North by Northwest is one of Hitchcock’s most popular and entertaining films. He uses his classic innocent man wrongly accused plot, and takes it all across the country. It’s has about a medium level of suspense, just enough to keep you interested but not enough to scar you for life. It’s more of a fun, veg out film than others of his, but still has much of what he’s known for.
The innocent man in North by Northwest is Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), an advertising executive from New York City. He is mistaken for a nonexistent government agent named George Kaplan, and because of this he is kidnapped, force fed an entire bottle of bourbon, and then made to drive home. He drunkenly leaves the Townsend house, but is understandably picked up by the police. They of course don’t believe his story, and think he is simply drunk. This sets him on a quest to figure out why these people believe he is Kaplan, and why they are persecuting him so vigorously.
He starts by trying to track down Kaplan, and while this leads him to his hotel room, he is absent. He then tries to track down Townsend, who works at the UN. Townsend apparently doesn’t know anything about what happened to him, and is murdered by the people who are after Kaplan. Of course Thornhill is blamed for this, and now is on the run from the law as well.
There’s basically nothing else to do at this point but make a run for it, and this is when Thornhill really gets into trouble. Enter classic Hitchcock blond femme fatale: Eve Kendall (Eva Maria Saint). She helps Thornhill evade the cops on the train to Chicago, then sets up a meeting with Kaplan. They can’t help but falling love during all of this, naturally. However, when Kaplan doesn’t show up for the meeting and Thornhill ends up getting almost crop-dusted to death, he begins to suspect her. When he tracks her down, he finds her in the company of Phillip VanDamm (James Mason), the man Thornhill mistook for Townsend and starting this whole thing in the first place. Basically all of his worst fears are confirmed at this point: Eve obviously was playing him the whole time and VanDamm still thinks he’s Kaplan and wants to kill him. Thornhill decides he’s better off in the hands of the police, but someone interferes with that. The Professor (Leo G. Carroll) enlists his help. He wants him to keep on pretending to be Kaplan, and after he explains that Eve is in danger and really does love him, he agrees.
This all leads up to the Mount Rushmore climax, one of the most intense climaxes in all of Hitchcock. Eve and Thornhill are chased onto and across the face(s) of Mount Rushmore by VanDamm and his men. Some plunge off, but don’t worry, Eve and Thornhill manage to make it. Towards the end there is one really cool part where Thornhill is hanging on for dear life, and a guy comes and steps on his fingers, only to get shot in the back. Hitchcock focuses on Thornhill’s fingers the entire time, so we see the man’s foot fall before the rest of him. Very cool.
One of the best things about North by Northwest is how many memorable action sequences there are. I already mentioned the Mount Rushmore scene, and the crop-dusting scene I talked about earlier is one of the most recognizable scenes in Hitch’s filmography. Some guy VanDamm sent is “dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops” out in the middle of no where. Hitchcock lets us sweat it for awhile; it takes a bit for something to actually happen, but once it does we get to see Cary Grant dropping to the ground a bunch of times and getting all dusty. It’s kind of fun to see Grant get all dirty and stuff, usually he’s so sophisticated and everything so this type of thing doesn’t happen. This scene is so great for me because it’s yet another example of villains coming up with elaborate plots to kill people, when they could have just shot them and been done with it. Death by crop-duster is a whole new low in this respect.
North by Northwest has one of my favorite Hitchcock villains, and VanDamm is mostly my favorite because of James Mason’s performance. He has the perfect villainous voice; it’s really deep and vaguely British. He also has this very unconcerned air about him most of the time which makes you think he doesn’t care about what’s going on, but nearer the end when it comes to Eve you can tell he is very invested. He collects himself, and bam! becomes very evil and callous once again. He is also very witty and that British way, which makes you like him even though he’s a villain.
Other than VanDamm, the characters in this film aren’t really that great in my opinion. Eve in particular kind of annoyed me, but I’m not really sure why. Maybe it’s because I never really think of Eva Marie Saint as a femme fatale type, but I think that’s just me. Cary Grant was basically just doing Cary Grant, which is fine but not really noteworthy. The action and overall chase more than make up for this, but I think the lackluster main characters are really why I have trouble paying attention towards the end. It runs a tad too long, and I’m not invested in the characters enough. Once we get to Mount Rushmore I’m wide awake though!
Another awesome aspect of North by Northwest is the score. Hitchcock teams up with Bernard Herrmann once again, and I have to say he is quickly becoming one of my favorite film composers. The overture in particular is really energetic. Hitchcock also brings back another regular for the title sequence, Saul Bass. The title sequence is not as flashy as some of his others, but I still really like it. The overture provides all the excitement we need.
North by Northwest is one of Hitchcock’s most famous films, and it really knocks it out of the park in terms of the innocent man wrongly accused plot. Roger Thornhill is totally innocent and accused of multiple things, from a murder he didn’t commit to being someone who doesn’t exist. The chase that VanDamm gives him is one of the most extensive I’ve ever seen. Add in a great score by Herrmann and Hitchcock’s great direction of the action scenes, and you have a recipe for one of his most entertaining films.
“That wasn’t very sporting, using real bullets.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars