Alfred Hitchcock Travels “North by Northwest”

25 01 2011

“In this picture nothing was left to chance, and that’s why, when it was over, I took a very firm stand. I’d never worked for M-G-M before, and when it was edited, they put on a lot of pressure to have me eliminate a whole sequence at the end of the picture. I refused.” — Alfred Hitchcock

“North by Northwest,” Hitchcock’s final picture of the 1950s, put a cap on his most productive and successful decade while revisiting many of his past themes one last time. Written by Ernest Lehman, the movie starred Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason, along with many other fine actors. Lehman signed on to work on the film based on two concepts: One was Hitchcock’s idea about a chase across Mount Rushmore, in which the hero would hide in Lincoln’s nose. (One of the film’s working titles was “The Man in Lincoln’s Nose,” in fact.) The other was a tale from World War II about women working in an inactive intelligence office who made up an operative with such a high degree of detail that the Germans actually tried to find this fictitious agent.

Grant plays Madison Avenue ad man Roger Thornhill, whose life runs like a whirlwind; at the start of the picture, he’s grabbing a taxi with his secretary in tow. She taking notes from him on who to call and where to send flowers, never missing a beat, until he gets out and sends her back to the office to carry out his instructions.

At his club, where he’s meeting clients, Grant realizes that he needs to tell his secretary one more thing. He flags down a waiter who’s calling for a George Kaplan, leading two thugs standing at the door to decide that Thornhill is Kaplan. They hustle him into a car and drive him to a Long Island mansion with the name “Townsend” on the lawn, where Thornhill is questioned by a man played by James Mason, who we later learn is Phillip Vandamm. Vandamm can’t get anything out of Thornhill except protestations that he is not Kaplan, so Vandamm decides to get rid of him. He has his thugs pour boubon down his throat until he’s hammered, then put him in a car on a cliffside highway. Thornhill manages to drive the car until he’s pulled over by the police, who arrest him for drunk driving. (Grant had been driven by drunk women before in Hitchcock’s “Notorious” and “To Catch a Thief.” Nice that he got to do his own drunk driving this time out!)

The next morning, Thornhill is bailed out by his mother, played by Jessie Royce Landis, and his attorney, played by Edward Platt. With two local police detectives, they visit the mansion to see if Thornhill’s story of attempted murder is true, but Thornhill is greeted by a woman who convinces everyone but him that he had been a guest at a party and had gotten drunk on his own.

Thornhill and his mother head back to Manhattan and visit George Kaplan’s room at the Plaza, but learn nothing about Kaplan other than, based on his clothes, he can’t look much like Thornhill. Thornhill takes a cab to the United Nations, where Townsend is about to address the General Assembly – and Thornhill believes that his captor was this Townsend. The real Townsend stops to chat with Thornhill, but as they talk, Townsend collapses, a knife in his back. A crowd forms as Thornhill runs, now wanted for murder.

Spectacular bird's-eye view shot of Grant running out of the U.N.

On Kaplan’s trail, Thornhill goes to Grand Central Station to catch a train to Chicago. Onboard he bumps into Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who hides him from the police. She takes a liking to him, and when they reach Chicago, she tells him that she knows Kaplan. She gets on the phone and arranges a meeting, although Thornhill is unaware that she is working for Vandamm.

In one of the most famous sequences of Hitchcock’s career, Thornhill takes a bus from Chicago into farm country, where he’s to meet the elusive Kaplan. A crop dusting biplane turns toward Thornhill, swooping down and almost hitting him before opening fire. Thornhill takes refuge in a cornfield but is smoked out by the crop dust. Reaching the highway again, Thornhill flags down a gasoline truck, nearly getting run over himself. The plane swoops in low, smashing into the truck and exploding. Thornhill steals one of a rubbernecker’s truck and shoots back to Chicago.

He confronts Kendall at her hotel, but she claims not to know what happened to Kaplan. She slips out for a meeting, and Thornhill follows her to an auction where she meets Vandamm and his right hand man, Leonard (played by a young Martin Landau). After making some ugly accusations against Kendall, Thornhill sees that he is surrounded by Vandamm’s goons. He disrupts the auction and is arrested, but after receiving special instructions, the police take him to an airport.

There Thornhill meets the Professor (Leo G. Carroll), who works for the U.S. government. He explains that there is no Kaplan; he was invented to distract attention from Kendall, who is a double agent working against Vandamm, trying to stop him from leaving the country with microfilm hidden in a Buddha – the film’s Macguffin. The Professor gets Thornhill to agree to help, since he his harsh words at the auction have put Kendall’s life in danger.

