North by Northwest
, , , ,
131 min.
Release Date
North by Northwest

Concentrated into a singular form, a career’s worth of Hitchcockian tropes inhabit North by Northwest. The legendary Master of Suspense compiles his most oft-used signatures into a solitary vehicle with his 1959 motion picture, an escapist yarn like no other. Teeming with a wrong man, played by the filmmaker’s model leading man Cary Grant no less, an icy blonde, a gripping Bernard Herrmann score, a monumental finale, and the most wonderfully transparent of all MacGuffins, the film embraces and augments the director’s long-standing narrative and formal elements into the ultimate Alfred Hitchcock thriller. This is diversion at its best, arranged to stimulate the viewer with this moment. The plot itself makes leaps and bounds that when explained from scene to scene make little sense. And yet, somehow, it all works so effortlessly. Surely one could trace the progression of events, but it requires such extraordinary suspension of disbelief to swallow in sum. Hitchcock’s method here seeks to involve his audience on a raw emotional level, as opposed to an intellectual plane. Cary Grant’s undeniable charms as an actor and screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s sharp dialogue keep the audience blind to the director’s scheme, while Hitchcock’s nonstop procession of exciting action and sexuality distract further.

Individual scenes provide suspense and intrigue and humor, a feeling of intensity and a connection to the characters, but not an overall participation in the unfolding story. Indeed, the very root of the film is about nothing at all, and Hitchcock savors the misleading nature of the plot. The story begins with a mistaken identity, introduces a spy device of vague government secrets in the wrong hands, proceeds with illogical turns and impossible happenstance, and ends without onscreen resolution of the central conflict. No believable motivation links the major developments therein, except the marvelous way in which the director presents them. What we remember about the film are impressions and feelings, moving visuals or bravado sequences, a sense of romance. Not an understanding of the plot. But that Hitchcock maintains his audience’s devoted interest, and even leaves us feeling incredibly fulfilled by the time the credits roll, attests to his ability to manipulate us.

Enemy spies mistake New York advertising man Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) for an undercover agent named George Kaplan. When they kidnap him, he insists they have the wrong man. Of course, they do not believe him, and when he fails to have the information they want to extract, their leader Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) orders them to kill the would-be Kaplan by drink. Thornhill escapes by way of his expert drunk driving and then tries to find the real Kaplan. In doing so, he finds himself framed for the murder of an official at the United Nations building. Barely escaping authorities, Thornhill hops a train to Chicago, where he learns Kaplan is staying. Meanwhile, Hitchcock cuts to a table of FBI agents discussing Thornhill’s unfortunate luck; unfortunate because they created the ersatz Kaplan as a decoy set to protect their real agent.

On the train, Thornhill is rescued from capture by what appears to be a flirtatious Good Samaritan, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), willing to harbor a fugitive, though she actually works for Vandamm. They spend the night together, and when they arrive in Chicago, she seemingly calls Kaplan to arrange a meeting between him and Thornhill. She points Thornhill to a rendezvous on a farm road an hour-and-a-half outside the city; there, a crop duster attacks him but crashes in a foiled assassination attempt. He returns to Chicago and surprises Eve, who is stunned but overjoyed to see him. While he cleans up, she sneaks out to meet with Vandamm at an auction house. Thornhill follows and confronts them, accusing Eve of using her feminine wiles to seduce him while working for the Other Side. Vandamm places the winning bid on a small statue, and then posts goons at the exits so Thornhill cannot follow him. But Thornhill purposefully makes a scene to get himself arrested, protecting himself from Vandamm’s men.

An FBI official known as The Professor (Leo G. Carroll) meets Thornhill at the airport and explains the entire predicament, revealing that Eve is an undercover agent. Thornhill agrees to help stage his own death to help Eve regain Vandamm’s trust. They fly to Rapid City, South Dakota, the location of Vandamm’s lair and his take-off point to escape the country. In the Mount Rushmore Visitors Center, Thornhill meets with Eve and Vandamm, forcing quarrel that ends when she shoots Thornhill with blanks and leaves Vandamm believing him dead. But Eve is meant to go along with Vandamm out of the country, and Thornhill, who in realizing she has sacrificed herself for him on a number of occasions, loves her and refuses to let her go. That evening, Thornhill approaches Vandamm’s home and overhears that Eve’s rouse has been figured out and she will be killed. At the last minute, Eve takes the statuette, filled with sensitive microfilm, and flees with Thornhill onto the Mount Rushmore monument, Vandamm’s men close behind. Police shoot down the villainous thugs, but Eve loses her footing and hangs from the side of the mountain, slipping from Thornhill’s grasp. As our unlikely hero pulls her up, he lifts her into their sleeper car bed on their train, enjoying a happily ever after kiss and congratulating her on their marriage.

