Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, Eva Marie Saint, and Philip Ober in North by Northwest (1959)


(director/writer: Alfred Hitchcock; screenwriter: Ernest Lehman; cinematographer: Robert Burks; editor: George Tomasini; music: Bernard Herrmann; cast: Cary Grant (Roger O. Thornhill), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall), James Mason (Phillip Vandamm), Leo G Carroll (The Professor), Martin Landau (Leonard), Jessie Royce Landis (Clara Thornhill), Philip Ober (Lester Townsend); Runtime: 136; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Alfred Hitchcock; MGM; 1959)
“One of Alfred Hitchcock’s great films.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s great films. North by Northwest is a nightmarish thriller that could almost be about whatever you want it to mean; it’s just as inexplicable as its title. The narrative’s thread is so bizarre and satisfyingly entertaining that it could be meant as a paranoiac conspiracy tale, a Freudian nightmare (the hero’s relationship with his piece-of-work socialite mother-Landis-leaves him both as a mama’s boy and a playboy), or possibly a parable on contemporary America. The film concludes in a nail-biting fashion with the protagonist, an excellent Cary Grant, as an ‘everyman’ figure making his final escape down the steep face of Mt. Rushmore (carved with the four heads of US Presidents-Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt).

The modern classic is certainly a tale of mistaken identity, a brazen spy thriller, an urbane comedy and a screwball romance. Cary Grant is a suave, twice divorced, happy-go-lucky, Brooks Brothers gray flannel suit wearing successful Madison Avenue advertising executive who’s abducted at the Plaza Hotel by two mysterious men and forced to go by car to the Long Island mansion of foreign spy James Mason. He denies he’s George Kaplan, an undercover Federal agent, when interrogated by Mason. He’s then plied with bourbon and made to ride in a car down a winding ocean cliff road. He escapes his planned execution when he manages to take control of the wheel by overcoming one of his executioners and drives the car erratically down a mountain highway until his car is stopped by a police car. But when he tells of his kidnapping and being held at the mansion and being forced to drink the booze, the cops don’t buy his story. When they check it out they find no Mason at the Glen Cove estate and discover the mansion is owned by a United Nation ambassador (Philip Ober). Though no one believes his story, including his mother, Grant nevertheless gets released after being charged with drunk driving and returns to the UN building to question the ambassador. But the official is knifed to death and Grant is left holding the weapon when the police arrive. He becomes a fugitive from justice, pursued cross-country by spies, the police, and the FBI. To his rescue, as he escapes by train, comes the beautiful platinum ice cool blonde femme fatale Eva Marie, and all kinds of complications arise as to why she’s aiding him even though she knows he’s wanted for murder. As he makes his way across America, he is forced to assume the identity of the nonexistent US agent George Kaplan. While on the run, in one of the greatest scenes ever, he is lured into an Illinois cornfield on the pretext of meeting Kaplan, but immediately observes there’s a plane dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops. He’s soon forced to flee the cropdusting airplane that tries to kill him. His only avenue of escape is through the open cornfield, as he must repeatedly dodge the plane’s low swipes and the pilot showering him with powdery pesticide to flush him out.

Hitchcock brilliantly turned the Cold War scenario into a stylishly elegant form of pulp fiction. While being chased with Eve by the spy killers, the befuddled Grant regains his confidence at Mt. Rushmore as he is dangling from the nose of American icon George Washington. All he can think of at that very suspenseful moment, is to ask for her hand in marriage. That magical scene says it all, it doesn’t get any better than that in the movies.