North by Northwest (1959)
Written by Ernest Lehman
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
In my opinion, Alfred Hitchcock’s best works are his dark, psychological films. But, he did manage to deliver something outside of the box with North by Northwest. This is a classic Cold War espionage story about a case of mistaken identity and the fallout that ensues. It’s filled to the brim with Hitchcock’s wry humor and livened up by screenwriter Ernest Lehman. The final product is a lavish and certainly expensive film with the production traveling across the United States as its protagonist tries to get to the bottom of how he became entangled in this mess.
Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a Madison Avenue advertising executive who’s been divorced twice and spend his days over lunch with friends and clients. One day, while having a stiff drink at the Plaza Hotel, he’s mistaken for George Kaplan, a U.S. operative and kidnapped. Thornhill is taken to a mansion on Long Island, where he’s interrogated and ignored as he explains he has no idea who this Kaplan is. After a failed attempted assassination, Thornhill escapes and discovers his kidnapper is speaking at the General Assembly of the United Nations. He goes to confront the man but finds this conspiracy is much more complicated than he first thought. Eventually, he flees on a train across the country, ending up in Chicago and ultimately Mount Rushmore, where he finally discovers what is happening.
To Catch a Thief felt very sedate, lacking in emotions and real thrills. It was clear so much was filmed on a soundstage undercutting the natural beauty of the French Riviera. However, Hitchcock has many more on-location scenes in North by Northwest, and the sound stage set pieces are very elaborate. Despite being a little over two hours, the picture never feels like it slows down too much. We get time to breathe, and Thornhill develops a flirtation with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a woman he finds solace in while stowing away on a train. Grant is very charming and aloof, not really playing a character so much as playing the persona of Grant audiences came to expect and love.
Ernest Lehman’s script is wonderfully structured, showcasing a strong understanding of raising stakes at a steady pace. The film’s conflict starts on a small scale, and over time, Thornhill’s trouble begins to compound and put him in more peril. You can see the lineage of so many pictures back to this one. I was reminded of two Gene Wilder pictures, Silver Streak and Hanky Panky, that certainly borrow elements from this film but lean into the comedy more. I think highlighting the humor in parallel with the suspense is the best way to go with these stories, and I can’t really of modern films that manage to do this successfully. Often contemporary movies in this vein go too over the top with the comedy or become too grim and fall into a tonal mess.
I think the decision to not get too deep into the trenches with details about U.S. spy work during the Cold War was a smart move. Our protagonist has no interest in being a spy or being recruited. His main goal is to clear his name and get these dangerous people off his back. Near the close of the second act, Thornhill is given a greater need to become more closely involved, but it’s focused on his emotional goals rather than anything related to serving the country. Even though so many of the sequences look dated with their use of a green screen, I still think they hold up and are entirely thrilling. The famous crop-duster sequence is still a masterful piece of filmmaking that showcases Hitchcock’s strengths in timing and tension building in his narratives.
It’s imperative to note that this film was immediately followed in 1960 by Psycho, a film I reviewed in October for my Horror Masterworks series. It’s astonishing a director would make two radically different movies back to back that are both masterpieces. This is also a testament to how strongly Hitchcock shaped the entire medium of film in the mid-20th century, creating two subgenres that have been endlessly copycatted ever since. When we next meet, I will be reviewing one of the strangest Hitchcock films ever made, his first real instance of man versus nature in The Birds.