North by Northwest: fun escapist enjoyment that encapsulates Hitchcock’s inner world

Alfred Hitchcock, “North by Northwest” (1959)

After the intense “Vertigo” which initially wasn’t a great box office success, Hitchcock chose to film a light-hearted chase thriller story featuring his familiar and favourite motifs and obsessions, a touch of romance and a climax that would take place on the famous Mount Rushmore monument. As with many of his films, the hero is an everyday man who may have a doppelgänger (in this instance, a non-existent one) and who is wrongly suspected of a crime for which he is pursued and which he is determined to solve himself. Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a middle-aged New York advertising executive minding his own business when he is suddenly kidnapped by spies led by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and his chief henchman Leonard (Martin Landau) who mistake him for another man, George Kaplan. Vandamm and Leonard set up Thornhill to die in a car accident but Thornhill foils their plan in a hilarious driving sequence; sozzled on too much bourbon, he’s the only one to avoid hitting or crashing into anyone and anything and everyone else, driving sober, creates the chain of collisions. Through a series of misadventures, Thornhill ends up being chased by both unseen spies and the police so to evade them, he catches an inter-state train to Chicago. On the trip he meets a passenger, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who hides him from the police while on board and while leaving the train station in Chicago. Eve arranges for Thornhill to meet George Kaplan who presumably will explain everything to him and she gives Thornhill directions to the place where he’ll meet the mystery spy.

Thornhill narrowly escapes being killed by a crop-dusting biplane in remote prairie country and makes his way back to Chicago where he discovers Kendall is in cahoots with Vandamm and Leonard at an auction, buying a small statue. Thornhill, finding himself trapped at the auction by Vandamm’s men, creates uproar and ends up being arrested by police. The cops deliver him to a man called the Professor (Leo G Carroll) who tells him Kaplan doesn’t exist but was a ruse created to distract Vandamm away from Kendall. The Professor tries to keep an eye on Thornhill and help Kendall maintain her deception of Vandamm by flying Thornhill to Rapids City, South Dakota, then to the Mount Rushmore national park in a staged ruse that puts Thornhill in hospital. Our man escapes and makes his way to Vandamm’s hide-out. He discovers that Leonard has proved Kendall’s disloyalty to Vandamm by testing her gun for blanks and the two villains plan to dump her out of their plane once airborne. Thornhill successfully warns Kendall of the plan and manages to snatch her away at the last minute from Vandamm, Leonard and another man, Valerian (Adam Williams), while they are boarding the plane. Kendall has the good sense to grab the statue bought at the auction and she and Thornhill race away with it. They are forced to climb over and down the Mount Rushmore monument with the enemy spies hot on their heels. Meanwhile the Professor, having found out that Thornhill escaped his custody, is on his way to the Mount Rushmore monument to get both Thornhill and Kendall.

On one level “North by Northwest” is good escapist fun with spectacular settings, sequences that combine comedy, danger and nick-of-time good timing, and a fine if under-used cast of actors playing roles that would be milked by the later James Bond movies: a suave and debonair hero with a flair for double entendres and one-liners; a cool mystery woman, at once capable and vulnerable, whose loyalties may be in doubt; and secret enemy agents who have as much wit, intelligence and style as they have brawn and a vicious streak. While Grant doesn’t do ordinary, everyday mummy’s boy too well – Thornhill is supposed to develop from drab, commonplace office executive with an undistinguished background to a resourceful hero who discovers strengths and talents he never knew he had – the actor manages the transition smoothly and gives credibility to a character whose details initially seem contradictory and can stretch belief. As mother’s pet, Grant’s interpretation appears more rebellious and put-upon, and as for Thornhill’s awkwardness with women, the actor has obvious difficulty with that! The character though ends up impressing viewers with intelligence, curiosity and tenacity beneath a suave, almost unflappable veneer as he tries to prove his innocence and true identity.

Saint mixes the right amount of gutsiness, duplicity and vulnerability in her role, Mason makes his silkily cultured yet sinister villain Vandamm look like a cakewalk and Landau almost steals the villains’ corner of the show from Mason with his portrayal of a tough henchman who may secretly have the hots for his boss. Interesting that three actors in the cast (Martin Landau, Leo G Carroll, Edward Platt) would end up playing significant or at least regular roles in 1960’s TV spy-themed shows (“Mission Impossible”, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, “Get Smart” respectively) which might reflect the impact “North …” made on audiences and the film industry on its release to the extent that members of its cast found themselves typecast. Even Grant and Mason were under consideration to play James Bond in the first film of the JB franchise in spite of their ages (they were both fiftysomething). This may say something for the quality of character actors Hitchcock assembled for his film.

