North by Northwest (1959)
North by Northwest (1959)

Genre: Thriller Running Time: 2 hrs. 16 min.

Release Date: July 17th, 1959 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Alfred Hitchcock Actors: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Leo G. Carroll, Josephine Hutchinson, Martin Landau

 


 

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ne of director Alfred Hitchcock’s most stylish and archetypal works, “North by Northwest” employs his famously recurring themes of mistaken identities (the wrong man syndrome), undercover spies, McGuffins, and unpredictable femme fatales who permanently walk the line of friend and foe – though it is by far his most outrightly fun picture, perhaps altogether devoid of deep symbolism. Action, adventure, and romance – like something out of a James Bond episode – collide to create one of the most exciting and memorable films ever made. Though only garnering three Oscar nods for its 1959 debut, “North by Northwest” has since become an extensively celebrated masterpiece of infinite cinematic influence.

Ad man Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is whisked away at gunpoint in the middle of his most ordinary day, being incorrectly identified as a mysterious fellow called Kaplan. After a suspicious group of rogues, headed by Lester Townsend (Philip Ober), attempts to kill him, Roger barely escapes into police custody. Upon getting away from the law, he goes in search of the real Kaplan – some sort of government agent – to try and clear his name. But nothing is as it seems, and absolutely no one can be trusted – including the gorgeous blonde Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who at first appears to help him in evading the authorities, but later betrays him. Through constant danger, murder attempts, and flights from pursuers, the unremittingly suave Thornhill quickly realizes he’s in way over his head in a top-secret scandal that could cost him his life.

Once again, Hitchcock crafts an engrossing story that smartly balances all the perfect elements of great filmmaking (from the music by regular collaborator Bernard Herrmann to the set decorations of now iconic awesomeness to Saul Bass’ opening kinetic typography sequence), aided here by writer Ernest Lehman, who would pick up an Academy Award nomination for his original screenplay. Adapting real tales of counterespionage and wartime trickery, “North by Northwest” boasts a champion that can’t seem to escape an invented personation; no one has seen Kaplan, yet everywhere Thornhill goes he’s immediately recognized as Kaplan. Can it be that the average person is so unobservant that erroneous conclusions inhabit everyday interactions (perhaps a marked criticism of humanity)? Or is this all part of some big conspiracy?

Hitchcock’s protagonist happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (another favorite motif), with much of his woes brought about from trusting fishy acquaintances. Furthermore, a dastardly series of coincidences propels the plot forward, embellished with extremely witty and illogical scenarios that leave the hapless participant in increasingly hazardous locations. Upon meeting Eve, whose striking forwardness makes for a strongly sexy opponent (yet another customary Hitchcock ingredient), Thornhill engages in a duel of cynical words and seductive innuendos that sets the bar high for facetious yet tantalizing romantic banter. Without the standard visual sex or nudity of modern thrillers, an instant attraction is orchestrated with a clear design for their destined union. And Hitchcock, always in favor of placing life-threatening roadblocks in the way of true love, keeps these two constantly in harm’s way before they can end in an ideal embrace (a final transitioning scene of outstanding innovation).

Grant showcases one of his finest performances as the dynamic Thornhill, starting things off as an innocent and nonchalant businessman before becoming a tougher vigilante who dares to undertake adventuresome endeavors in an auction house, against a crop-dusting plane armed with machineguns, and across the faces of Mount Rushmore. His sharply suited fugitive is right at home with spontaneous adaptability, long before he’s aware of his enemies’ motives and their deadly seriousness or his unwitting role in a patriotic cause. With foreshadowing and deceit at the ready, the cat and mouse antics turn into a battlefield of mind games and switcheroos on the bad guys, the girl, the FBI, the hero, and the audience, in what is surely the Master of Suspense’s most crowd-pleasing, action-packed, edge-of-your-seat thriller.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10