I already claimed Rear Window as my favorite Hitchcock film, but a close second is North By Northwest. This may be Hitchcock’s best film, it certainly is a classic and arguably Cary Grant’s best film.
This film ended the 1950’s on a high note for Hitchcock, in fact, it was his most successful decade, critically and financially. Alfred Hitchcock Presents, his weekly television anthology show was in the middle of its ten season run, and last films were Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, To Catch A Thief, The Wrong Man and Dial M For Murder. An amazing string of films.
For North By Northwest, Hitchcock worked with MGM, and was paired with author Ernest Lehman, who was jazzed to make the ultimate Hitchcock film. Reportedly, Hitchcock had the thread of the idea of spies chasing a fictitious character but it stayed dormant for a few years. Hitchcock knew he wanted the film to end with a chase across Mount Rushmore and it was to involve Lincoln’s face, hence the working title, The Man in Lincoln’s Nose. The origins of North By Northwest with newspaperman Otis Guernsey who had an idea for a mistaken identity chase film, and Hitchcock paid him to write a very loose treatment.
Hitchcock made only one film for MGM, which enticed him with an amazing contract that included full creative control, an item Hitchcock didn’t know his agent inserted into the contract. This would prove vital later. Hitchcock and Lehman set out to write a different film called Wreck of the Mary Deare, but hit a creative dead end and dropped the idea. Hitchcock busied himself with his television series and Vertigo.
It appears there wasn’t much that Hitchcock and Lehman used from the Guernsey treatment. Now called In a Northwesterly Direction, the story began to take shape. While Hitchcock worked on Vertigo, Lehman included Hitchcock’s notes into the script and took a two-week trip to scout locations, including a trip on the 20th Century Limited to Chicago and then to Mount Rushmore.
Mistaken identity is a classic Hitchcock story device. Cary Grant is the perfect unwitting victim, however much he protests, the deeper he gets into the stew. There is no George Kaplan, a ghost of a government agent, who mysteriously moves from city to city, supposedly on the trail of foreign agents Vandamm and Leonard (James Mason, Martin Landau).
Grant plays Roger Thornhill who is mistaken for Kaplan and becomes entwined in the shadowy Kaplan’s identity, and framed for murder, so he can’t go to the police, who are now looking for him.
Thornhill flees to Chicago by train, hoping to get there to meet up with Kaplan who can clear his name. Onboard, he meets Eve Kendall who rescues him from the police. There’s more to Kendall than meets the eye.
By the time they get to Chicago, he has begun falling for her. However, in Chicago, she sets him up to meet Kaplan on a highway outside of the city. Her relationship with the foreign agents becomes known, but you aren’t sure what it means. You might have seen the crop duster sequence, scene by scene, shot by shot, it is quite amazing. Thornhill obviously survives the encounter with the crop duster, barely, but the sequence spins the film in a different direction. When Thornhill returns to Chicago and finds that Kaplan had checked out of his hotel before he gave Kendall the instructions on the meet, Thornhill suddenly discovers that he cannot trust Kendall, who sent him to the deserted highway location.
One of the film’s more famous scenes involves Thornhill following Kendall to an auction, where he sees her in the company of the Vandamm and Leonard. Thornhill is very nasty to Kendall, accusing her of using sex to lure him to his death. Hitchcock serves up clues that launch the story forward, but you aren’t sure what it means, often the clue means something quite different than it appears. It isn’t misdirection as much as a layer of a more complicated and twisted plot. The viewer isn’t sure what to think of Kendall. Does she care for Thornhill or is she just playing him? How does she fit with the foreign agents? Thornhill must think fast to get out of the auction and away from Vandamm’s henchmen.
There are three key scenes that are visually integral to the film. First, the crop dusting scene along the deserted highway and adjacent corn field. Second, the chase across Mount Rushmore at the conclusion of the film. They are visually creative and are unique, plus, Hitchcock stages them to increase the tension in each sequence. The third scene takes place at the United Nations building, and while is it a very short shot in duration, it shows Hitchcock’s unique ability to invent camera shots. The shot is a sky shot from high above, showing Thornhill tiny as an ant scurrying away from the building. Hitchcock often used very long shots, often from above for exaggerated perspective and visual excitement.
The twists and turns in the story are well-placed and advance the story logically with ratcheting the dramatic tension. The relationship between Thornhill and Kendall is also a winding road as her role in this story evolves in an unexpected direction.
Cary Grant is noted to have thought the story convoluted, complaining that it didn’t make sense, even calling a “David Niven story.” Grant spoke often to Lehman (as Lehman tells in the film commentary) that his character carried too much of the film’s exposition, meaning that his character had the burden of carrying the story for the audience to understand. If the film made no sense, the audience would blame him.
Hitchcock never began a film without a very complete script and planned each scene, knowing precisely each camera angle and duration of shot. He did what was known as “editing in the camera” because he shot only what he knew he would use in the finished film. This took great planning and relied on a polished script. Hitchcock worked closely with his writers, and although he didn’t take screen credit, his fingerprints were all over the scripts. He relied on his writers to sculpt the script from their discussions and his ideas. He often incorporated actual events into his stories, fictionalizing them, but retaining key facts.
The story goes that James Stewart really wanted North By Northwest, and that he met with Hitchcock numerous times, and it was assumed that Stewart would play Thornhill. Ultimately the role went to Grant, and Stewart made Bell, Book and Candle, not exactly a classic. Not documented but inferred, Hitchcock felt that Grant had a younger appearance, and Stewart had just started in Vertigo which under-performed at the box office.
North By Northwest is beautifully photographed, has first class production values and a marvelous musical score by Bernard Herrmann, who scored many Hitchcock projects. And the innovative credits designed by master film technician Saul Bass.
Hitchcock was forbidden from filming in the United Nations, although he was permitted to take still photos so the interior could be reproduced in the studio. A hidden camera captured Grant running up the steps to the building, again, there was no approval to even film the exterior of the building. Lehman spent five days at the U.N. collecting atmosphere and information for the script.
At Mount Rushmore, Hitchcock received permission to film in the cafeteria and parking lot only. He was allowed to take some closeup photos of the faces, but the Park Service prohibited any filming of violence on the Presidential faces, even from sets built in the studio. Attempts were made to convince the Park Service of the patriotic nature of the film’s story but that didn’t work. Lehman went to the faces and tried to climb them but turned around, having his hired guide take photos for him.
The faces were built in the studio, adding space between the faces to allow them to film the scenes as written. Hitchcock worked on the chase along the faces in the studio, and even though most of the action is limited to areas between the faces and around the edges, the Park Service still demanded their name be removed from the film. If you watch the film you’ll notice the actors barely touch the faces, going over, under and around.
North By Northwest deserves its place as one of the greatest films.