North by Northwest

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

Advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for “George Kaplan” and kidnapped by Valerian (Adam Williams) and Licht (Robert Ellenstein). The two take him to the Long Island estate of Lester Townsend. There he is interrogated by a man he assumes to be Townsend, but who is actually spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Vandamm orders his right-hand man Leonard (Martin Landau) to get rid of Thornhill.

Thornhill is forced to drink bourbon, but manages to escape a staged driving accident. He is unable to get the authorities or even his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) to believe what happened, especially when a woman at Townsend’s residence says he got drunk at her dinner party; she also remarks that Townsend is a United Nations diplomat.

Thornhill and his mother go to Kaplan’s hotel room. While there, Thornhill answers the phone; it is one of Vandamm’s henchmen. Narrowly avoiding recapture, he goes to the U.N. General Assembly building to see Townsend, but finds that the diplomat is a stranger. Valerian throws a knife which hits Townsend in the back. He falls dead into Thornhill’s arms. Without thinking, Thornhill removes the knife, making it appear that he is the killer. He is forced to flee.

Knowing that Kaplan has a reservation at a Chicago hotel the next day, Thornhill sneaks onto the 20th Century Limited. He meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who hides Thornhill from policemen searching the train. Unknown to Thornhill, Eve is working with Vandamm and Leonard, who are in another compartment. In Chicago, Eve tells Thornhill she has arranged a meeting with Kaplan.

Thornhill travels by bus to an isolated crossroads with flat countryside all around. Another man (Malcolm Atterbury) is dropped off at the bus stop, but he eventually leaves on another bus. Then a crop duster goes into a dive toward Thornhill, narrowly missing him. He hides in a cornfield, but the airplane dusts it with pesticide, forcing him out. Desperate, he steps in front of a speeding tank truck, which stops barely in time. The airplane crashes into the tanker.

Learning that Kaplan had already checked out before Eve claimed to have met him, Thornhill goes to Eve’s room. While he is cleaning up, she leaves. From the impression of a message written on a notepad, he learns her destination: an art auction. There, he finds Vandamm, Leonard, and Eve. Vandamm purchases a Tarascan statue and departs. Thornhill tries to follow, only to find the exits covered by Valerian and Leonard. Trapped, he places nonsensical bids so that the police will be called to escort him away.

Thornhill identifies himself as the fugitive wanted for Townsend’s murder, but the officers are ordered to take him to the Professor (Leo G. Carroll), a spymaster. The Professor reveals that Kaplan does not exist. He was invented to distract Vandamm from the real government agent: Eve. As he has inadvertently put Eve’s life in danger, Thornhill agrees to help maintain her cover.

At Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, Thornhill (now pretending to be Kaplan) meets Eve and Vandamm in a crowded cafeteria. He offers to let Vandamm leave the country in exchange for Eve, but is turned down. Thornhill grabs her arm, Eve shoots him and flees. He is taken away, apparently dead. Thornhill is actually unharmed, having been shot with blanks. He learns, to his dismay, that Eve, having made herself a fugitive, will accompany Vandamm out of the country that night. The Professor has Thornhill locked up to keep from interfering further.

Thornhill escapes and sneaks inside Vandamm’s mountainside residence. He overhears that the statue contains microfilm. While Eve is away Leonard fires her gun at Vandamm, demonstrating the shooting was faked. Vandamm decides to throw Eve out of the airplane once they are airborne. Thornhill manages to warn her.

On the way to the airplane Eve grabs the statue, and she and Thornhill flee across the face of the Mount Rushmore monument. Valerian lunges at them but falls to his death. Eve slips and clings desperately to the steep mountainside. Thornhill grabs her hand while precariously holding on with his other hand. Leonard appears and grinds his shoe on Thornhill’s hand. A police marksman shoots Leonard. Vandamm is taken into custody.

The scene transitions from Thornhill pulling Eve to safety on Mount Rushmore to him pulling her, now his wife, onto an upper bunk on a train. The final shot shows their train speeding into a tunnel.