On another level, “North …” may be a comment on deception as a tool in modern society: all significant characters in the film, Thornhill included, must pretend to be what they’re not to achieve their objectives, elude others or just to survive. Even the plot is deceptive as “North …” dives into sidelines that have no significance other than to provide extra thrills and chills up the spine, and the movie appears to lack direction. In an age in which the United States and the Soviet Union preferred to conduct their hostilities through propaganda, espionage, competing to send people into space, building up weapons and armies, and fighting proxy wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America through various client states, “North …” may be as political as Hitchcock dared to be in a commercial movie context. The auction scene in a way is revealing of the play-acting and deception prevailing in society: Thornhill intuits that the small statue on offer may not be what the auctioneers and most of the audience take it to be, and openly declares it a “fake”, not knowing its true value to Vandamm and Kendall.

As a film whose script was intended by scripter Ernest Lehman to be the Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films, “North …” is laden with the familiar Hitchcockian tropes of the wronged man, the possibility that he may have a double, the feisty blonde heroine, hidden homosexuality, fear and paranoia in everyday life, a character with a mother complex, romantic comedy laced with sexual innuendo, the control of women and their bodies by men, fear or defiance of figures of authority (fathers, the police), MacGuffin objects that everybody chases but which have no relevance to the plot, a twist in the story and trains as sexual metaphor.

Though the film wasn’t intended to have any symbolism, symbolism can be found in it depending on where viewers are coming from. Thornhill’s quest is as much a quest for his true inner self as it is a fight to clear his name and find out who George Kaplan is. Trains, especially US interstate passenger trains, in Hitchcock’s movies are sites of unexpected meetings with strangers, hidden secrets and transformation. (What Hitchcock might have made of something like “Snakes on a Plane” can only be guessed at.) Even the progress of action from New York, that centrepiece of deception via diplomacy and the capital of advertising and public relations, to Chicago to South Dakota where (presumably) people are more honest and as open as the cornfield and prairie landscapes, to the climax on a bare mountain, can be construed as a gradual lifting away of the veil of deception and play-acting to reveal truth and corruption. And what could be more open – or perhaps less “open” – than the granite facade of the Mount Rushmore monument which itself carries layered symbolism in the choice of four former US presidents, themselves controversial figures even now, to honour, and in its own conception, construction history and what it represents to different groups of people? The monument is located in an area seized by the US government from the native Lakota (Sioux) owners and it was sculpted under the supervision of artist Gutzon Borglum who was a Ku Klux Klan member; the project itself was conceived to promote tourism, an industry relying on deception and exploiting people’s dreams and preconceptions. Of all the people and objects in “North …” that aren’t what they seem, Mount Rushmore may be the most deceptive of them all.

From a technical point of view, “North …” is notable for its use of moving text in its opening credit sequence, created by Saul Bass, to suggest the outlines of the United Nations building in New York and hint at the climax in which people will have to climb down a mountain face. Camerawork features aerial points of view that prefigure the Mount Rushmore climbing scenes  are noteworthy in how they emphasise particular actions and advance the plot. In one significant scene, Thornhill on an internal catwalk flicks a message to Kendall that lands on the floor; from Thornhill’s elevated point of view, viewers see Leonard pick up the item and place it on a coffee table, then Kendall scoop it up after he turns his back on her, in masterly shots that generate maximum suspense. The orchestral music score by Bernard Herrmann is florid, melodramatic and even screechy in parts. (Hitchcock fanatics who insist on watching the director’s films in chronological order can see how “North …” fits between “Vertigo” and “Psycho” in its technical details.) The high technical quality and polish evident throughout the movie, not to mention its ideas, put Hitchcock in serious contention to direct the first James Bond movie but fortunately or unfortunately perhaps the then owners of the James Bond character decided he was better off in his own little world.

Of course, “North …” didn’t turn out to be the Hitchcock film that ended all Hitchcock films and there are other Hitchcock films that surpass it in visual presentation, technical flair and overall plot originality. Perhaps it only fulfils Lehman’s prediction in that it encapsulates more of Hitchcock’s inner world than Hitchcock’s other films do. For sheer playful enjoyment though, this film is a highlight in Hitchcock’s overall body of work.

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