Director Alfred Hitchcock was reputed to have said, “All actors should be treated like cattle.” Luckily for film audiences, his less than respectful attitude didn’t stop top stars from working with “The Master of Suspense” multiple times. These included James Stewart (“Rope,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo”), Ingrid Bergman (“Notorious,” “Spellbound,” “Under Capricorn”), and Grace Kelly (“Rear Window,” “Dial M for Murder,” “To Catch a Thief”).
Just as he did with Stewart, Hitchcock made four films with leading man Cary Grant. Their 1959 collaboration, “North by Northwest,” is being screened in movie theaters this week by TCM and Fathom Events. Seeing it on the big screen reminds audiences of what a top-notch production this film was, capturing both Hitchcock and Grant at the height of their powers.
The plot centers on a case of mistaken identity, one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes. Ernest Lehman’s script builds suspense but also includes excellent tongue-in-cheek humor, a combination that would soon be exploited by the James Bond film series (Bond’s producers originally wanted Grant to play 007).
The cast of “North by Northwest” is top-notch. Grant’s innocent bystander, ad man Roger Thornhill, is pitted against Cold War mastermind Phillip Vandamm, played with cooled malevolence by James Mason. Vandamm’s “right arm” is Leonard (Martin Landau), a vicious and suspicious enforcer.
“North by Northwest” really plays to all of Grant’s strengths: his quick, dry wit; his good looks and elegant style; and his athleticism (Grant ran away from home as a young teen to perform with an acrobatic troupe). In his first outing with Hitchcock (1941’s “Suspicion”), Grant played a character whose morals and honesty are never quite clear to the audience. Hitchcock had wanted to make “Suspicion’s” ending clearer but the releasing studio (RKO) had wanted to protect Grant’s image. Hitchcock never ran that risk again, instead always casting Grant as someone who seemed to have it all, yet was approachable.
Hitchcock chose actresses who could hold their own alongside their male counterparts. Eva Marie Saint (the only surviving lead from “North by Northwest”) plays Eve Kendall, Thornhill’s love interest and a resourceful woman. Thornhill’s mother (Jessie Royce Landis) has some of the best quips as she scoffs at the idea of anyone kidnapping her son. Landis also co-starred in another maternal role alongside Grant in Hitchcock’s 1955 “To Catch a Thief.”
Hitchcock’s directing and Lehman’s script are complemented by Bernard Herrmann’s score. The orchestral music helps build suspense, especially via the use of pounding kettle drums. And the incidental music provides a touch of humor when “It’s a Most Unusual Day” plays in the Plaza Hotel as Thornhill is mistaken and then kidnapped.
Other humorous winks are scattered throughout the film. The taxi Thornhill tricks a waiting customer into letting him have is the “Kind Taxi” service. Hitchcock’s cameo moment features the director rushing to catch a bus only to have the door slam shut in his face. Thornhill’s monogram, “ROT,” has a double meaning. As he explains to Eve, he really doesn’t have a middle name; so, the O stands for “nothing.” But, “rot” could also refer to Thornhill’s career in advertising, which he admits is basically built on “expedient exaggeration.”
The movie’s title refers to the direction Thornhill must take across the US as he tries to correct the case of mistaken identity. His travels let the audience see some very elegant spots – New York’s Plaza Hotel, Chicago’s Ambassador East Hotel, and first class passage aboard the 20th Century Limited train (as the script notes, plane travel was just beginning to edge out train travel in 1959; it was still a time when the mode of travel for the well-to-do was as much a part of the experience as their arrival at the actual destination). Other scenes are set in a Long Island estate, at the UN headquarters (which had only opened 7 years earlier), and Vandamm’s Modernist South Dakota lair. With all of these locales, Hitchcock and Lehman were exploiting two more of Hitchcock’s favorite themes- that danger can occur anywhere and being well-to-do may be the perfect cover for crime.
From “North by Northwest’s” opening titles, featuring artwork by designer Saul Bass, to the film’s ultimate suspenseful conclusion on Mount Rushmore, Hitchcock and Grant and company provide audiences with a prime example of adventure entertainment at its very best.