Alfred Hitchcock has just completed the penultimate film in his multi-picture deal with Paramount. It’s 1957 and the film is Vertigo and it is to be released the following year. Psycho was to follow two years later to finish off the Paramount contract. Hitchcock is looking forward to a deal with Universal for his next series of movies and signs on with Lew Wasserman to make that happen. Lew Wasserman is a Hollywood “mover and shaker” (Variety) who’d conceived the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series, which is enjoying huge popularity for MCA-Universal. While waiting for Universal, Wasserman makes a one-picture deal for Hitchcock with MGM – the only movie he’d make for that studio. Hitchcock wants his next movie to be different from Vertigo, “something fun, light-hearted, and generally free of the symbolism permeating his other movies” as he told François Truffaut in their legendary 1967 interview.
Lew Wasserman teams Alfred Hitchcock with screenwriter Ernest Lehman who is under contract with MGM. Lehman, who had penned such classics as Sweet Smell of Success, The King and I and Sabrina, is excited about working with Hitchcock and immediately begins to work on a script titled In a Northerly Direction, which he later changes to Breathless. It is MGM story editor Kenneth MacKenna who suggests the final title for the screenplay, North by Northwest. Ernest Lehman keeps Hitchcock’s instruction in mind as he writes, “try to come up with a script that would fit Cary Grant as well as one of his custom-made suits.” (Cary Grant, Eliot)
Alfred Hitchcock wants a hit and knows that Cary Grant’s star power will guarantee it. If anyone recognizes Grant’s extraordinary range it is Hitchcock. It was Alfred Hitchcock, after all, who’d embroiled the leading man with a gift for comedy in murder in the first place in Suspicion in 1941. You can read about that journey, about how Hitchcock and Grant first came to work together in Cary Grant: The Road to Suspicion. It’s an interesting tale about how insecurities resulted in legend.
Anyway, the master of suspense and the ultimate movie star followed Suspicion with the spectacular Notorious in 1946 and the gorgeous, To Catch a Thief in 1955. When it comes time to make his next hit it’s no wonder Hitchcock doesn’t hold back to ensure Grant plays the lead. The director offers Cary Grant $450,000 up front plus 10 percent of the gross profits on all earnings over $8 million plus $5,000 a day. (Eliot) Grant accepts of course and the result is a thrilling, sexy ride that also happens to be not only one of Cary Grant’s best, but one of Hitchcock’s best as well.
Once Cary Grant was secured as the film’s lead, the rest of the cast fell into place quite easily. Well, almost. I’ve read in several books that Cary Grant wanted Sophia Loren to play sexy double agent, Eve Kendall. According to Marc Eliot’s Cary Grant: A Biography Alfred Hitchcock agreed and tried to get Loren to play the part. However, Carlo Ponti, Loren’s husband, declined the offer having had enough of Cary Grant after his and Loren’s love affair prior to her marriage to Ponti. In contrast MGM wanted Hitchcock to cast Cyd Charisse for the part of Eve Kendall, but Hitchcock thought she was completely wrong for the part. Having failed with Loren for Grant Hitchcock went with his choice, Eva Marie Saint who not only met his hair color preference, but also brought serious acting chops to the table. Ms. Saint had taken home the Oscar for her debut film performance in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954).
North by Northwest features a memorable lot of supporting players as well. James Mason is fantastic as the villain in the piece as is Jessie Royce Landis as Clara Thornhill, Roger’s mother. Despite the fact that Landis was not old enough to play Grant’s mother and it shows, their scenes together are great, allowing for laughs as the sophisticated Thornhill turns out to be a momma’s boy. Josephine Hutchinson, Philip Ober, Martin Landau and Leo G. Carroll, who appeared in more Hitchcock movies than anyone else (except Hitchcock himself if you count his cameos), are also enjoyable to watch from among the cast.
Alfred Hitchcock, who was famously disdainful of actors, once said Cary Grant was “The only actor I ever loved in my whole life.” Well, I must say his taste was impeccable – they didn’t call him “the master” for nothing. Proof of his feelings for Grant can be seen in images of the night Hitchcock received his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. The director sat with his wife, Alma on one side and Cary Grant on the other.
“Self-plagiarism is style.”
