North by Northwest is considered by many film critics to be the epitome of Hitchcock’s suspense movies. It has several iconic scenes and involves several high-powered Hollywood stars being choreographed through a very intricate and confusing plot about spies and murder that has a love story embedded in the middle. But I’ve always thought it was a bit much. It’s almost a send-up of some of his earlier stuff.
The plot revolves around a New York advertising executive, Roger Thornhill, played by Cary Grant, being mistaken by a gang of Soviet spies for an American agent named George Kaplan who we find out later doesn’t actually exist. Thornhill is kidnapped and brought to an estate on Long Island where he is given a choice; provide the Russian spies with information or be liquidated. Thornhill adamantly maintains that he isn’t Kaplan and so they proceed with the murder. They force Thornhill to drink a quart of bourbon and then put him behind the wheel of a car heading for a cliff. But Thornhill manages to drunk-drive the car along a steep curving country road without crashing and eventually he is arrested by the local police. After this there is a great deal of confusion as Thornhill attempts to find the men who attempted to kill him. He next finds himself at the UN Building looking for the ringleader but instead he is somehow framed for the murder of a diplomat.
While trying to escape arrest by the NYPD, Thornhill next jumps aboard the 20th Century Limited, a luxury train that travels to Chicago where “Kaplan” has an appointment. On the train he meets Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint, and they begin a romance while she manages to hide him from the police. But we are shown that secretly she is working with the Russian spies. Eve pretends to get in touch with Kaplan for Thornhill and tells him to meet Kaplan at a rural Illinois bus stop that is surrounded by cornfields. No one shows up until finally a crop-dusting biplane chases Thornhill and starts firing machine gun slugs at him. Eventually the plane somehow crashes into a fuel tanker truck and Thornhill escapes back to Chicago in a stolen vehicle.
Now he confronts Eve with her spy friends at a fine arts auction. He discovers that his nemesis is named Phillip Vandamm, played with his usual suave style by James Mason. And he discovers that Vandamm is Eve’s lover. In order to escape from Vandamm’s henchmen Thornhill comically heckles the auctioneers and is finally ejected by the police. Thornhill tells the police that he is the wanted killer and they drive off to the local precinct. But during the drive a radio call comes in and Thornhill is driven instead to the airport where a government agent called the “The Professor,” played by Leo G. Carroll takes custody of Thornhill and flies him to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The Professor explains that Eve is acting as a government agent to provide information on Vandamm’s espionage ring. But Thornhill has endangered her cover by falling in love with her and making Vandamm suspicious of her loyalty.
Thornhill confronts Vandamm and Eve at the airport. He tells Vandamm that he really is the American agent Kaplan and he will allow Vandamm to escape in exchange for taking Eve into custody to punish her for her duplicitous behavior toward him. When Thornhill becomes physical with Eve, she pulls out a small hand gun from her purse and shoots him several times and then flees.
Later we see the Professor driving into the wooded countryside somewhere in South Dakota and we see that Thornhill is uninjured due to the blanks in Eve’s gun. Eve drives to meet them at this rendezvous point and explains to Thornhill that she must now leave the country with Vandamm on his private plane to complete her mission. When Thornhill attempts to prevent her due to his romantic feelings for her, the Professor’s law enforcement associate punches Thornhill in the face and knocks him out. Late he escapes their custody and heads to Vandamm’s home near the summit of the Mount Rushmore monument to get Eve to abandon the plan. Hiding outside of the home he overhears Vandamm and his henchman Leonard, played with great creepiness by Martin Landau, discussing Eve’s status. Leonard fires Eve’s gun at Vandamm and thus proves it is loaded with blanks. After an initial burst of anger at Leonard Vandamm agrees that he will have to dispose of Eve by throwing her from the plane into a lake.
Thornhill manages to rescue Eve right before she gets on the plane but they cannot escape the property except by climbing down the face of the monument with Vandamm and his henchmen in hot pursuit. Eventually a sharpshooter’s bullet by the Professor’s rescue party saves Thornhill and Eve from being forced off the shear rock face by Leonard who instead falls to his death. Now that Leonard is no longer crushing Thornhill’s handhold on the cliff he manages to finally pull Eve up from where she is dangling over the abyss. Whereupon the scene changes to Thornhill pulling Eve up to the elevated bed in their railway suite on the 20th Century Limited getting ready to celebrate their honeymoon.
Okay, so this is Hitchcock at the point in his career where he has gone a little over the top. Humor has become a major part of the feel of the movie. I’ll give some examples. When Cary Grant is driving down the steep curving road drunk, the scene is decidedly comical. And later on, when he is trying to avoid his enemies in the auction hall his demeanor is what you would expect of Cary Grant in a comic role. It’s supposed to be funny. And near the end of the movie where he and Eve are running for their lives away from the spies, when she asks him why his two earlier wives divorced him he deadpans that they thought his life was too boring. This is sort of a comic movie. And that’s not all that different from other movies from this period like Rear Window where comedy is added in. But the improbability of some of the scenes like the crop-duster chasing him through the cornfields and the escape down the faces of the Mt. Rushmore monument makes the movie a little bit like a fantasy.
But it is entertaining. Personally, I don’t watch this movie very often. I have to be in the right mood. I’d prefer to see Cary Grant in Notorious. It’s a very similar plot but it’s played straight and has a very different feel. But preferences differ and some people probably feel oppositely. It’s still definitely one of Hitchcock’s better films, just not one of my favorites. Still, highly recommended.