Let’s Talk About… ‘North by Northwest’ (1959)

Film #40 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.


Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason


Foreword: This is not my greatest literary effort but I would like to take this opportunity to dedicate my writing to my big brother Josh who passed away on March 3, 2018. You are gone too soon but I know that we will meet again on the other side. I love you.


I cannot exactly recall which official Hitchcock film I saw first. Though I watched Psycho II quite often in my youth, I never realised that the first few minutes of it were taken from 1960’s Psycho. Even with regular pop culture references to his work while growing  up, notably To Catch a Thief (my mother loved Grace Kelly-related gossip) and The Birds (it gave her nightmares for years), I only came to discover and appreciate Hitchcock in my late 20s. I own most of his films on DVD although I am missing his early British titles and some of the last pictures he made. No matter how many times I watch his films, I never get bored and still find that the excitement keeps me on the edge of my seat. Hitchcock is not called “The Master of Suspense” for nothing.


The Story

 Taken seriously, the plot makes no sense whatsoever. This is fortunate, because, taken seriously, its implications about the heroine’s morals, the methods of American intelligence agencies and sundry other matters are alarming to say the least. It is amazing, nevertheless, how entertaining the picture is as it unreels. – Moira Walsh, America, August 22,1959

Since the plot of this film is distinctly hard to describe without spoiling the story, I decided to use TCM’s brief synopsis in the place of a longer one. They pretty much nailed it in one simple sentence which preserves Hitchcock’s masterpiece for those who have not yet seen it. Sir Alfred did so hate giving away clues to his films!

An advertising man is mistaken for a spy, triggering a deadly cross-country chase.


Background & Cast

The screenplay for North by Northwest was written by celebrated writer Ernest Lehman and was his only solo original work for the big screen. All his other writing credits were adaptations from either novels or stage plays, including: Executive Suite, The King and I, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Hello, Dolly! and Hitchcock’s Family Plot. Although nominated six times for an Academy Award for Best Writing and Best Picture, Lehman never once won an Oscar. In fact, West Side Story was nominated for 11 Oscars and almost did a complete sweep, taking home 10 of them. The only award it did not win was for Best Screenplay, Lehman’s category. Later on life, however, he was awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 2001 “in appreciation of a body of varied and enduring work” throughout his career. Lehman provides the commentary for North by Northwest and it is delightful to hear him share stories from the set and to drop interesting tidbits of trivia. He seems very approachable with his choice of words and with his calm, down-to-earth demeanour. I was quite surprised to take notice that he had written/adapted so many successful musicals because the material for North by Northwest is worlds apart from dialogue squeezed between song and dance routines. Perhaps this goes to show how much hidden talent Lehman had inside of him, making me slightly disappointed that he did not try his hand at submitting more original stories. At the same time, one can only be grateful to Lehman for his genius in creating North by Northwest, a story which was a hybrid of his personal ideas and Hitchcock’s unrefined, random desires to see “x” put on film.

Stuck between two henchman and a hard place

One of the things that makes the screenplay so grand is that it is weaved with realism, helping to propel viewers into not only believing main character Roger Thornhill but also to feel vulnerable to the possibility of a similar situation happening to them. This was achieved by Lehman following the exact same trajectory as Thornhill, visiting the same locales and using the same means of transportation. Moreover, Lehman actually subjected himself to experiences like being arrested and booked, being taken through the entire process by cooperative authorities. So, how Thornhill is treated in the film is, or at least was at the time, correct legal procedure which also adds authenticity to the circumstances. Hitchcock was a man of multiple phobias, one of which was an ominous fear of the police. The theme of running away from them and/or being captured by them is a characteristic many of his films share. It was always Hitchcock’s intention to create fear in viewers; the fear that they could be the same kind of victim as Thornhill but in real life! When you look at his body of work, it is clearly a testament to this notion and the fascinating part about it is that the viewer remains almost entirely unaware of his method, unless of course you enjoy listening to audio commentaries and behind-the-scenes documentaries!

Hitchcock films were always noted for their wonderful casts, habitually made up of the biggest and most talented names in the entertainment business. Though casting directors often had the responsibility of filling acting roles, Hitchcock’s wife Alma always had a say in the process and most likely for the better because she had very good intuition.

No one can wear a pair of shades like Cary Grant

Cary Grant was a perfect choice to play Roger Thornhill and would-be George Kaplan. His debonair charm and refined appearance was surprisingly versatile, allowing him to play the straight/serious man at the same time as giving him in the capacity to be a convincing comedian, not to mention that his good looks made him a most desirable love interest. Grant is very at ease in his role and plays it divinely, particularly in the infamous crop duster chase scene through the corn fields. The chemistry between him and Eva Marie Saint is intense, leading their romantic scenes to be quite steamy and intimate despite them being G-rated in content. The most provocative aspect of their conversation while in the dining car is the innuendo which translates into foreplay.

Eva Marie Saint & Cary Grant make love so beautifully together

Saint is sexy, smart and sensual as Eve Kendall, making her one of the most convincing of Hitchcock’s icy blondes. Interestingly enough, she was not the studio’s first choice for the role as they placed their influence behind an actress named Cyd Charisse, best known for her dancing skills rather than acting ones. MGM’s preference for Charisse is puzzling considering this besides the fact that she was overall just plain wrong for the role.

James Mason as Philip Vandamm


James Mason does a fitting job as a villainous character although most of his physical dirty work is done by an array of henchman. His effectiveness largely arises from his verbal delivery via a flawless and delicious British accent that entrances you from the moment he starts speaking. This allows him to give the impression that he individually holds a great deal more power and influence than reality would suggest. The character of Philip Vandamm is protected by his entourage, notably Leonard, his closest aid and confidant played by Martin Landau in his first feature film. Landau had one of the most amazingly sinister gazes that Technicolor could exploit, with piercing blue eyes, devilish eyebrows, and an air of unbreakable seriousness. He is truly a standout in this film and it is regrettable that his part was not more featured although it is clear that he steals every scene in which he appears.

Martin Landau as Leonard


Musical Score

Bernard Herrmann composed the music for North by Northwest as well as for three other Hitchcock films: The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo and Psycho. The sound he provides for this film is very unique and befitting to the story. While listening to his overture, I detect several mini-climatic moments that seem to represent the patriotic march of a wrongly accused man finding justice, manoeuvring around obstacles that are dangerous but that can be overthrown. Herrmann has given Roger Thornhill, by all means an ordinary man, the march of an immortal comic book hero.


My Opinion

North by Northwest is most deserving of its place on the AFI 100 Greatest Films list and I encourage anyone who has not seen it to most definitely do so. Personally, it is not my highest ranking preferred Hitchcock film but it is most certainly an excellent picture that gains much value when considering Ernest Lehman’s original screenplay and inspiration. Enjoy! 🙂

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