REVIEW:

Earlier this year, I had the chance to watch Hitchcock and ever since then I’ve been inspired to watch some of his films. Unfortunately for me, nearly all of them are on very long wait. Finally, North by Northwest, notable for being the first motion picture to use kinetic typography in the opening credits, came available. Does this film stand up to the other greats by Hitchcock?

What is this about?

What if everyone around you was suddenly convinced that you were a spy? This classic from master director Alfred Hitchcock stars Cary Grant as an advertising executive who looks a little too much like someone else and is forced to go on the lam (helped along by Eva Marie Saint). Hitchcock’s sure-handed comic drama pits Grant against a crop duster and lands him in a fight for his life on Mount Rushmore — a true cliffhanger if ever there was one.

What did I like?

Performance. Often times, especially today, we’ll see a film were the actors appear to be phoning it in. Something that I’ve noticed with Hitchcock films is that he is able to pull out great performances, no matter what. Granted with the likes of Cary Grant and James Mason, you don’t have to do much, except sit back and be wowed by their talent and on-screen presence.

Plot. At first, I had a bit of trouble keeping up with what was going on, but that confusion turned out to be part of the plot twist. I can really appreciate a flick that deceives the audience, as this one does, but doesn’t lose them or try to be too smart for its own good. Thriller directors of today need to take notes!

Chase. I guess chase films have become my cup of tea….or at least that actual chase has. Once Hitchcock decides to take this story out of the doldrums it starts with and flips on the chase it is a gradual crescendo culminating in a fairly exciting climax that leaves the audience so satisfied they need a moment to soak it all in. With all the twists and turns along the way that Grant has to do in order to evade his pursuers, including the oh so famous crop duster scene, it is truly a wonder he made it through this film at all!

Charm x10. In my day, I’ve seen some villains that could charm their way into Mother Teresa’s panties, but they have nothing on James Mason’s Vandamm character. Maybe it is the voice, but when he appeared, I couldn’t help but hang on every word he said. That is thing about both Grant and Mason, they commanded such attention when they were on screen and had distinctive styles of speech. These days, you either have to have a deep voice like James Earl Jones, Patrick Stewart, Morgan Freeman, or more recently Benedict Cumberbatch, in order to get the amount of respect, or have an authentic accent, usually British.

What didn’t I like?

Saint Eva. I’ve read some reviews of this film (past and present), most praising how great Eva Marie Saint was and how this was her best role. I didn’t really see it. Granted, I’ve never seen any of her other films, but she just seemed like any other generic, attractive woman of the time. There isn’t anything special to report about what she did on screen, so I don’t get the big fuss, other than her lines of risqué dialogue for the time.

Length. I’m no fan of long films, especially when they seem to be dragged on for no specific reason. I was able too get lost in this film and didn’t even realize it was over 2 hours…until it got to the final act. After the climax, Hitchcock seems to not really know how to end the film. Wait, let me take that back. The ending is great, but getting there from the point of climax seemed to have been an issue. There are a few other scenes that seemed to run long that probably could have been cut for time purposes and they seem to be nothing more than talking points.

Regarded as one of Hitchcock’s finest, North by Northwest is up there with me, as well. Aside from being a great classic thriller that is well made from beginning to end. Some have said that this many elements influenced the Bond films. I can see it, but not sure which came first, the original Ian Fleming Bond book, or this. At any rate, this gets a very high recommendation from me, as you should definitely see this at least once before you die, so check it out!

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

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2 Responses to “North by Northwest”

  1. […] Reference. Along with parodying Psycho, Vertigo, and The Birds, this film makes reference to other works of Hitchcock’s. For instance, late in the film, Brooks’ asks his female accomplice to meet him in the “North by Northwest” corner of the park, an obvious reference to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. […]

  2. […] but I actually thought Eva Marie Saint was dead. Who is Eva Marie Saint? Well, I know her best from North By Northwest, which might be her biggest claim to fame, but I could be wrong. This woman has to be in her 80s or […]

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