Thornhill accompanies the Professor to Rapid City, South Dakota, where, pretending to actually be Kaplan, he meets Vandamm at the Mount Rushmore cafeteria. Thornhill proposes to let Vandamm leave the country that night with the microfilm in exchange for the girl, but when she hears this, she pulls a gun and shoots him. Vandamm and Leonard rush out of the cafeteria, and Thornhill his taken away in an ambulance to a wooded spot where we see that he miraculously is unharmed, thanks to the blanks in Kendall’s gun. They make up, but she has to go join Vandamm for his flight out of the country so that he does not suspect her true mission.

Thornhill is horrified to hear this, and he slips out of the hospital where the professor has stashed him. He makes his way to the mountainside house of Vandamm and overhears Leonard telling his boss that Kendall has betrayed him, and that it’s time to get rid of her. Thornhill gets a message to Kendall, and as Vandamm and Leonard escort her to the airplane and her doom, she grabs the Buddha and runs to Thornhill’s side.

The two of them are chased across Mount Rushmore by Leonard and another of Vandamm’s men. They nearly fall to their deaths, and Thornhill tries to lighten to mood by proposing marriage. As they try to hold on, Leonard finds them and steps on Thornhill’s fingers, but is shot by a park ranger. Thornhill pulls Kendall to safety, and in one of the fastest scene changes in film history, Thornhill is suddenly pulling Kendall into the upper berth of a train car, as they are now safe and married.

Cary Grant himself claimed he could not follow the plot of “North by Northwest,” and while the story is very elaborate, it actually holds together well. Hitchcock even goes to the trouble of having Vandamm address the mystery of who killed Lester Townsend at the U.N.; this was more explanation than Hitch usually bothered with.

If Ernest Lehman set out to create the ultimate Hitchcock film, he certainly succeeded in style and in references to previous works, especially “The 39 Steps”; Roger Thornhill is the latest in a long line of wrongly accused heroes in Hitchcock’s films. Most of all, the movie recalls “The 39 Steps,” with its chase-driven plot, its fascination with trains and a mystery woman who, this time, gives the hero refuge. Its auction scene echoes “The Skin Game,” and the fall from Mount Rushmore hearkens back to “Saboteur.”

The many locales in “North by Northwest” give Hitchcock the chance to create one set piece after another; Hitchcock was known for his action sequences in interesting places, from the chase at the British Museum in “Blackmail” to the fight on the merry-go-round in “Strangers on a Train.” Here, key moments occur at a luxurious Long Island Mansion, at New York’s Plaza Hotel, at the United Nations, at Grand Central Station and at Mount Rushmore. Even the barren landscape of the airplace sequence takes on a special significance as Roger Thornhill strains to locate George Kaplan.

Like “Saboteur,” another of Hitchcock’s chase movies, “North by Northwest” blazes from one American locale to another; the two movies also kill off their villains with a fall from a patriotic monument – in “Saboteur,” it was the Statue of Liberty. But “North by Northwest” is much more fast-paced and busy than “Saboteur,” which had a meandering feel to it. Here, Roger Thornhill is in constant pursuit of George Kaplan; his goal is well-defined and never out of mind.

Hitchcock on the set, skipping his normal suit and tie on a hot day.

Hitchcock said that with the exception of the train going into the tunnel at the very end of the picture, “North by Northwest” was devoid of symbolism, yet I’d suggest that Roger Thornhill’s famous gray suit had meaning, as it stamps Thornhill as a New York ad man. The other moment of symbolism occurs when Thornhill shaves in a public bathroom at Grand Central Station, using a tiny razor from the train. Thornhill responds to a scowl from another man with a helpless shrug; surely the tiny razor represents Thornhill’s powerlessness in his situation?

This was Cary Grant’s last film with Hitchcock, and as always, he makes a dashing hero, even when he’s confused and scowling. James Mason is a delightfully slimy villain, certainly the equal of Claude Rains in “Notorious.” Eva Marie Saint lives up to her part in the film, and Martin Landau is dismissive of women as he drops hints about his character’s homosexuality, mentioning his “women’s intuition,” and admitting that he’s jealous of Vandamm’s relationship with Kendall.

The opening credits are designed once again by Saul Bass, who starts with type against a green background, then introduces an isometric grid which slowly reveals New York City. We see shot after shot of crowded sidewalks, followed by a bus pulling into the street just as Hitchcock dashes toward it. It’s one of Hitch’s more clever cameos, and he gets it out of the way almost immediately, setting the pace for the story to come.

It took a long time to settle on the title “North by Nortwest,” a phrase that comes from “Hamlet,” and which Hitch manages to reference by putting Thornhill and the Professor on a Northwest Airlines flight. Working titles included “The Man in Lincoln’s Nose,” “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose,” and “In a Northwesterly Direction.” Whatever the names it might have had, “North by Northwest” remains one of Hitchcock’s most enjoyable and lighthearted films.

In the trailer, Hitchcock plays travel agent, taking advantage of his growing recognizability from his duties as host of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Next, we’ll look at “Psycho,” a film that launched Alfred Hitchcock in a new direction and gave us the modern horror film.

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