to cut the film thinking that at 136 minutes it was too long. But Hitchcock's contract prevented that, and he insisted that some of what they were trying to cut was in fact vital to the film.

James Stewart, a veteran of four Hitchcock pictures, lobbied hard for the lead role in North By Northwest. But Hitchcock, while he admired his friend and frequent lead actor, did not envision Stewart as the dashing Roger Thornhill in North By Northwest. Hitchcock was able to stall Stewart long enough until the actor was forced to start work on Bell, Book and Candle (1958) for Columbia Pictures. Besides, Hitchcock didn't have the heart to tell Stewart that he had Grant in mind all along.

Cary Grant earned a nice chunk of change for his part in North By Northwest. On top of his base salary of $450,000, Grant also earned the same profit percentage as Alfred Hitchcock, plus an extra $5,000 per day beginning seven weeks after the contract was signed and continuing until the production was complete. Those seven weeks expired before shooting even began, so Grant's bank account swelled by the end of principal photography. It was Grant's fourth and final Hitchcock film and the actor brought his usual debonair charm and a genuine sense of confusion and bewilderment to the part. During shooting Grant said to Hitchcock, "It's a terrible script. We've already done a third of the picture and I still can't make head or tail of it." The comment greatly amused Hitchcock because, far from being a flaw, it perfectly reflected what Grant's character was feeling as well.

For the female lead, MGM tried to force Hitchcock to accept Cyd Charisse, who was under contract at the time. The idea of the attractive and talented actress as the duplicitous Eve Kendall seemed plausible, but Hitchcock wasn't interested. Meanwhile, Cary Grant wanted Italian sensation Sophia Loren, whom he had become quite smitten with while working on a previous film together, Houseboat (1958). Hitchcock surprised everyone by insisting on Eva Marie Saint. Starting with her Oscar®-winning role in On the Waterfront (1954), Saint had developed a "plain Jane" image in her choice of screen characters. Why Hitchcock thought she could sufficiently portray a sexy female spy baffled many. But Hitchcock loved the challenge of molding Saint into his idea of the mysterious blonde heroine. Just as Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) molded Judy Barton's (Kim Novak) appearance in Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock personally supervised every aspect of Eva Marie Saint's transformation into Eve Kendall. "I watched every hair on her head," Hitchcock said about the wardrobe and pre-production tests. MGM commissioned two sets of wardrobe for Saint, both of which Hitchcock rejected because the clothes made Saint look like a "waif." Instead, Hitchcock took Saint on a shopping spree to Bergdorf Goodman's in New York City and bought the character's wardrobe right off the rack. By the way, see if you can read Saint's lips during her line "I never discuss love on an empty stomach" since the audio was supposedly dubbed over the original line "I never make love on an empty stomach."

Veteran scene-stealer Jessie Royce Landis landed the showy role of Cary Grant's mother. Her casting is peculiarly amusing in light of her age: she was less than a year younger than Grant. Some sources incorrectly list her as two years older than Grant.

While the story covers a wide span of the United States, filming was mostly brief location shots and extensive studio work. Hitchcock and cast started in New York in August 1958. A hidden camera was used to film Grant entering the United Nations building but they weren't able to film in the real UN lobby because it had been used somewhat inappropriately in an earlier film and all movies were forbidden there. Instead they filmed on a studio set that had been recreated as accurately as possible. (Hitchcock had gone through the real lobby with a still photographer while pretending to be a tourist and getting numerous snapshots.) The director ran into a similar problem at Mount Rushmore. The Department of Interior-which operates the monument-not only wouldn't allow filming on the actual sculpture but they also wouldn't give permission for actors to crawl over a reproduction either. A compromise was reached where the actors went between the faces instead of over them, but except for a few exteriors the whole Mount Rushmore scene was filmed at the MGM studios. (Perhaps it's a good thing that Hitchcock gave up his plan to have one of the characters erupt in a sneezing fit while hiding in a statue nose.)

