North By Northwest

Self-serving silliness with an exquisite puzzle.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s definitive spy thriller, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is an advertising executive with a comfortable life until he is mistaken for a Government agent and pursued relentlessly by villain Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). The authorities know what’s going on but can’t risk exposure and have to leave the exasperated Thornhill to his fate. Despite the perpetual confusion, he’s determined to clear his name and finds himself running across the country with the mysterious Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint).

1958 was a long time ago, so is it worth a trip to the pictures when it’s readily available? Of course it is. North By Northwest is from one of the great directors during arguably the most creatively successful and vibrant run that any filmmaker has ever had. Alfred Hitchcock had just made Vertigo and would release Psycho two years later. It was an incredible time for cinema during what we now know to be the tail-end of the studio system.

This is Hitchcock’s most pure nonsense film, designed to be absurd, contradictory and, well, a bit silly. Even Cary Grant would tell the director that the script was rubbish because he couldn’t make sense of it. That’s the point. Even the title “North, by Northwest” isn’t a useful direction, though it does sum up Grant’s confused Roger Thornhill, running in circles to escape a nightmare of mistaken identity. So why then is this film largely accepted as the precursor to the James Bond franchise? An even loftier claim might suggest the action genre as a whole owes it a debt. The link is there: Bond movies are fantastic, but nonsense just the same; a collection of set-pieces joined up by a loose plot. How invested you are, depends on how intriguing the interchangeable MacGuffin is (a conceit Hitchcock popularised: the idea that the Maltese Falcon could have been a bucket of wallpaper paste for all the influence the object actually had).

The set-piece is just one convention that is taken for granted today. While watching North By Northwest there is a fascination to be had in Hitchcock’s almost perverse experimentation with the narrative. How long can a scene play out entirely for its own benefit, without adding anything to the story and without losing the audience’s focus? Pretty long, as it happens, and we know that now. I wonder what the longest set-piece is? Probably a good chunk of Mad Max: Fury Road. Hitchcock had dealt with such audience-pleasing absurdity his whole career, if in a more traditional sense. When he moved to America, British and French critics were the only ones to really champion his genius which we all appreciate now, but there was a sense at the time that popularity meant it couldn’t be important.

When Cary Grant stood at the side of a lonely road, smack-bang in the middle of nowhere, wondering why a crop-dusting plane was dusting crops where no crops needed to be dusted, this kind of scene was unexplored territory. There had been absurd action sequences before of course, but it’s hard to think of one so entirely contrived to be out of context. In the famous interviews conducted by François Truffaut, Hitchcock said he wanted to do the polar opposite to what is expected of a typical assassination attempt; the trap has been sprung not in a shadowy street, but in wide-open, harsh sunlight, and the discreet pistol is replaced by a plane. Utterly impractical and has no impact on the plot but for a single fact that Cary Grant could have learned from a single line of well-placed dialogue. Yet it is one of cinema’s greatest and most influential moments, using space instead of time to create tension, something, as Truffaut said, only a director could conceive. It would seem to bear an uncanny resemblance to Omar Shariff’s entrance in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia just a few years later.

The cast is wonderful. Cary Grant was one of Hitchcock’s favourite leading actors, exuding effortless charm. The villain of the piece, silky-voiced James Mason, would have made a perfect Bond villain; he even has a goon to do his dirty work (Martin Landau), and an ostentatious hideaway, tucked behind Mount Rushmore. Between Grant and Mason is one of Hitchcock’s icy blondes, Eva Marie Saint, as a classic femme fatale and a pre-cursor to the Bond girl. I know I’ve mentioned Bond clichés a few times now, but the similarity with the franchise is extraordinary. Dr. No was just four years away. Hitchcock was reportedly annoyed by those films, which he saw as misunderstanding the method he exercised. He would make the flawed, but spiky Topaz in response, featuring an egotistical secret agent, oblivious to the chaos he causes.

North By Northwest finds Hitchcock at the height of his powers and is glorious fun, especially in the third act with some brilliant espionage sequences before a rattling finale. It seems a common complaint these days to identify when a film supposedly forgets to include “character development” or condemn the plot for missing some grand meaning. Gravity was a recent film where some criticised it for being simplistic and underdeveloped, almost as if Alfonso Cuarón had carelessly misplaced Sandra Bullock’s motivation. On the contrary, simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve. Like Cary Grant on a dusty road, there’s nowhere to hide and simplicity does not infer a lack of talent or innovation.

Hitchcock loved to experiment and embrace challenges. He’d done the single-shot thing with Rope and finally cracked the incredible dolly zoom for Vertigo (only took him about 20 years). Here, the experiment was the film itself. A kind of greatest hits summary of his work since The 39 Steps and Foreign Correspondent. Stripped-back narrative aside, every scene is bursting with invention; the change of perspective in Cary Grant’s first meeting with James Mason, the beautiful aerial shot at the United Nations building, or the death-defying finale atop Mount Rushmore. Rather than finding Hitchcock coasting (as he did very occasionally), the picture fizzles with energy, especially with such cheeky dialogue and chemistry between the leads. Hitchcock’s mastery of suspense is undiminished and your heart will be in your mouth more than once.

There might not be a complicated plot, but the writing is top notch, the dialogue a joy, a throwback to Grant’s motormouth early features, and Eva Marie Saint matches him. Plus, there’s an extraordinary method of avoiding baggage: Grant’s Roger Thornhill has the whole story explained to him in a thumping great lump of exposition just before the third act kicks in, except, you can’t hear a thing. He’s walking towards a plane and the conversation is drowned out by the engines. We the audience already know the gist, but still, it’s brazen to construct such a thing and then purposefully obscure it. Meanwhile, Hitchcock had also lost patience with romance plots, even if that’s the only thing the film is really about. So often in his career, a story was undermined by having to adhere to moral standards that there would be no hanky-panky, not even a whisper of a love affair, without a marriage proposal. The studio system was creaking to a halt in the fifties and so Hitchcock had room for a lot of fun with some risqué dialogue. He’d ramped up the sexual tension to match the pace of the film and the very final brief shot is definitely a climax.

The current Blu-ray release is an eye-poppingly good transfer, reference quality for such remastered oldies, but North By Northwest is back in cinemas this week and it’s worth seeing on a screen as big as possible. It still works, more so than many of its peers.

Jon Meakin

Updated: Oct 20, 2017

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