North by Northwest (1959)
Starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason
Written by Ernest Lehman
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Cary Grant is Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising executive who has no problem with lying. During a dinner with “friends,” he’s abducted by two thugs and driven to a grand house in the countryside. He’s met by a gentleman (Mason) who insists he’s a man named George Kaplan, beaten up and interrogated. When he refuses to give up any information, Thornhill is given a bottle of whiskey and put inside a stolen car, then pushed towards the cliff of a winding oceanside road. He barely escapes. He does, though, and when the police won’t believe his story he takes it upon himself to figure out just what the hell is going on.
That investigation takes him from New York to Mt. Rushmore, meeting a host of shadowy characters along the way. Despite the dizzy confusion Thornhill suffers and the incredibly high stakes at play here, he never loses the ability to crack a joke with his traveling partner Eve Kendall (Saint) or basically lie his way deeper into trouble. This humble Mad. man actually turns out perfectly suited for the adventure, right down to the sudden, cheeky epilogue.
North by Northwest is a much lighter film than most of Hitchcock’s work, and I’d like to think that’s mostly due to the whip-crack writing of Ernest Lehman and the wry, sharp delivery of Cary Grant. Hitchcock’s direction is as sure as ever, and he keeps things moving along at a nice, brisk pace. The movie is over two hours long, but it really doesn’t feel like it — you’re hooked from the moment that Thornhill is taken until that climactic chase and battle on the top of Mount Rushmore. It’s a small feat to make a movie that long pass the time so quickly.
What I love about the film is how comfortably Grant falls into the role of action hero. He looks about as old as Roger Moore does during his Bond run, but it doesn’t slow him down. There are a ton of crazy setpieces he has to navigate, from that first drunken car escape, to the iconic biplane attack, to running through the woods from thugs sent to kill him. He manages to keep the tone wonderfully light, so that his Thornhill is up to any challenge thrown at him. A career of lying and being forced to think fast on your feet is all he needs to get out of most jams, along with a bit of luck or two.
The story is twisty enough that you’re never quite sure of your footing, even though the plot is laid out for you in an exposition-heavy scene right after our introduction to the hero. I won’t go into details here, but I will have to say it’s just a bit disappointing — the first thirty minutes have that amazing “What the hell?” feeling, where you have no idea how this situation could have developed but an incredible curiosity about it. To have everything explained by a bunch of men in a room lets the air out of the premise just a bit, but you don’t have much time to cling to your expectation of a more measured revelation. You’re given the information and then they’re off to the races once again.
Eva Marie Saint makes an excellent foil and companion to Grant’s Thornhill. She’s smart, mysterious, elegant, delicate and a bit vulgar all in one package. It’s fascinating to watch them play off each other, and it really brings home the value of having two leads with undeniable chemistry. Even though they spend a lot of time sniping each other, you just know that they’re really having a blast. That sense of fun infuses the entire movie.
It’s quite a fun piece of popular art, and a perfect template for the Bond movies that would come three years later. I enjoyed it from top to bottom — with just a small disappointment near the beginning — and it’s made me a fan of Cary Grant, Eve Marie Saint and Hitchcock himself. The more I read about his movies, the more fascinated I become.