Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
A hapless New York advertising executive is mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies, and is pursued across the country while he looks for a way to survive.
In 1935 Alfred Hitchcock made a movie called The 39 Steps about a man who is falsely accused of murder and is chased throughout the Scottish countryside by the police and a group of spies before clearing his name. Nearly 25 years later, Hitchcock made a similar movie, this time based in America, called North by Northwest (1959).
What separates North by Northwest from the majority of Hitchcock’s wrong man accused movies is that there is a lot of humor here. The talented Cary Grant plays the lead role of Roger Thornhill. Grant had been a huge success in screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940). He had also been one of Hitchcock’s favorite actors to use.
Thornhill is an advertising executive who deals with the hustle and bustle of New York City the best way he can. He always seems to be on the move, but he makes sure he enjoys himself. On the way to lunch one day, he is stopped in a restaurant by some men. The men say they need to talk to him and then they kidnap Thornhill. He is taken out to the countryside where the kidnappers believe he is government agent named George Kaplan, a man who is supposed to be hot on their trail as the kidnappers are doing some spying on the U.S. government.
The spies are never specified as to their country of origin or really what the significance is of what they are after. Microfilm is what drives these spies, we find out. This is the largest McGuffin used in Hitchcock’s movies. It is merely a device to further the story, but matters little as the real story is about the relationships between the people in the movie.
Thornhill denies being Kaplan to no avail. The kidnappers decide to get him drunk and then set him loose on a drive through the countryside. This scene is similar to the one in Notorious (1946) where a drunken Ingrid Bergman takes a wild car ride with Cary Grant. Even the scene in To Catch a Thief (1955) with Grace Kelly and Cary Grant comes to mind. Grant seems to find himself in dangerous automobile situations when working with Hitchcock. He was even in a treacherous car ride in Suspicion (1941), just before Joan Fontaine gave her Oscar winning speech.
Getting back to the story, Grant ends up drunk in a police station and has to call his mother for help. The mother is a frequent character in Hitchcock movies. Thornhill’s mothers might be the most quirky of all Hitchcock ones. Anyway, Thornhill explains that he was kidnapped and the cops go with him to the countryside estate where the kidnappers are. At least that is where they were. No one knows what Thornhill is talking about. They say the house belongs to a man who is a part of the United Nations.
Embarrassed, Grant goes to the United Nations to find the man who owns the estate. This is an important scene in the movie and one that almost didn’t happen. The government would not allow Hitchcock to film on the UN property. So Hitch asked if he could go in to make measurements so they could rebuild some of the building in the studio. Hitch snuck a camera into the building and got some of the great shots used in the movie illegally.
Thornhill goes to the UN where the man he is looking for is killed. Stabbed in the back by someone. Thornhill is the only one around and he pulls the knife out of the man’s back. Being the UN, there are photographers around and Thornhill is captured while holding the knife over the dead man. He is obviously branded as the murderer. Now the situation is set up: Thornhill is on the run from the spy ring because they think he is Kaplan. He is also on the run from the police because they believe he killed the man in the UN.
At this point we cut away from Thornhill’s troubles and listen in to a meeting in Washington. Here it is explained by government officials that there is no man named Kaplan. He was just made-up to keep the spy ring occupied while the real secret agent infiltrates them. Since Thornhill has become the target of the spy ring, the government officials believe all is well. No sense in disrupting their good fortune by telling Thornhill that there is no Kaplan, although it would mean saving his life.
Thornhill makes his way onto a train headed toward Chicago, where Kaplan is supposed to be at this point. On the train he meets the cool blonde Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint. In a scene similar to that of The 39 Steps, Thornhill is on the run from the police and ends up “accidentally” stepping into the cabin of the cool blonde. Unlike in The 39 Steps, here Eve accepts the advances of Thornhill.
The train makes it to Chicago where Eve makes sure she handles all the details between Thornhill and Kaplan, as it would be a bad idea to have a wanted man picked up in a public phone booth. Eve says Kaplan will meet Thornhill at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere. So Thornhill gets on the bus and heads from the city to farmland.
The famous crop duster scene occurs here. Hitchcock took the typical cliché of being set up from the dark alleys of the major metropolitan area to the warm sunshiny cornfields of the Midwest. Film noir this is not, but it is suspenseful.
Getting chased by a crop duster would make anyone angry and Thornhill is just that as he makes it back to Chicago. He discovers that Eve has been playing him for a sap and vows vengeance on her as he discovers she has been palling around with Philip Vandamm, played by James Mason, the head of the spy ring.
To give a quick recap of what happens, the officials in Washington step in to help Thornhill out as he has almost blown the cover of their secret agent, Eve, while trying to embarrass here at an auction. The officials take Thornhill to Mount Rushmore where he is briefed on the situation. A plan is executed, Thornhill is almost executed, and the movie ends with a harrowing trip around the monuments of Mount Rushmore. Like the UN building, Hitch was unable to film on the monuments -- something about defacing them by having people run over the faces. It didn’t matter, as they were recreated in the studio.
North by Northwest is one of Hitchcock’s best movies. It is also one of his most beloved. This is because the movie is filled with plenty of suspense, plus an equal amount of comedy. Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are a wonderful team on-screen and James Mason plays a wonderful bad guy. This is simply an enjoyable movie for people of all tastes.