The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 13 – North by Northwest (1959) – A Movie Review

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.

Trump vs the Ozymandias Bias

Dramatis Personae:    President Trump – (PT);  Vice President Pence – (VPP)

Scene 1 – White House West Wing,  Oval Office;  8 am,  Monday Morning;

(President Trump is seated at his desk and calls out through the open door)

PT – Mike … Mike …… Mike ………….  PEEEEEEEEENCE!!!!!!

(Vice President Pence enters through the door)

VPP – Right here as always Mr. President.

PT – Mike, good work on that Senate vote thing.  You kept your cool with all those blue-haired psycho broads screaming for your blood and got the thing done.  Although I think I would have thrown a couple of zingers up to the peanut gallery that would have been better than repeating, “will the sergeant at arms please restore order to the gallery” a hundred times.

VPP – Thank you Mr. President but I must admit that all the credit must go to you for showing such firmness in the face of an almost maniacal determination against you.

PT – I have to agree with you Mike.  It is all because of me and that’s why I called you.

VPP – (mumbling under his breath) Oh, no.

PT – Mike, we can’t let this great victory go uncelebrated.  We must provide a memorial to it.

VPP – Well sir, that hardly seems …

PT – I was considering adding my face to Mount Rushmore but honestly it doesn’t seem fair to me.  I mean, come on!  Sure, Washington and Lincoln won wars but Jefferson and Roosevelt?  All they did was write stuff, well except for that canal and we did give it away so big deal!

VPP – Oh sir, this is such a bad…

PT – Mike, you’re so right.  Mount Rushmore is such a bad location for a monument.  I mean who goes to North Dakota?

VPP – South Dakota.

PT – You see?  Nobody even knows where it is.

VPP – What I meant was…

PT – Exactly.  The American people deserve better.  As a tribute to the intelligence of the American people electing me president I am signing an executive order authorizing the collection of gold for the hair on my monument.

VPP – Gold?

PT – Yes, gold for the hair will make it more visible and also act as caulking to prevent erosion of the head.

VPP – How big is this going to be?

PT – None of this is written in stone yet.

VPP – Joke?

PT – Not funny.  Anyway, the way I envision this is the top thousand feet of Pike’s Peak can be reworked so that it’s shaped like a much larger version of the Washington Monument.  And on top of that will be my head with the hair made out of 24 carat gold.  Can you just see it?

VPP – I’m imagining some kind of gargantuan pez dispenser that can be seen across all of North America.  Your hair will blind jet airline pilots for a thousand miles in all directions.

PT – Well that’s what the Tac Visor is for isn’t it?

VPP – Mr. President, have you ever heard of Ozymandias?

PT – Never was a big fan of Heavy Metal.

VPP – Ah, well.  Mr. President, even though we are all very appreciative of what you did with the Kavanaugh appointment it may still be premature for you to self-declare the need for a memorial to yourself quite so gargantuan.

PT – Why?

VPP – Well, if for no other reason, because there hasn’t been enough gold mined on the whole planet to cover a monument that big.  Especially if it has to accurately scale up your own, ahhh, generous hair style.

PT – Ah hah!  That’s where you’re wrong.  I have consulted with Elon Musk.  And in exchange for calling off the SEC from hounding him, he will locate and transport a giant gold asteroid right to Pike’s Peak to be used conveniently for my hair.  So as you can see it’s all coming together.

VPP – You’re right.  What was I thinking?  How could this not be a good idea?  Anything else sir?

PT – Well, as I said earlier, I think you did a great job on the Senate vote thing and I was wondering if you wanted your head to be put somewhere too.

VPP – No, thank you sir.  My head is going to need to be examined pretty soon and I don’t think I could bear to have it staring back at me from a mountain any time soon.  Besides, I’m starting to think my head is stuck somewhere it won’t be seen.

PT – Suit yourself.