The famous scene of Cary Grant being chased through a cornfield by a crop duster is an example of Hitchcock at his best. It came about because he had noticed that when most directors try to make a suspenseful scene they use tight alleyways, shadows barely visible through the gloom and the slow building tension of the approaching menace. So Hitchcock did exactly the opposite: full daylight, completely open space and a very fast machine. Similarly, most directors gradually shorten each individual shot in such a scene as a way of increasing the tension, but Hitchcock kept his shots fairly uniform so that a viewer gets a better idea of how far and where Grant is running. The finished scene lasts around seven minutes with no dialogue and is as remarkable as the shower scene he devised for Psycho a year later.

The studio, however, wasn't quite so appreciative. They wanted to cut the film thinking that at 136 minutes it was too long. But Hitchcock's contract prevented that, and he insisted that some of what they were trying to cut was in fact vital to the film.

On release, North By Northwest proved Hitchcock knew what he was doing, when it turned out to be a big hit, breaking records at Radio City Music Hall and going on to become the sixth highest grossing film for 1959 (tied with Anatomy of a Murder) which made up for the commercial disappointment of Vertigo. The New York Times and National Board of Review chose it as one of the ten best films of the year. There were three Oscar® nominations for Best Editing, Best Art Direction and for Ernest Lehman for Best Original Screenplay. (Years later, Lehman would work with Hitchcock on Family Plot (1976), one of Hitchcock's biggest commercial successes, and another script that was never filmed.)

By Scott McGee, Jeff Stafford & Lang Thompson

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teaser North by Northwest (1959)

Pop Culture 101 - NORTH BY NORTHWEST

Hitchcock received a great deal of attention for filming in and around famous places, like the United Nations and Mt. Rushmore. But anyone familiar with Hitchcock's work at the time would have pointed out that he was simply following tradition. For his first sound feature, Blackmail (1929), Hitchcock had his principal characters climbing all over the British Museum, while later on in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Albert Hall in Great Britain was the setting for the hair-raising denouement. In Saboteur (1942), the hero ends up hanging off the Statue of Liberty.

North By Northwest has been hugely influential in popular culture since its release in 1959. The international espionage coupled with exciting set pieces, widescreen color photography, and on-location shooting helped inspire the look of the James Bond series, starting with Dr. No in 1962. More recently, overt hints of the famed crop duster sequence was seen in The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998), when FBI agents Mulder and Scully are chased through a cornfield by two menacing helicopters. Robert Towne's screenplay for director John Woo's Mission: Impossible II (2000) borrowed heavily from both North By Northwest and Hitchcock's Notorious (1946).

Over dinner one night, Hitchcock related to Ernest Lehman his giddy enthusiasm for what North By Northwest is really about. He said, "Ernie, do you realize what we're doing in this picture? The audience is like a giant organ that you and I are playing. At one moment we play this note on them and get this reaction, and then we play that chord and they react that way. And someday we won't even have to make a movie---there'll be electrodes implanted in their brains, and we'll just press different buttons and they'll go 'ooooh' and 'aaaah'' and we'll frighten them, and make them laugh. Won't that be wonderful?"

by Scott McGee

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teaser North by Northwest (1959)

Trivia & Other Fun Stuff

North By Northwest was completed on a budget of $4 million dollars, which upset the MGM brass since the flick was supposed to cost less than $3 million. After its record-breaking engagement at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, the film went on to net a profit of $6.5 million in North America alone. It became the sixth highest grossing film for 1959 (tied with Anatomy of a Murder) which made up for the commercial disappointment of Vertigo.

North By Northwest went through a few interesting title changes during the script development. It was known at various times as Breathless, The Man in Lincoln's Nose, and In a Northwesterly Direction. MGM story editor Kenneth MacKenna suggested the final title. Some believe that the title is derived from a line in Hamlet: "I am but mad north-northwest," a line the title character uses to convince people of his sanity.

