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North by Northwest

"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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