North By Northwest


Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

North By Northwest
"It's a nonsense, but when the storytelling is this good it doesn't matter."

North By Northwest is a classic, filled to the brim with grand set-pieces from the Master of Suspense at the peak of his skill and influence in Hollywood.

Helping Hitch make the jump from dark, psychosexual storytelling in Vertigo to this breezy, energetic and red-blooded American thriller is Ernest Lehmann, whose fabulously layered script provides the storytelling putty for these set-pieces. Together they create "The Hitchcock Picture to end all Hitchcock Pictures" - the middle of Hitch's golden Hollywood triplet, which would end with Psycho in 1960.

Copy picture

Cary Grant plays Roger O'Thornhill, an oily, dislikeable advertising executive, who in case-after-case of mistaken identity assumes the persona of a government spook, George Kaplan. Of course, simply explaining the situation to the bad guys or authorities cannot convince them to leave him alone.

In an effort to unravel the conspiracy single-handed, Thornhill follows Kaplan's clues and attempts to track him down all across the north-west United States, jumping onto planes, trains and automobiles to stay one step ahead of the men on his tail. Of course, this being Hitchcock, this is rarely straightforward. From a high-speed chase while irresolutely steaming drunk, escaping the United Nations after being framed for murder, to a pair of cinema's most famous visual landmarks. Let's just say the original title was going to be "The Man In Lincoln's Nose".

"Such expert playacting, you make this very room a theatre", coos Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) at Thornhill's protested innocence - and quite right, too. The cast all have a great time - Jessie Royce Landis, playing Roger's highly disapproving mother, who in real life was a mere eight years older than Cary Grant, Martin ("Call It My Woman's Intuition") Landau as Leonard, Vandamm's henchman, with white-hot gremlin eyes (if I were to have a henchman, that's the criterion). Eva Marie Saint plays the femme fatale, blonde sex-kitten, Eve Kendall, who most certainly has secrets of her own.

By throwing the disagreeable Thornhill into the "innocent man on the run" routine, we end up rooting for him regardless. It is largely down to Grant's skillful and likeable screen presence, the man rediscovers his humanity after being broken down by immutable forces, being hounded and abused for information he cannot possibly know. A theme revisited to far nastier consequences in Terry Gilliam's equally gorgeous Brazil. Hitchcock's golden triplet collaborator Bernard Herrmann, provides extraordinarily suspenseful music aiding the sense of order descending into chaos right from the opening credits.

Hitchcock obviously loves telling the absurd story with such brazen confidence. It's fast-paced, funny and surprising. It's a nonsense, but when the storytelling is this good it doesn't matter. Simply, hang on tight and don't question the improbabilities of the Meccano-set plot.

This has been the model for suspense thrillers to follow for 50 years and fully deserving of its restoration and re-release.

Reviewed on: 21 May 2009
Share this with others on...
North By Northwest packshot
A case of mistaken identity and false accusation sees an innocent man go on the run from the CIA and a criminal gang.
Amazon link

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writer: Ernest Lehman

Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, Leo G. Carroll, Josephine Hutchinson, Philip Ober, Martin Landau, Adam Williams, Edward Platt

Year: 1959

Runtime: 131 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

Search database:

If you like this, try:

The Bourne Identity