North By Northwest is the culmination of one of Hitchcock's favorite plot devices, of concluding the plot with a hair-raising fall from a great height. The proof is in the pudding: Murder! (1930), Jamaica Inn (1939), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Saboteur (1942), Rear Window (1954), and Vertigo (1958) are all marked by people plunging from high places.

Can you spot Hitchcock in his traditional cameo in North By Northwest? Hint: Hitchcock did not want audiences distracted from the complex plot, so he placed his cameo at the beginning of the film, just as his directorial credit rolls across the screen. Hitch, as his friends and associates called him, is the poor guy who misses the bus!

Roger Thornhill explains to Eve Kendall that his middle initial, "O", stands for nothing. This bit of dialogue is probably a joke at the expense of Hitchcock's former boss, famed Hollywood independent producer, David O. Selznick, whose middle initial stood for nothing. Hitchcock poked fun at Selznick in Rear Window, by making the villain bear more than a passing resemblance to Selznick.

Prior to shooting the scene where he hides in the upper berth in Eva Marie Saint's train compartment, Grant took a look at the set and felt it was poorly constructed. He demanded that it be rebuilt and Hitchcock obliged, trusting his judgment completely.

Look closely just before Eve Kendall shoots Roger Thornhill: you'll see a little boy in the background plug his fingers into his ears before Eve fires her gun. This is a rare instance where Hitchcock's omniscient eye missed a minor detail.

Hitchcock reportedly wanted to film Grant having a sneezing fit inside Lincoln's nostril.

Fifteen years after North By Northwest, Ernest Lehman and Alfred Hitchcock reunited for Family Plot (1976), Hitchcock's last film. They also collaborated on a script for an unrealized project calledThe Short Night, just before Hitchcock's death in 1980.

By Scott McGee

Famous Quotes from NORTH BY NORTHWEST

Roger Thornhill: And what the devil is all this about? Why was I brought here?
Phillip Vandamm: Games, must we?
Roger Thornhill: Not that I mind a slight case of abduction now and then, but I have tickets for the theater this evening, to a show I was looking forward to and I get, well, kind of *unreasonable* about things like that.
Phillip Vandamm: With such expert playacting, you make this very room a theater.

Roger Thornhill: No. No, Mother, I have not been drinking. No. No. These two men, they poured a whole bottle of bourbon into me. No, they didn't give me a chaser.

Phillip Vandamm: Has anyone ever told you that you overplay your various roles rather severely, Mr. Kaplan?

Man at Prairie Crossing: That's funny, that plane's dustin' crops where there ain't no crops.

Roger Thornhill: In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only the expedient exaggeration.

Clara Thornhill: You men aren't REALLY trying to kill my son, are you?

Eve Kendall: It's going to be a long night.
Roger Thornhill: True.
Eve Kendall: And I don't particularly like the book I've started.
Roger Thornhill: Ah.
Eve Kendall: You know what I mean?
Roger Thornhill: Ah, let me think. Yes, I know exactly what you mean.

Eve Kendall: Roger O. Thornhill. What does the O stand for?
Roger Thornhill: Nothing.

Eve Kendall: How do I know you aren't a murderer?
Roger Thornhill: You don't.
Eve Kendall: Maybe you're planning to murder me right here, tonight.
Roger Thornhill: Shall I?
Eve Kendall: Please do.

Philip Vandamm: What possessed you to come blundering in here like this? Could it be an overpowering interest in art?
Roger Thornhill: Yes, the art of survival.
Eve Kendall: He followed me here from the hotel.
Leonard: He was in your room?
Roger Thornhill: Sure. Isn't everybody?

Philip Vandamm: This matter is best disposed of from a great height, over water.

Roger Thornhill: How does a girl like you get to be a girl like you?

Roger Thornhill: I didn't realize you were an art collector. I thought you just collected corpses.

Roger Thornhill: The only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.
Phillip Vandamm: Your very next role. You'll be quite convincing, I assure you.

Phillip Vandamm: That wasn't very sporting, using real bullets.

Roger Thornhill: I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders dependent upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed.

