By Marc S. Sanders
A story of mistaken identity becomes one of the grandest adventures on film with Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. The movie plays at such a fast pace, moving from one locale to the next and it all feels convincingly possible.
Before James Bond, there was the dashing Cary Grant in his sharp, fitted light grey suit (the best suit to ever be shown on film) portraying advertising executive Roger Thornhill who simply raises his hand in the air while meeting some colleagues at The Plaza Hotel in New York and is suddenly mistaken for a man named George Kaplan. Soon he’s forced into a car by two men and driven to an estate property belonging to someone named Townsend (James Mason) who implores “Mr. Kaplan” to cooperate or else. Suddenly, Thornhill who continues to insist he’s not Kaplan is on a cross country journey while escaping the authorities who want him for murder while he tries to prove his true identity and exonerate himself.
Cary Grant is dashingly fun with Hitchcock’s camera. It’s refreshing for a change to watch an innocent protagonist not lay on the heavy drama and panic so much. Hitchcock with Grant were going for a sweeping story of cat and mouse play.
What Alfred Hitchcock does best is put the viewer right in position of Thornhill. For the most part (definitely through the first forty minutes) the viewer only knows what Thornhill knows. We know he’s been mistaken for someone else and we are only given the opportunity to put a few names with faces and get a hold of a crumpled photograph. That’s all we and Thornhill have to go on.
Later on, it’s only fortunate that Thornhill comes upon one of Hitchcock’s celebrated blond actresses he was always reputed to cast. This time it is the incredibly striking Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall who becomes a willingly helpful train companion for Thornhill. Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint make for a spectacular on screen couple. Their chemistry is so natural together.
Not much else should be said about the story of North By Northwest. The entertainment comes from what each new scene reveals. Hitchcock incorporates all the expected twists and makes sure to use a MacGuffin, of course. This time it involves a statue and microfilm. What’s on it? That does not so much matter really. It’s the need to pursue it that’s important. The pursuit is what drives the picture from New York City to the United Nations, all the way to a curious auction house for fine art and then on to the four famous faces of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
Naturally, Hitchcock is the master once again as he points his camera up close on Grant, Mason and Saint and then quickly will cut to one of their points of view to lengthen the suspense. Running after or away from something in the moment is where Hitchcock is very strong as a storyteller. It keeps you alert as a viewer. Very alert!!!
James Mason makes for a terrific villain as Townsend, or could he be someone else? He’s got that sneaky inflection in his voice and short build that makes for a great antagonist against Cary Grant’s tall stature. Mason’s sidekick, Leonard (a mysterious looking Martin Landau) is also a spooky guy to keep your distance from.
The most celebrated scene probably also contains one of the best captions caught in film. I speak of the very surprising crop duster chase. As Roger Thornhill finds himself in a quiet, Midwestern dirt road intersection, an airplane crop duster turns into a frightening menace. The best shot occurs as Grant runs quickly towards Hitchcock’s camera and the plane flies overhead rapidly getting closer in the upper left side of the screen. As Grant runs and runs, he fills more of the screen, but so does the crop duster. The editing alone is spectacular, as an oil rig eventually comes into play with Grant about to get run over. Story wise, I adore this scene as somehow the life of a man who routinely gets in taxicabs and hob nobs through New York City on a daily basis suddenly has found himself in a dusty field running for his life. What was never expected is suddenly all that matters to this ordinary man.
Hitchcock plays with what’s around to play with. Other than a quick gag in Superman II, l don’t recall many films incorporating Mount Rushmore as such an important element to its picture. Every crevice or ledge or finger hold is important to the edits of the climax in North By Northwest. When Eva Marie Saint is holding on for life, I truly believed she could actually fall. [SPOILER ALERT] Actually, Hitchcock wanted you to believe that as the very last scene doesn’t even truly reveal the solution to her predicament. I like his method of editing this way. Hitchcock seemingly offers no option for survival as Grant and Saint’s hands barely hold on to one another. The editing is just so damn good here.
I’d be remiss if I also didn’t recognize one of the greatest orchestral scores in film. Bernard Hermann’s stirring, fast paced rhythms keep the running man theme in play. The movie seems to play by the beats of Hermann’s conduction. Action films of the future seemed to adopt some measures from he did with this film.
North By Northwest will always remain as one Alfred Hitchcock’s best films. There is not one error in the picture. Every shot is done with deliberate intent to sustain the mystery of suspense. Humor is included even at times on a risqué and subtle measure. Alfred Hitchcock again invites the simplicity of storytelling to introduce the complexity of fear and mystery and outstanding suspense. Not many films compare to North By Northwest.