I had started to think about writing this post, but barely. It was the week before Thanksgiving and I was in Miami. I’d driven there because my father was scheduled for a surgery that was subsequently cancelled. I couldn’t quite concentrate on anything but medical issues when on the day before Thanksgiving, several days into my visit and after I’d accumulated that much more stress, I received the following email from Tom Swanzey, the Associate Dean of Petrocelli College at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
As you’ll see the email was impeccably timed not only because I had the North by Northwest commitment pending, but also because the note eased my tension considerably. It’s the little things. I should mention that Tom Swanzey is a huge classic film fan with whom I invariably talk classic movies almost on a daily basis.
Dear Aurora: Hope things are good family wise down there. We missed you at our Thanksgiving party. Here’s a little something to entertain you…
What Hitchcock film am I thinking of?
A man is wrongly accused of stabbing someone in the back. In order to avoid police and bad guys he leaves the largest city in the country and travels by train in a northerly and Westerly direction. He encounters a pretty blonde woman on the train. Train is stopped by police but man hides in an unusual place. Man is pursued in open area by aircraft. Chief bad guy has large house in out of the way location. Chief bad guy has middle-aged woman housekeeper and he is concerned about her well-being. The hero is “shot” at close range. Hero eludes bad guys at one point by calling attention to himself in large crowd in public place. Movie ends with a bad guy being shot from a height. Happy Thanksgiving, Tom
My reply: That would be Hitchcock’s first masterpiece, The 39 Steps.
Dear Aurora: I knew you knew it wasn’t North by Northwest. But aren’t they striking similarities? Were you wondering about a couple of them? There’s a helicopter in 39 Steps. The auction in NxNW, the political rally in 39. As for the bad guy being shot from a height–Mr. Memory from a balcony and Leonard from atop Mt. Rushmore. Tom
I knew the movie Dean Swanzey was referring to was The 39 Steps right off the bat because of the stabbing in the beginning of the movie, which doesn’t happen in North by Northwest. Otherwise the similarities between the two movies are indeed striking. In fact, the reason I so adore North by Northwest, which I’ve easily seen 100 times, is its endless Hitchcock-ness. North by Northwest is Hitchcock’s ode to Hitchcock, a brilliant amalgamation of Hitchcockian cinema in its purest form. We’ve seen every element in this film before, including the plot as the email above suggests. Yet North by Northwest manages to remain fresh, exciting and ever entertaining. It’s a miracle and perhaps – on its own – testament to Alfred Hitchcock’s genius.
In North by Northwest we find New York ad executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) pursued by the ruthless Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) who mistakes Thornhill for a government agent. Relentlessly pursued by Vandamm’s associates, Thornhill crosses the country in a thrilling chase during which he meets the beautiful and mysterious Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). As Vandamm’s men close in on Thornhill we are served a number of iconic action sequences such as the six-minute crop-duster attack scene in a Midwest cornfield and the famous finale at Mount Rushmore. Plus there are enough plot twists in this to keep you at the edge of your seat throughout. No one is who they say they are and all is presented in glorious color, enhanced by a Bernard Herrmann score with key, torturous Hitchcock silences that make your hair stand on end.
Recognizing elements from other Alfred Hitchcock movies adds to the fun of watching North by Northwest repeatedly. These are, after all, the elements that made Alfred Hitchcock one of, if not the, greatest filmmakers that ever lived. It’s a can’t miss formula that the master had perfected by this point in his career. Following are a just a few of those delicious Hitchcock treats found throughout his filmography…
Why? Who cares!
In The 39 Steps it takes the form of some missing papers. In The Lady Vanishes it is a tune that’s a pact between two European countries. In Notorious it is uranium ore in the form of black sand hidden in wine bottles. In North by Northwest it is given the least amount of attention of all Hitchcock movies, simply described in two words, “government secrets.” It is the McGuffin, the element that sets the plot in motion that we care nothing about. As is always the case it is the journey Alfred Hitchcock takes us on that we care about. In this case it is that Roger Thornhill has to make a cross-country run for his life.
A memorable villain
Memorable villains are a Hitchcock must and in this case the formula is simple. Put the stylish, elegant, debonair Cary Grant up against the stylish, elegant, debonair James Mason. My goodness, the scene is stupendous. Roger Thornhill is brought (by force) to meet the bad guy in the latter’s library/study. The two men meet and do a dance, along with the camera, sizing each other up. Vandamm (Mason) is ever cool and sophisticated and as dangerous as they come because of it. And when these two begin to speak – two of cinema’s greatest voices – well, that’s all it takes. Hitchcock filmed the scene beautifully, by the way, his ever-intrusive camera moving in circular motions or from above emphasizing the gravity of the situation and the perilous position our star finds himself in. Mason can now be absent for most of the movie, but his presence, his menace lingers so that we are ever mindful of who Thornhill is running from.
