In the late 50s, Alfred Hitchcock was attached to an adaptation of Hammond Innes’ novel ‘The Wreck of the Mary Deare’. At the suggestion of his frequent collaborator, the composer Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock engaged Ernest Lehman to write the script. Lehman wrestled with the adaptation for a while, but couldn’t find a balance between the tense opening of the novel and the static courtroom drama it develops into. Hitch encourage him to write something else*. Lehman confessed that he’d always wanted to write “the ultimate Hitchcock movie”. Ideas were batted back and forth: some made it into the movie (a murder at the U.N., a crop-dusting plane, some vertiginous business on Mount Rushmore) and some didn’t (a murder at a Detroit auto plant, a tornado).
A decade beforehead, Hitchcock had discussed with journalist Otis Guernsey an idea based on a story Guernsey had stumbled on during the war: a fictitious British agent whose peregrinations had led his German counterparts a merry dance. Guernsey had prepared a treatment, but nothing progressed beyond that. With Lehman on board, the pieces started falling into place.
The plot – on the off-chance anyone reading this has been living in a cave for most of their life and hasn’t seen one of the most famous and oft-referenced (most recently in the ‘Family Guy’ episode “North by North Quahog”) movies ever made – involves slick ad man Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) being mistaken for a secret agent called Kaplan. Thing is, Kaplan doesn’t exist. He’s a figment of the imagination of a spymaster known only as The Professor (Leo G. Carroll), invented to draw attention away from The Professor’s real operative, who has successfully infiltrated the ranks of an organisation run by the sophisticated but sinister Vandamm (James Mason).
When Vandamm’s men kidnap him, Thornhill protests that he’s not Kaplan. This cuts no ice. They force a bottle of bourbon down him and bundle him behind the wheel of a car. He survives, but is picked up by the police – to the social embarrassment of his mother (Jessie Royce Landis)**. The police disbelieve his story and Thornhill sets out to track down Kaplan. His investigations lead him to the United Nations, where he’s set up for a murder. On the run from the authorities, trying to survive the murderous overtures of Vandamm’s henchmen, Thornhill meets mysterious blonde Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) and finds that romantic entanglements are just as compromising as anything in the murky world of espionage.
So: is ‘North by Northwest’ the ultimate Hitchcock film? I’ll leave that for others to decide. For my money, it’s certainly the quintessential Hitchcock film:
It’s got a cracking score by Bernard Herrmann (and perhaps his most recognisable after ‘Psycho’).
It’s got an iconic title sequence by Saul Bass – titles and music have seldom gelled to such masterful effect as they do here.
It’s got an innocent-man-on-the-run narrative so beloved of the director (from ‘The 39 Steps’ in 1935 to ‘Frenzy’ in 1972, it’s arguably the overriding theme in Hitchcock’s filmography).
It’s got a knockout blonde with a designer wardrobe to die for.
It’s got a MacGuffin (a bit of microfilm, but who cares about microfilm when there’s planes and trains and chases and elegant blondes to look at?).
Lehman’s script is a masterpiece of narrative propulsion, joining the dots between the set-pieces with such speed and glib humour that stopping to examine the construct under the critical lens would just be bad sportsmanship. The whole film is, let’s be honest, built upon nothing of any real substance. It’s a cinematic soufflé. In the hands of many a director, it would have collapsed the moment it emerged from post-production. Hitch keeps the pace fast without being hectic, the tone light without being spoofy, the story intriguing without being overly convoluted.
He’s served by a great cast: Cary Grant is the perfect choice for Thornhill, Landis is hilarious, Saint is arguably the most appealing of Hitchcock’s heroines, and Mason does cultured/amoral/sinister with stylish aplomb.
I really don’t need to talk about the set-pieces, do I?
Or the deeply unsubtle Freudian symbolism of the last shot? It says something that the cut from Grant helping Saint into a couchette bunk to the train thundering into the tunnel is pretty much the only bit of symbolism in a film loaded with visual iconography. It’s Hitchcock’s instruction to people like me who can’t watch a movie without feeling the need to hammer out 800 words afterwards: it’s entertainment: don’t analyse it – just enjoy it.
* ‘Wreck of the Mary Deare’, directed by Michael Anderson from a screenplay by Eric Ambler, was released the same year as ‘North by Northwest’. It proved Lehman’s point: the courtroom scenes are static and unengaging.
**Landis was 63 when the film was made, just eight years older than Grant.