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North by Northwest
Drama, Thriller, Action, Adventure, Mystery, Romance
IMDB rating:
Alfred Hitchcock
Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill
Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall
James Mason as Phillip Vandamm
Jessie Royce Landis as Clara Thornhill
Leo G. Carroll as The Professor
Josephine Hutchinson as Mrs. Townsend
Philip Ober as Lester Townsend
Martin Landau as Leonard
Adam Williams as Valerian
Edward Platt as Victor Larrabee
Les Tremayne as Auctioneer
Philip Coolidge as Dr. Cross
Patrick McVey as Sergeant Flamm - Chicago Policeman
Storyline: Madison Avenue advertising man Roger Thornhill finds himself thrust into the world of spies when he is mistaken for a man by the name of George Kaplan. Foreign spy Philip Vandamm and his henchman Leonard try to eliminate him but when Thornhill tries to make sense of the case, he is framed for murder. Now on the run from the police, he manages to board the 20th Century Limited bound for Chicago where he meets a beautiful blond, Eve Kendall, who helps him to evade the authorities. His world is turned upside down yet again when he learns that Eve isn't the innocent bystander he thought she was. Not all is as it seems however, leading to a dramatic rescue and escape at the top of Mt. Rushmore.
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A Hitchcock classic, but not among his best
`North by Northwest', written by Ernest Lehman and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, stars Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive who finds himself embroiled in a particularly nasty case of mistaken identity. He finds himself being mistaken for a gentleman who is wrapped up in some dirty dealings with Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), his henchman Leonard (Martin Landau) and various other unsavory thugs under Vandamm's employ. He also meets up with Hitchcock's requisite blonde femme fatale, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) and surrounded by this cast of characters makes a cross-country adventure where his life is threatened several times; all the while with Thornhill having to depend on his wits to keep him alive.

While `North by Northwest' is a good film, I don't consider it to be one of his best, which, at least in my small circle of rabid film friends/relatives, is fairly sacrilegious. I enjoy the vibrancy of the script and the lush cinematography, but there are a couple of things that cause the film to fall short of excellence on my personal Hitchcock scale. Mainly, there's the matter of James Mason as the villain. Mason is a great actor, and has been in some really good films, so his talents were wasted as the tepid Vandamm. There simply really wasn't a part for him in the film; rather, most of the relatively `juicy' bits were relegated to Martin Landau. It seemed that the concentration was solely on Grant's character, which in most cases is adequate, but in a suspense film, I personally like to see the villain have a more pervasive presence.

Of course, there are some masterful elements to this film. The infamous cornfield scene is truly masterful. It isn't even the shot of the crop duster chasing down Grant – the image that gets me every time is the very quick shot of Grant standing across the dusty road from the gentleman waiting for the bus. As he is sizing him up, trying to figure out if he is the man that he has traveled a long distance to see, Hitchcock frames the shot much like a classic western. There are many shots like this that, if frozen, would make a compelling photograph. I can also acknowledge, while I am not as much a fan of Hitchcock's comedic moments as I am of the more dark or horrifying ones, that the comic timing with which Grant delivers his lines is excellent. His charisma certainly adds a spark to the film, and there are times when he is so smooth that even if something was completely unbelievable I had to laugh and say, `Hey, it's Cary Grant – what do you expect?'

`North by Northwest' was made in 1959 and is more akin to the whimsical and much-eschewed `The Trouble with Harry' than his more story-driven films of the 1940's and his horrifying masterpiece a year later, 1960's, `Psycho'. While I acknowledge that `North by Northwest' is a good film, it doesn't even make my personal `Hitchcock Top Ten' on which his darker films dwell. However, it's kind of the way I feel about the Coen Brothers – even a simply `good' film of theirs is usually much better than the average film, so a slightly above-average Hitchcock film like `North by Northwest' garners at least three stars from me.

A top notch Hitchcock film...score: 9 (out of 10)
I am not much of a Hitchcock guru as some people are mainly because I find most of his films as being the same type of scenario - human chasing something or someone, or human being chased by something or someone. No where is this more evident than in this movie. The film opens when Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) comes out of his Madison Avenue office to attend a social gathering at a local bar. While he is in the bar, two thugs mistake him for a double agent and, of course, he is abducted. He is transferred to the whereabouts of a certain Mr. Lester Townsend (James Mason). I am not going to give out any more details except from there on out, Thornhill winds up being chased and chases the culprits, who want to see his demise, to the final scene at Mount Rushmore. Along the way, he finds time for romance with a certain lady friend (Eva Marie Saint). The best part of the movie happens when Thornhill is pursued through a cornfield by a crop duster - a classic Hitchcock scene.
A Great Action Film
I really enjoyed North by Northwest, it was refreshing to see a Hollywood action film with so little blood shed. When in the right mood I definitely enjoy some good and gory fun; but these days all the good guy/ bad guy films seem to have the same theme: bigger guns and more blood equal success. Yet here is a film that made me tense when Mr. Townsend and his entourage appeared and had me cheering for Eve Kendall. More film makers ought to follow Hitchcock's style of film making; subtle and calculated art sometimes makes for a more entertaining experience. The guns were small when they took Mr. Thornhill to see Townsend for the first time, and the crop duster scene was rather simple. This film shows that having a big budget and lots of special effects does not make a great movie; using music, camera angles and great actors with 1950's means can create something much more inspired and fun to watch. Sometimes things in life do not have to be made complicated, you do not have to utterly dazzle the public every time.
Sexy Hitchcock thriller (spoilers throughout)
There are no two ways about it, North by Northwest is a sexy film. Just take the exchanges on the train or the film's final image or even the homoerotic banter between James Mason and Martin Landau. The whole film reeks of sex.

It's quite fun watching the film back and noticing all the subtle, and not too subtle, allusions to horizontal activity. The most explicit is the conversation between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. The flirty banter is superb, as is the scene that follows it. For all intents and purposes it's a sex scene, but because Hitchcock wasn't able to get away with that at that time he had to be creative, and as a result the scene is perhaps even sexier. But perhaps flying slightly under the radar is the relationship between James Mason and Martin Landau. Sure, years later, plenty of film academics have pointed out the homoeroticism that is present, but it's fun to ponder whether the original audiences picked up on it. I mean, just listen to some of the dialogue: 'call it my woman's intuition if you will.' 'Why Leonard, I do believe you're jealous! I'm actually very flattered!' And then there's the fight they have. It's like a sex scene. There are two close ups, the money shot and then one slumps down into an armchair and the other stands there, grimacing in pain and relief. But if you want to analyse it in even more depth, there's the fact that the argument starts with a gun. Only its Eve's gun and it fires blanks. The emptiness of heterosexuality, perhaps? Probably not, but like I said, it's fun to theorise. Oh, and while I'm on this train of thought, James Mason says 'Gay surroundings' with a distinct emphasis. I wonder if he's trying to tell us something?

There's also a Freudian kink to the relationship between Thornhill and his mother. She looks the same age as him and they act like a married couple. In fact, at the start of the film, is seems as if Roger can't do anything without her. She's the one he phones when he gets arrested and she's the one that he takes on his early adventures. She's only ditched when he comes across a better prospect - Eve Kendall.

But that reminds me of one of my favourite scenes. I love Cary Grant's drunk performance in the police station. It's bloody hilarious. I love the drunken conversation with his mother ('No, they didn't give me a chaser') and the drunken conversation with the doctor ('How much did you drink?' 'This much,' Grant replies with his arms stretched wide apart). Grant's comic acting is impeccable.

Another favourite comic scene is the auction scene. Again Grant's acting is magnificent. The way that he antagonises the auctioneer is superb and the fight is hilarious. And I also love the scene where Thornhill returns to the house. No one can do dignified bemusement quite like Cary Grant.

Less convincing, however, in my opinion, is James Mason. He's certainly got the urbane charm that the character of Vandamm demands but I just don't find him threatening enough. In many ways he's quite a forgettable Hitchcock villain. The only thing that makes him memorable to me is his relationship with Martin Landau.

I also find the final action scene a bit disappointing. I don't think that it quite has enough energy. Plus Mason seems nonplussed at having been caught. Yes that's his character – always cool and in control – but it does deny the audience the satisfaction of his capture. However, the film redeems itself with its final image. I can imagine Hitchcock chuckling to himself having got away with it.

But while I'm coming up with criticisms, I also have to say that the film is a little light. Certainly it's a very amusing film with some terrific dialogue, but it doesn't live as long in the memory as, say, Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window or even The Birds. And the story, when you sit down and think about it, is completely forgettable. You remember the great scenes and the great moments, but only lip service is paid to the Cold War and the business about the microfilm. It's entirely superfluous.