Location, location, location
Locations and settings used by Alfred Hitchcock in his films say a lot about the importance of everything visual. He also (often) made it a point to use iconic locations, symbols of innocence or admiration as menacing plot elements or as characters as important as the ones who cling for dear life from their rafters. In Saboteur (1942) we see Norman Lloyd at the Statue of Liberty, in Strangers On a Train (1951) a carousel becomes a death trap and in North by Northwest it’s Mount Rushmore who stars in a phenomenal final action sequence. The hair-raising fall from a great height theme is of course another Hitchcock signature element used beautifully here.
Other sets used in North by Northwest are also memorable – New York’s Plaza Hotel, the United Nations and Grand Central Station to name a few. But it’s the vast, empty expanse of a cornfield that leaves its most memorable stamp in the annals of suspense. The scene starts off with several minutes of silence as we see a wide open, desolate field from high above and a bus driving along a road. We see Roger Thornhill get off the bus. The silence is deafening and seems to last a lot longer than it actually does. The suspense builds beautifully. We wait to see who is coming to meet with Thornhill as he nervously looks around the most unlikely meeting place, which (by the way) makes no sense at all as far as why he went there in the first place. But so be it. All of a sudden we hear the sounds of a crop-dusting plane off the horizon. Slowly (yet suddenly against the quiet) it becomes clear the plane is there in pursuit of Thornhill – there is no subtlety here as Hitchcock uses shots of the man and the plane going straight toward the camera, which is then repeated again with a truck at the end of the sequence. Hitchcock takes his time in this scene, as he does with so many other thrilling, suspenseful moments in his films. He always opts for the drawn-out palpitation-inducing suspense over the quick jolt of an explosion. And, of course, he was the best at it. The cornfield sequence is also particularly memorable in that Hitchcock uses a wide, sweeping open space with no structures, which contrasts with the confined spaces he used in so many other films.
Casting Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest was an inspired choice. Not only does she do a terrific job as Eve Kendall in all sorts of situations ranging from dangerous to smoldering, her chemistry with Cary is palpable. Together Saint and Grant manage one of the all-time sexiest exchanges in movies. The temperature in the dining car goes up by several degrees after Eve Kendall confesses it’s no coincidence Roger Thornhill is seated across the table from her. It’s all innocent enough on the surface, but the double entendres delivered to spicy perfection are worth the price of admission. Although I wouldn’t recast any Alfred Hitchcock movie, Eva Marie Saint is my favorite of the Hitchcock blondes, on par with Cary Grant in one of his best performances.
The healthy sexual tension between Roger Thornhill and Eve Kendall also results in a close recreation of the famous Notorious kiss. Hitchcock used a similar shot to get the same effect in any case. We see the couple embrace and kiss slowly as they carry on a conversation. The camera stays steady as they roll along against the wall making for another steamy sequence, which ultimately results in consummation of the act if we believe Hitchcock’s camera and the not-so-subtle final shot in the movie.
“Only Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock ever gave you so much suspense in so many directions.” – NxNW Poster
It was New York Times critic Pauline Kael who said that it was the suspense that made Cary Grant immortal. To me North by Northwest is the best proof of that.
Cary Grant had mastered comedy, romance and drama in varying degrees by the time he was called upon to be suspicious in Suspicion. It was Alfred Hitchcock who offered him the opportunity to stretch his acting muscles farther. No doubt Hitchcock’s Interest in Cary Grant had a lot to do with the actor’s looks. The thought of using an incredibly handsome man in films that delved into murder was an exciting one from the get-go, one of the many dualities that intrigued him. But Grant’s looks weren’t the only reason. While Cary is the victim/hero in North by Northwest, rather than a suspect as he’d been in previous Hitchcock outings, he delivers the goods in colorful fashion with every single aspect of his vast array of talents displayed. He is funny in all of his Cary Grant-ness as we see during his drunk driving scene in the beginning of the movie. He is also an adventure hero, a leading man, the epitome of glamour and the average guy to whom anything can randomly happen. He is both a winner and a loser at the same time.
Neither Alfred Hitchcock or Cary Grant did anything new in North by Northwest. It’s everything they ever were apart and together melding the pieces into an absorbing, fascinating whole. It’s what works in Hitchcock. It’s more of Grant. It’s a thrill a minute. It’s as good as it is possible to be. In style.