Compiled by Scott McGee

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teaser North by Northwest (1959)

The Big Idea Behind NORTH BY NORTHWEST

North By Northwest made its way from script to screen in a rather roundabout way. Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman were under contract to MGM to adapt The Wreck of the Mary Deare, based on Hammond Innes's maritime mystery novel. But Lehman had more than a few issues regarding his involvement in the project, and he approached Hitchcock with a strong suggestion that he quit the project. Unperturbed, Hitchcock said, "Don't be silly, Ernie. We get along so well together, we'll simply do something else." Lehman liked the idea, but still fretted on what to tell the MGM brass. Hitchcock smiled and said, "We won't tell them anything." For weeks, Hitchcock and his young screenwriter talked about food, fine wines, the latest scandals and everything but their still-undecided film. Finally, they got around to actually earning the money MGM was paying them every week, but neither one of the filmmakers could agree on a story idea, until Lehman simply said, "I want to do a Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures, Hitch." The director was receptive to that idea and wistfully added, "I've always wanted to do a chase sequence across the faces of Mount Rushmore." Thus, the seed for North By Northwest was planted. So while Hitchcock was filming Vertigo (1958) the two would get together and thrash out the script and further plans for a film that was then called In a Northwesterly Direction. (Oddly enough it was also briefly titled Breathless which a year later would be the English title of the debut feature from Jean-Luc Godard, a rabid Hitchcock fan.) The resulting screenplay was tight, balanced and intricate; Hitchcock later told Francois Truffaut that, "In this picture nothing was left to chance." The script also made liberal use of the MacGuffin, Hitchcock's name for a device that keeps the story in motion even though in itself it's practically meaningless. The key MacGuffin in North By Northwest is the secret information sought by James Mason's sinister operation even though we never learn why it matters. This was Hitchcock's personal favorite, one he said had "been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!" By the way, Hitchcock and Lehman never did make The Wreck of the Mary Deare. Michael Anderson ended up directing that one with Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston.

North By Northwest may have been inspired by a famous international espionage case called "The Galindez Affair." Jesus de Galindez was a Spaniard living in exile in New York City in 1956. While earning a living as a teacher at Columbia University, he was preparing a doctoral dissertation on the repressive Trujillo government in the Dominican Republic. Agents from the Trujillo government tried to bribe Galindez in order to prevent the dissertation from being published, but to no avail. On the evening of March 12, 1956, Galindez entered a Manhattan subway and disappeared without a trace. "The Galindez Affair" soon became an item of international interest, even being referred to on several occasions by President Eisenhower in press conferences. After several months though, no new leads appeared in the newspapers and the story ended without a resolution.

It is possible that Hitchcock and Lehman modeled the slightly sinister Leo G. Carroll character, head of the American Intelligence Agency, on John Foster Dulles (Secretary of State from 1953-1959) and his brother, Allen W. Dulles (head of the CIA from 1953-1961). The physical resemblance between Carroll's professor character and the two Dulles brothers is rather startling.

Lehman knew he wanted his hero to be an innocent man, possibly a sports announcer, a newspaperman, an advertising executive, or even a Frank Sinatra-type entertainer, but he couldn't figure out how the hero gets into trouble. Hitchcock ended his dilemma by recalling a story idea a New York newspaperman had once given him at a cocktail party - an idea about some government agency creating a nonexistent decoy agent to throw the villains off the trail of a real government agent. It did not take Lehman and Hitchcock long to concoct a similar phantom agent for their plot purposes.

Alfred Hitchcock, in a celebrated interview with French film critic and director Francois Truffaut, discussed the inspiration behind the famous crop duster attack. Hitchcock said: "I'll tell you how the idea came about. I found I was faced with the old clich situation: the man who is put on the spot, probably to be shot. Now, how is this usually done? A dark night at a narrow intersection of the city. The waiting victim standing in a pool of light under the street lamp. The cobbles are washed with the recent rains. A close-up of a black cat slinking along against the wall of a house. A shot of a window, with a furtive face pulling back the curtain to look out. The slow approach of a black limousine, et cetera, et cetera. Now, what was the antithesis of a scene like this? No darkness, no pool of light, no mysterious figures in windows. Just nothing. Just bright sunshine and a blank, open countryside with barely a house or tree in which any lurking menaces could hide."