However, it's easy to ignore the more forgettable elements when there is so much worth remembering. Just take the crop dusting scene, the UN murder, every moment on the train, the terrific musical score and the fantastic dialogue. It's not quite a feast but it's a damn good snack.
A towering achievement.
This is Hitchcock's best film – quite an accomplishment, considering how many great films he created. And after half a century, "North By Northwest" holds up beautifully. This film has it all: suspense, glamour, humor, and images that capture the imagination and remain etched in memory. The legendary crop-dusting sequence alone is a master class in the art of pure cinema. Like the rest of the film, it's brilliantly conceived and brilliantly executed. All the elements come together to produce the finest form of entertainment. Bernard Herrmann's frantic fandango captures the complexity and pace of the action. Ernest Lehman's script is full of sophisticated dialogue. Performances are spot on. Has Cary Grant ever been more engaging? Is James Mason the ultimate in charming villains? And Eva Marie Saint's allure is multi-faceted. Movies just don't get better than this.
The Greatest Mystery/Thriller Of All Time.
Alfred Hitchcock's speciality is thrillers. Some are straight thrillers, some conjoin with romances, horror, this conjoins with mystery. Hitchcock has combined these two, but has never done a better and more exciting film. Nobody has ever or will ever do a better, more exciting film. Having said that, is this better than, say, Vertigo or Psycho? Arguably. But Vertigo is a romance/thriller, Psycho is a horror/thriller and NBNW is a mystery/thriller. This does surpass other movies of its kind like Rear Window and The Maltese Flacon. The general story is a classic case of mistaken identity where a complex, top-secret government plan is under wraps. The movie grabs you by your collar the in the first two minutes and never lets go as the thrills and curves never stop coming at you full force. The main character (Cary Grant) careens to different ends of America as he must keep up with the game of cat-and-mouse he dies to get out of. Unlike Rear Window and The Maltese Flacon, NBNW features chase and danger sequences that add more excitement to its already mammoth exhilarating plot.

Screw running, screw the gym. This movie can get your heart rate going in a much more enjoyable way.
From The Master of Suspense Came the Daddy of the Modern Adventure Thrillers
Many feel this is Alfred Hitchcock's greatest American movie, and I agree! NORTH BY NORTHWEST is the Hitchcock film to end all Hitch films, with all his pet themes covered with maximum wit, panache, and suspense, as well as a romance between Cary Grant and a soignée Eva Marie Saint that's as tender as it is sexy. Grant has never been more engaging and dashing (literally and figuratively :-), though the smoothly villainous James Mason nearly out-suaves him. My husband and I have joked that if Mason had played Thornhill, the film would have been over in mere moments. With all due respect to Grant, if the imperious, unshakably confident Mason asked the Glen Cove police, "Do you honestly believe that this happened the way you think it did?" they would immediately reply, "No, sir, you must be right, you're free to go, sorry we bothered you." :-) Also boasts a great early performance by a reptilian young Martin Landau as Mason's possessive henchman, as well as one of Oscar nominee Ernest Lehman's best screenplays (in fact, he borrowed liberally from it for his script for the film version of THE PRIZE starring Paul Newman) and one of Bernard Herrmann's finest scores. Anybody who wants to write or direct a chase thriller should watch NORTH BY NORTHWEST first to see how it's done!
"Subplot" Cary Grant versus James Mason; also "Slighting Chicago"!
Read reviews above for the exceptionally witty commentary this film attracts.

I add one sub plot and one slight to Chicago...

Subplot: Cary Grant, the good actor versus the less popular but greater actor, James Mason.

Read the list of Vandamm quotes to see how many times Mason's character digs at Grant's...acting! Only one instance listed below:

Phillip Vandamm: Has anyone ever told you that you overplay your various roles rather severely, Mr. Kaplan?

(hear Mason as Vandamm comment on Grant's "acting school"


See Mason and Grant--observe their similar wardrobe and physical resemblance in their Mt. Rushmore restaurant...

Mason played Shakespeare well-- see his Brutus in Mankewicz's great 1952 Julius Caesar. Yet he sometimes got roles Grant had rejected...the most famous being Norman Maine in the great "A Star is Born".

I bet Hitch sensed this and encouraged Lehmann to hype up the actor rivalry in N by NW script.

This real life "competition" only enhances the on screen N by NW movie.

And the "Slight to Chicago"? Here, the greatest movie crime N by NW commits! Chicago offers so many sinister possibilities and great visuals in its skyscrapers and shore line, etc, etc. But no! Only a quick train shot of Chicago in the daylight...all the stellar skyline is shot in the dark! (Took the Blues Bros and later The Untouchables to "discover' Chicago's many layers... of film possibilities.)

Still---a great movie! A study in stylish dialogue, too!
All things point to this being one of Hitch's very best - 91%
For only my second Hitchcock picture (I know, bit behind the times!), I decided to go for one of his more iconic pictures. Movies like this have dual appeal to me - full of classic moments and yet, they maintain a mystery to me as the basic bones of the film are usually forgotten. "Rope" was a genuine surprise despite feeling a little stagey but this tense, taut thriller remains an utterly compelling picture even today. It might not be Hitch's best picture but to ignore "North By Northwest" would be a very grave mistake.

Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive in New York who suddenly finds himself thrust into a terrifying world that he literally knows nothing about. Mistaken by a couple of thugs for someone called George Kaplan, he is bundled into a car and driven to the home of urbane villain Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) who ignores Thornhill's pleas for clemency. Once Thornhill escapes barely with his life, he finds himself pursued by law-enforcement across the US after he is mistaken for an assassin who strikes at the UN Building. His only chance is to track down the real George Kaplan (if he even exists) and on-board a train, he encounters bewitching blonde Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) but can anyone really be trusted?

Even without such legendary moments like Grant being chased by a crop-duster or scrambling over the faces of Mt Rushmore, "North By Northwest" feels ahead of its time. In many ways, it feels like an early James Bond flick - full of stunning locations, an epic plot and most of all, a charismatic and witty lead in Grant whose performance as the out-of-his-depth hero is not just believable but actually provides the movie with a recognisable core. Alongside Grant, Saint is a classy femme fatale with looks to kill and lines for any vamp to savour. Mason, able to play baddies in his sleep, is in his element as the mastermind one step ahead at all times. And running throughout, naturally, is that tension that Hitch is rightly famous for - the combination of dramatic music, lengthy sequences when nothing is said and frankly stunning shots. Take the crop-duster scene as an example. Next to no dialogue or music, the creeping fear the film summons as we see the plane steer around for another pass and the terror as you realise that there is almost nothing Thornhill could do.

There are any number of so-called 'thrillers' that have been released since that simply don't fulfil their promise. "North By Northwest" is an exception. In the same way that "Heat" is the template for all cop dramas and "The Godfather" is the Don for mob movies, this should be considered the basis for any decent spy flick. The only thing I didn't like was the ending which came out of nothing due to probably the most out-of-place and unwelcome cut I've ever seen in a movie, flicking from a moment of high drama and danger to a post-story conclusion in the blink of an eye. It nearly soured my opinion of the film as a whole but I'm not gonna let one mistake put me off. "North By Northwest" is an absorbing, classy movie that isn't held in the same regard as films like "Vertigo" or "Psycho". In the same way that "Rope" surprised me, the quality of "North By Northwest" really took my breath away and I would argue that this is still a wonderful movie if released today. I'm thinking I need to watch more Hitchcock film from here on...
Hitchcock's Most Entertaining Thriller...
The 1950's was an amazing decade for Alfred Hitchcock. Year after year, he churned out some sort of a classic: STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, REAR WINDOW, VERTIGO, etc.. He capped it with the most exciting film he ever directed. NORTH BY NORTHWEST is sheer escapist entertainment, a non-stop ride across the country, with Hitch dealing out his usual cards. Innocent man (Cary Grant) in a crazy situation which he is wrongfully drawn into, and the beautiful leading lady (Eva Marie Saint), who always seem to be blonde. I also have to say that musical composer Bernard Herrmann has produced one of his top 3 scores (the other 2 being TAXI DRIVER and PSYCHO). Right from the opening title sequence, we are souring into this story of international intrigue, decoys, and constant pursuit.

The film barely lets up as Grant, in his own dashing manner, plays it cool as an advertising exec who becomes surrounded by the bad guys before we even get settled into our seats. This is the mother of all modern action/chase films, with pitstops at the UN building, Grand Central Station, Chicago, a vast cornfield, and finally, Mount Rushmore. Grant's scene on the field has become one of the most famous sequences of all-time. That dust-cropper definitely had a mind of its own. The great thing about the scene is that about 90% of it was shot on location. Again, listen to that music. It explodes with the suspense of the scene.

You never know what side of the fence Hitch's characters are on at times. Is there a real "Kaplan"? Why did the bad guys pick Grant as their target? Eva Marie Saint is not so saintly as the alluring blonde who has some kind of angle on the events herself. You're never really sure what she is up to. This is the greatness and originality of the "worlds" Hitchcock and his writers create. Things are never as they appear. It is up to the viewer to pay attention or let him play you like a fiddle. Either way, you come out satisfied.

This is not his 'best' film. It is his most thrilling flick, and it also has the refreshing sense of humor that enlighten Hitch's best pictures. In terms of action and adventure, this has no equal within his library of films with perhaps the exception of 1940's FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT. Great dialogue, slick and stylish directing, and a sense of pure fun makes this one better.

RATING - 10 of 10
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