This post is my contribution to The Cary Grant Blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies, a celebration of the life and work of the inimitable talent. Cary Grant passed on November 29, 1986, thirty years ago this week. Celebrate his astounding career by visiting the blogathon.
This is one of my favorite films. I have seen it countless times. Love Hitchcock. Love Cary Grant. Thank you for this marvelous trip down memory lane. I have now ordered the DVD.
Yay! It is pretty fabulous! Thanks so much for stopping in.
Fabulously written! A fine tribute indeed. One of my favorite films of all time.
I can’t get enough of it. Thanks so much, Cindy!
Of your many memorable articles I know that this on a movie that improves with age (Mine. I never did get it in my younger years.), that my family has taken to the grandson of The 39 Steps.
…, will live a very long time.
(Got distracted and hit button at wrong time.)
Thanks, Paddy! I live distracted. 🙂
One of the first films I ever bought on vhs, but never replaced with the current DVD version. And how many times hve I seen it? Not enough since, after reading your great piece, I have to rent it to see it once- or twice- again! Thank you. A great review and tribute.
Thanks bunches, Emilio! I have the bluray and it looks gorgeous. Enjoy the revisit!
Still my all-time favorite Hitchcock film. Awesome post, Aurora.
Thanks, Michael! So glad you liked it.
Great post. I love that description of The 39 Steps by your friend. I hadn’t thought of the similarities.
N.B.W. Is just perfect in every way – writing, casting, sets, music.And all centered around Mr. Grant! For me it is Hitchcock and Grant’s swan song. I know they did other films after that, but this is the actor and the director at their very best.
The epitome of greatness where all elements came together. Agree, Vienna, and thanks for the visit!
Good essay. Most artists ‘copy’ themselves. You can find repeated themes, motifs, etc. in art, literature. music, etc. In Hitchcock’s penultimate film FRENZY (1972) he also repeated THE 39 STEPS’s plot device of a innocent man framed for a crime he didn’t commit and he can’t go to the police because he can’t prove it. Then he’s on the run from them and sometimes the people who set him up. And in how many other non-Hitchcock films and TV shows have we seen this plot device used? Countless and probably once a week on TV.
I could probably never put into (intelligible) words how much I adore this movie. It’s simply the best of the best. I always get a kick out of the fact that the crop duster scene is supposed to be in Indiana, my home state. Wonderful post!
This post is just fantastic! t made me think about some things:
1- Cyd Charisse wouldn’t have been right in Eve’s role. But Sophia could make it work!
2- James Mason is a god of acting.
3- I’ve never realized how NxN and 39 Steps are similar, and it’s very curious. I also discarded NxN in the riddle because it doens’t involve stabbing, but I couldn’t solve it quickly.
Congrats on such a brilliant post.
This is a fantastic article!!! I love how you broke it down into all the elements of a Hitchcock film.
Thanks for contributing this wonderful post to the Blogathon!!
Thank YOU for hosting! 🙂
North by Northwest is one of the greatest films of all time, however, may I politely urge you to take any assertion made by celebrity biographer Marc Eliot with a grain of salt. He famously makes sloppy errors that could easily be cleared up by simply checking IMDB.com. Marc Eliot also has a habit of drawing titillating conclusions about his subjects based on rumor and innuendo. In other words, Marc Eliot is sort of a hack.
Agreed. I take most biographies with a grain of salt and use harmless facts available in them to tell a blog story.
I should say harmless information, not facts.
You shouldn’t have a default position that most biographers are no good — many are quite good at what they do. But Marc Eliot has made a career of screwing up basic facts that are readily available to anyone with an ounce of energy for doing fact-checking. He’s just sloppy and incompetent. Also Donald Spoto is another one to take with a grain of salt, particularly considering his antipathy for Hitchcock. Spoto likes to psycho-analyze the people he dislikes. By the way, here’s what a film blogger (not me) has to say about Marc Eliot’s recent biography of John Wayne; https://rogersmovienation.com/2014/12/24/marc-eliots-new-john-wayne-biography-sucks/
What I mean was that I read these books for entertainment I don’t necessarily take what’s in them as gospel. I’ve read several by authors whose work I greatly admire, Cari Beauchamp and Scott Eyman are examples. I know of Eliot’s reputation as I do Spoto’s.