By Scott McGee & Lang Thompson

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teaser North by Northwest (1959)

Behind the Camera on NORTH BY NORTHWEST

Cary Grant's entrance into the United Nations Building was a bit trickier than it looks on screen. It turns out that it was prohibited to film on the grounds of the U.N. To circumvent this inconvenience, Hitchcock concealed a massive VistaVision camera inside a carpet cleaning truck and filmed Grant getting out of a cab and walking up the steps to the U.N. This establishing master shot includes actual U.N. security officers who were unaware they were being filmed.

The director ran into a similar problem at Mount Rushmore. The Department of Interior-which operates the monument-not only wouldn't allow filming on the actual sculpture but they also wouldn't give permission for actors to crawl over a reproduction. A compromise was reached where the actors went between the faces instead of over them, but except for a few exteriors the whole Mount Rushmore scene was filmed at the MGM studios. (Perhaps it's a good thing that Hitchcock gave up his plan to have one of the characters erupt in a sneezing fit while hiding in a statue nose.)

Hitchcock wanted the story to make a pit stop in Detroit, Michigan, where Roger Thornhill would drop by an automobile plant. As Thornhill and a factory worker discussed the factory foreman, a possible link to the mystery Thornhill was embroiled in, they would walk along the assembly line as a car was put together from the most basic rudimentary parts to the final panel. Then, as the car was to roll off the assembly line ready to drive, the factory worker would open the passenger door and out would roll the body of the foreman they had been discussing. Hitchcock loved the idea, as did Ernest Lehman, but neither one of them could figure out how to plausibly incorporate the scene into the story, so the idea was scrapped.

MGM put a great deal of pressure on Hitchcock to eliminate the scene in the woods, after Eve shoots Roger. MGM felt that it was an unnecessary scene that incurred the needless expense of building the set on a soundstage using 100 ponderosa pines. Hitchcock, however, felt that it was an indispensable scene because it's the first meeting between Roger and Eva since he learned she was a double agent. Hitchcock won out in the end, thanks to his contract that gave him complete artistic control of the picture, regardless of production time or cost.

Although he is best known as the composer of the score for North By Northwest, Bernard Herrmann is really indirectly responsible for the creation of the film; it was Herrmann who first introduced Ernest Lehman to Alfred Hitchcock. Their subsequent collaboration resulted in one of the most famous chase thrillers of all time.

Screenwriter Ernest Lehman took a two-week research trip through New York, the United Nations, Glen Cove, Long Island, the 20th Century Limited, Chicago, the Ambassador East Hotel, and Mount Rushmore in order to convincingly plot his narrative.

By Scott McGee & Lang Thompson

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teaser North by Northwest (1959)

The Critics' Corner on NORTH BY NORTHWEST

Critical reaction to North By Northwest was overwhelmingly positive. It was praised by the critics and public alike as one of Hitchcock's great films and one of the best films of the year. This was a welcome return to positive reviews for Hitchcock, after the confused and often negative reception accorded Vertigo, 1958. (Ironically, the latter is now widely acknowledged as a masterpiece by most film historians and critics.)

Variety declared the crop duster attack sequence "a brilliant use of location," a scene that "would not have one-tenth its effect if done in a studio, no matter how skillfully contrived."

Saturday Review wrote: "Much the best Hitchcock that has come along in some years, and it is probably due to the fact that his situation, this time, has allowed him to indulge his fancy for all sorts of playfully macabre moments. If, by the way, you like to take your suspense straight, the movie has all that's necessary to keep you on the edge of your seat."

The New York Herald Tribune reported that it was "one of the wildest and most entertaining movie marathons of the summer season."

The New York Times said: "A suspenseful and delightful Cook's Tour of some of the more photogenic spots in these United States....It is all done in brisk, genuinely witty and sophisticated style."

