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Working titles for the film were In a Northwesterly Direction, In a North West Direction, The Man on Lincoln's Nose, The CIA Story and Breathless. The film's opening title sequence, designed by Saul Bass, features the M-G-M logo with the company's lion mascot in black and white against a bright green screen. The next screen is also bright green, with dark angled lines on a north-westerly diagonal slant. Cast and crew names enter and exit from the top and bottom of the frame, imitating the movement of elevators going up and down and stopping on various floors. Midway into the credits, the lines dissolve into the windows on the front of the United Nations building, reflecting New York City street traffic below. The credit sequence closes with crowds of people hurrying in and out of the subway and city buildings. Director Alfred Hitchcock makes his signature onscreen appearance as his credit appears, hastening to reach a bus, only to have it drive away after slamming its doors in his face.
According to an undated letter from New York Tribune editor Otis Guernsey in the biographical file on Alfred Hitchcock at the AMPAS Library, Guernsey and Hitchcock had discussed a plot idea based upon an American salesman accidentally being drawn into an espionage drama due to mistaken identity. In a synopsis, Guernsey includes a romance between the American and a woman who is a double agent, and has the salesman eventually break the dangerous spy ring. Guernsey indicates in his letter to Hitchcock that he could not develop the idea further, despite having worked on a 65-page treatment. According to information in a documentary on the making of North by Northwest, Hitchcock and writer Ernest Lehman were initially to complete an adaptation of The Wreck of the Mary Deare (see below) for M-G-M, but when Lehman expressed frustration while developing the script, Hitchcock suggested that Lehman work with him on the mistaken identity-espionage plot that the director would sell to M-G-M
North by Northwest was the first film Hitchcock made with M-G-M. Information in the film's production file at the AMPAS Library indicates that Hitchcock suggested including a chase scene at Mount Rushmore and a murder at the United Nations. After Lehman began work on the script for North by Northwest, Hitchcock requested that Guernsey divest himself of all interests in the story. Guernsey willingly relinquished all participation in the ultimate development of the script. Modern sources reveal that while Hitchcock failed to elaborate on the source of the film's title, he denied that it was in any way connected to the Shakespeare line from Hamlet: "I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw." The direction of "north by northwest" is not a legitimate point on a compass.
A documentary on the making of the film indicates that during pre-production, Hitchcock considered casting as "Roger Thornhill" James Stewart, with whom the director had recently made several films, but concluded the actor might present too serious a demeanor for the part. Hitchcock then turned to Cary Grant, with whom he had made three films. The documentary adds that M-G-M suggested Cyd Charisse for the role of "Eve Kendall," but the director preferred Eva Marie Saint. Jesse Royce Landis, who played Roger's mother, was nearly a year younger than Grant. Hollywood Reporter casting information adds Chuck Courtney, Skip McNally, Francis De Sales and Rufe Davis to the cast, but their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Hitchcock makes his customary cameo appearance as a man rushing to catch a bus.
The film was shot on location in New York, Chicago and South Dakota according to production information in the AMPAS files. In modern interviews, Hitchcock indicated that although Lehman and production designer Robert Boyle were allowed to tour and sketch the interior of the United Nations building, shooting inside and outside was prohibited. Using a camera hidden inside a van, Hitchcock was able to photograph Grant and Adam Williams ("Valerian") exiting cabs and walking up the steps to the entrance of the U.N. building. Shots of real-life ambassadors were included in the film, but actors played all diplomatic roles. In 2005, the Sidney Pollack-directed Universal Pictures release The Interpreter became the first film allowed to be shot inside the U.N.
Correspondence in the M-G-M Collection at the AMPAS Library indicates that the studio reproduced with great accuracy the interior of the U.N., but that at the request of U.N. officials, the Delegates' Lounge was renamed the Public Lounge. Further correspondence from the M-G-M legal department indicates concern about securing rights for the use of the image of the Mount Rushmore monuments. Officials representing the National Park Service objected to an early script draft that included a scene in which Eve and Roger slide down Lincoln's nose. Establishing shots of the monument and the balcony outside of the tourist cafeteria were allowed. All other shots on and around the monument and "Vandamm's" modern-style ranch were photographed at the M-G-M studios, utilizing matte paintings and other visual effects.
After the film's premiere, a July 1959 Daily Variety article indicated that the U.S. Department of the Interior complained that the agreement between the National Park Service and M-G-M had been violated. The agreement in part stated: "No scenes of violence will be filmed near the sculpture, on the Talus Slope below the sculpture, or any simulation or mockup of the sculpture or Talus Slope, or any public-use area of Mount Rushmore." Upon lodging a complaint with M-G-M and the MPAA, the Department of the Interior requested that the acknowledgment for the cooperation of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service in the actual filming of scenes at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, S.D., be removed so that audiences would not believe the scenes were shot on the monument. Although some prints were released with the acknowledgment, later prints did not include it.
In the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the PCA expressed concern over the script's characterization of "Leonard" as effeminate and repeatedly asked for the "flavor of homosexuality" surrounding his character to be downplayed. The PCA also recommended that Eve not be labeled outright as Vandamm's mistress and objected to some lines of dialogue implying Eve's promiscuity. The description and the dialogue remained in the film.
The crop-dusting scene, one of the most famous and recognized in Hollywood films, was shot northwest of Bakersfield, CA, near the community of Wasco. In numerous contemporary interviews Hitchcock described his intention to create a scene that would derive suspense by using the opposite of standard espionage dramas where the hero is placed in jeopardy on a dark city street full of potential danger behind every corner. Hitchcock and Lehman placed Roger in a completely open field, in broad daylight, with no avenue of escape or cover and had the threat come from the least expected source. Early drafts of the script had Roger hiding behind a telephone pole, but that was later deleted and only the cornfield remained as possible cover. The script indicates that "Licht," one of Roger's kidnappers, is on the plane, firing shots at Thornhill. The film never shows who is on the plane (Later, the headline of the paper in Eve's room states: "Two Die in Crop Duster Crash, Driver Survives"), but Licht does not appear in the film from that point on.
Another scene that has been written about extensively is the film's conclusion in which the scene cuts quickly from Roger struggling to pull Eve up the dangerous monument cliff side, to Roger pulling Eve up onto their train berth and addressing her as "Mrs. Thornhill." The final shot of the film is the train speeding into a tunnel. According to biographies on Grant, during production the star repeatedly expressed confusion over the film's plot, which he found implausible and unclear. Grant purportedly worried that the film would be a failure and was delighted with an enthusiastic response at a preview of the film. North by Northwest has become one of the popular of Hitchcock thrillers. Fans of the film enjoy pointing out the glaring gaffe in the scene where Eve shoots Roger, of a little boy extra seated in the cafeteria who covers his ears before the shots are fired. North by Northwest was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Art Direction.