North by Northwest Reviews
This one doesn't quite make the peak (that battle is still being fought by PSYCHO and REAR WINDOW), but this masterpiece is still closer to the most perfect spy film than any other before or since, with the one exception of Coppola's THE CONVERSATION.
Cary Grant is the glue to the whole thing, and it's a choppy film that needs a stronghold. Grant's got it - his sly wit, charm, sarcasm, unintentional humor, and willingness to man up when the situation calls for it. His arc goes from helpless businessman to reveler of a conspiracy. I love how he goes from Vandamm's men stopping him "now what's that supposed to be?" to playing up the expectation that he is who they think he is, nonexistent CIA agent George Kaplan.
What an interesting twist, that Kaplan doesn't exist. This case of mistaken identity has us asking many questions, but I never assumed such a deep government conspiracy. We learn this about an hour in, and wait to see if the CIA will interfere, or if Thornhill is a sitting duck.
The screenplay, largely concocted by Hitchcock, carried out by Ernest Lehman, is just plain fun. Hitchcock wasn't a writer, but when he thought of a story he wanted to tell, he got the best in the biz to make it a reality. He had strong pictures in his mind -- an airplane duster chasing Grant, a chase/battle on Mt. Rushmore, a train through a tunnel symbolizing Thornhill has scored.
Released in 1959, the film still holds plenty of suspense today - the crop dusting scene is classic - but it really is a product of its time. The Cold War was in full swing then, and suspicion was flying in the U.S. about who might be spying for the Russians. In today's world of mobile phones, global news and heightened security, the story's premise seems rather absurd but spying was the hot topic back in the day.
James Stewart, a Hitchcock regular, wanted to play Roger Thornhill but the director considered the actor, at age 51, to be too old for the part. When Grant was announced as the film's star, many in Hollywood believed that Hitchcock and Stewart must have had a falling out as Grant was 55. Stewart was already committed to do another film and couldn't have done both. Whether that was intentional on Hitchcock's part or not, no one knows for sure. But Cary Grant certainly had a style that James Stewart never had, and the grey-blue glen plaid suit that the actor wore through most of the film has now achieved iconic status. (There were apparently six such suits that Grant wore during the filming - and kept, as per the terms of his contract.)
Even today, it is a matter of debate as to who actually made the suit. Many sources point to Kilgour, French & Stanbury, with Arthur Lyons, the Duke of Windsor's suitmaker, doing the tailoring. However, eagle-eyed film buffs have noticed a label bearing the name "Quintino" inside the jacket. It may be that the Saville Row tailor made the original and the Beverly Hills tailor the copies. In an interview given many years later, Martin Landau said that Hitchcock wanted him to be better dressed than Grant so he took the actor to Grant's tailor - Quintino - to get him kitted out. Grant didn't know this and, when he saw how nice Landau looked in his new suit, Grant sent his personal assistant over to Landau to find out where he got it. According to Landau, the PA told him that only two people in the world make a suit like that - one in Beverly Hills and the other in Hong Kong.
By today's standards, NORTH BY NORTHWEST is sloppy filmmaking with its numerous continuity and factual errors (such as which side of the train Lake Michigan should be on), and wobbly sets. The U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service had barred Hitchcock from filming the chase scene at Mt. Rushmore so a replica was built in California. Today we can see that it was a fake but back then many respected film critics were praising both Hitchcock and MGM for their apparent cinematic coup. Government officials fought back though, and they insisted that the acknowledgement their agency received at the end of the film be removed from all prints, lest audiences think they approved of their perceived desecration of the national monument.
Even though NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a relic of days gone by, it still makes for enjoyable viewing today.