"From the glossy '60s-style surface of Saul Bass' credit sequence to Hitchcock's almost audible chortle at his final phallic image, North by Northwest treads a bizarre tightrope between sex and repression, nightmarish thriller and urbane comedy...All in all, an improbable classic." - Helen MacKintosh, TimeOut Film Guide.

"Delightful chase comedy-thriller with a touch of sex, a kind of compendium of its director's best work, with memories of The 39 Steps, Saboteur and Foreign Correspondent among them." - Halliwell's Film & Video Guide.

"Running at over two hours, Hitch is able to pack in many memorable sequences including the famous crop-dusting scene. While each of them excels in intrigue and suspense, he cleverly links them with black humour. Hitch delivers these emotional highs and lows with perfect timing, allowing moments of relief to break out before mounting another crescendo of excitement. The effect is like a grand musical work, conducted with bravura audience manipulation." - Almar Haflidason, BBC.co.uk.

Awards & Honors

Despite all of the praise North By Northwest received, it was overlooked at Academy Award time. While the film did garner nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Editing, and Art Direction, it failed to be nominated for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, or Score. Given the film's stellar reputation today, it seems inconceivable that it could fail to be nominated for at least Best Picture. But North By Northwest happened to be released during a crowded year, dominated by Ben-Hur (1959), which went on to win eleven Academy Awards. Other competition included The Diary of Anne Frank, The Nun's Story, Some Like It Hot, Anatomy of a Murder, and Room at the Top.

North By Northwest was completed on a budget of $4 million dollars, which upset the MGM brass since the flick was supposed to cost less than $3 million. After its record-breaking engagement at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, the film went on to net a profit of $6.5 million in North America alone. It became the sixth highest grossing film for 1959 (tied with Anatomy of a Murder) which made up for the commercial disappointment of Vertigo.

Compiled by Scott McGee & Jeff Stafford

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teaser North by Northwest (1959)

"I want to do a Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures" is the comment screenwriter Ernest Lehman made to Alfred Hitchcock one day in 1957. With North by Northwest (1959) the ultimate Hitchcock picture is exactly what they produced. All of Hitchcock's trademark themes are here in the story of an everyday man (Cary Grant) caught up in a swirl of mysterious events (spies chasing microfilm) while being helped by a beautiful blonde (Eva Marie Saint). There's a gripping, imaginative chase scene and the entire film wraps up at an unexpected public landmark (Mount Rushmore).

North by Northwest came into existence when Hitchcock and writer Ernest Lehman hit a brick wall while working on the nautical thriller, The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959). They messed around for a few weeks while telling the studio the project was going great until one day Lehman thought of creating a pure Hitchcock film. The director could never resist a challenge and immediately clicked with the idea, especially since he'd longed to use Mount Rushmore as a location but never had an appropriate project. So while Hitchcock was filming Vertigo (1958) the two would get together and thrash out the script and further plans for a film that was then called In a Northwesterly Direction. (Oddly enough it was also briefly titled Breathless which a year later would be the English title of the debut feature from Jean-Luc Godard, a rabid Hitchcock fan.) The resulting screenplay was tight, balanced and intricate; Hitchcock later told Francois Truffaut that "In this picture nothing was left to chance." The script also made liberal use of the MacGuffin, Hitchcock's name for a device that keeps the story in motion even though in itself it's practically meaningless. The key MacGuffin in North by Northwest is the secret information sought by James Mason's sinister operation even though we never learn why it matters. This was Hitchcock's personal favorite, one he said had "been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!" By the way, Hitchcock and Lehman never did make The Wreck of the Mary Deare. Michael Anderson ended up directing that one with Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston.

From the beginning, Hitchcock and Lehman planned on casting Cary Grant as their innocent leading man even though James Stewart showed extreme interest in the project despite his ignorance of the plot. (When Stewart left to film Bell, Book and Candle (1958), Hitchcock was relieved of the unpleasant task of telling him he didn't get the role.) Thanks to Grant's contractual percentages and a daily pay rate that kicked in when the film took longer than expected for completion, the actor made quite a bit of money from his participation in North by Northwest. It was his fourth and final Hitchcock film and Grant brought his usual debonair charm and a genuine sense of confusion and bewilderment to the part. During shooting Grant said to Hitchcock, "It's a terrible script. We've already done a third of the picture and I still can't make head or tail of it." The comment greatly amused Hitchcock because, far from being a flaw, that exactly mirrored what Grant's character was feeling as well.

For the role of the woman spy there was some minor conflict. Grant pushed to have Sophia Loren because he at one time had romantic interest in her but she left to film Two Women in Italy. The studio wanted Cyd Charisse. Hitchcock of course preferred one of his trademark blondes and gave the part to Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront (1954), even personally picking out most of her on-screen wardrobe. By the way, see if you can read Saint's lips during her line "I never discuss love on an empty stomach" since the audio was supposedly dubbed over the original line "I never make love on an empty stomach."

While the story covers a wide span of the United States, filming was mostly brief location shots and extensive studio work. Hitchcock and cast started in New York in August 1958. A hidden camera was used to film Grant entering the United Nations building but they weren't able to film in the real UN lobby because it had been used somewhat inappropriately in an earlier film so all movies were forbidden there. Instead they filmed on a studio set that had been recreated as accurately as possible. (Hitchcock had gone through the real lobby with a still photographer while pretending to be a tourist and getting numerous snapshots.) The director ran into a similar problem at Mount Rushmore. The Department of Interior - which operates the monument - not only wouldn't allow filming on the actual sculpture but they also wouldn't give permission for actors to crawl over a reproduction either. A compromise was reached where the actors went between the faces instead of over them, but except for a few exteriors the whole Mount Rushmore scene was filmed at the MGM studios. (Perhaps it's a good thing that Hitchcock gave up his plan to have one of the characters erupt in a sneezing fit while hiding in a statue nose.)

The famous scene of Cary Grant being chased through a cornfield by a crop duster is an example of Hitchcock at his best. It came about because he had noticed that when most directors try to make a suspenseful scene they use tight alleyways, shadows barely visible through the gloom and the slow building tension of the approaching menace. So Hitchcock did exactly the opposite: full daylight, completely open space and a very fast machine. Similarly, most directors gradually shorten each individual shot in such a scene as a way of increasing the tension, but Hitchcock kept his shots fairly uniform so that a viewer gets a better idea of how far and where Grant is running. The finished scene lasts around seven minutes with no dialogue and is as remarkable as the shower scene he devised for Psycho a year later.

The studio, however, wasn't quite so appreciative. They wanted to cut the film thinking that at 136 minutes it was too long. But Hitchcock's contract prevented that, and he insisted that some of what they were trying to cut was in fact vital to the film.

On release, North by Northwest proved Hitchcock knew what he was doing, when it turned out to be a big hit, breaking records at Radio City Music Hall and going on to become the sixth highest grossing film for 1959 (tied with Anatomy of a Murder) which made up for the commercial disappointment of Vertigo. The New York Times and National Board of Review chose it as one of the ten best films of the year. There were three Oscar© nominations for Best Editing, Best Art Direction and for Ernest Lehman for Best Original Screenplay. (Years later, Lehman would work with Hitchcock on Family Plot (1976), one of Hitchcock's biggest commercial successes, and another script that was never filmed.)

Director:Alfred Hitchcock
Producers:Alfred Hitchcock, Herbert Coleman
Screenplay:Ernest Lehman
Cinematography:Robert Burks
Music:Bernard Herrmann
Art Direction:William A. Horning, Merrill Pye
Principal Cast:Cary Grant (Roger O. Thornhill/George Kaplan), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall), James Mason (Phillip Vandamm), Jessie Royce Landis (Clara Thornhill), Leo G. Carroll (The Professor), Martin Landau (Leonard), Philip Ober (Lester Townsend)
C-137m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Lang Thompson

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