The chase proceeds in an effort for the government to recover their stolen information, and for Thornhill to clear his name. Both the information and Thornhill’s name are abstract ideas, conceptual notions that cannot be grasped in any physical sense. Whereas Hitchcockian plot contrivances have been everything from a wine bottle filled with uranium in Notorious to the stolen cash in Psycho, they can take intangible forms, such as the formula kept by Mr. Memory in The 39 Steps. Hitchcock adopted the term “MacGuffin” in realizing that each of his films relied on such a device. Or, as Hitchcock explained to François Truffaut in their seminal 1966 interview:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh that’s a MacGuffin.’ The first one asks ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well’ the other man says, ‘It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers ‘Well, then that’s no MacGuffin!’

In North by Northwest, the MacGuffin is reduced to what Hitchcock called “its purest expression: nothing at all!” The information sought by both Thornhill and the government is stored on microfilm contained within a figurine, but the secrets on that microfilm, thus the gravity of the stakes, are never revealed. The information pursued by American agents and crooked spies, with everyman Cary Grant caught in the middle, means nothing once the audience is rapt by the swelling tension. The same events could be written around the pursuit of stolen diamonds or a priceless work of art, a bomb or doomsday device. The specifics have no substance. In essence, the passages to obtain the thing are what matter most, whereas the particulars of why and for what could not be less significant.

The inspiration for North by Northwest came from one Otis Guernsey, a theater critic for the New York Herald Tribune, who at the 21 Club pitched a scenario to Hitchcock about a traveling salesman pinned with the identity of an imaginary secret agent. Seven years prior in 1951, Guernsey had interviewed Hitchcock for the release of Strangers on a Train, during which the director noted his yearning to make a film that ended atop Mount Rushmore. And when Hitchcock and writer Ernest Lehman began toying around with a thriller set into motion by a murder at the United Nations, they added Guernsey’s concept, and finished off their outline with a chase on Mount Rushmore. Lehman started writing in 1957 what he hoped would be the definitive Hitchcock picture, consciously incorporating devices familiar to the director’s oeuvre, while Hitchcock himself went off to direct Vertigo for Paramount.

In 1958, Hitchcock and Lehman began work for MGM on a concept they gave various names, including In a Northwesterly Direction, The Man on Lincoln’s Nose, and Breathless. The title they eventually settled on made little sense to the cast and crew, since the direction “north by northwest” does not exist on any compass. Hitchcock points out that Thornhill travels up from Chicago to South Dakota via Northwest Airlines, but that the title may merely be a directional reference, if not a ham-handed airline plug, is an unsatisfying explanation. Consider the possibility that Hitchcock meant to wink at Shakespeare, quoting Hamlet’s lamentation of his growing madness: “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” After all, the film’s protagonist cannot make heads or tails of the set of spiraling circumstances in which he finds himself, so this Shakespearian allusion, though the director denied its intentionality, gives the title some meaning.

Casting, as always with Hitchcock, was a precise and demanding process. Longtime collaborator on films like The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, and Vertigo, James Stewart was occupied making Bell Book and Candle, another role across from Kim Novak. But that served as a relief to Hitchcock, since only the effortlessly suave and eternally youthful Cary Grant could play Roger O. Thornhill—the ‘O’ meaning emptiness, standing for his character’s lack of actuality within the plot, and analogous to the nothingness of the film’s MacGuffin—and make the role a significant one. The director attributed Vertigo’s commercial failure to Stewart’s visibly increasing age, and he dreaded potentially having to reject the actor on those grounds. Luckily Grant, though teeter-tottering on retirement, signed to play Thornhill. He was paid $450,000 and given a share of the profits for his performance, plus a fee for every day the film went over its scheduled completion date.

Grant questioned his part in the film after signing, however, a trend that Hitchcock had become accustomed to over their many joint efforts. Since Suspicion, the film where Grant signed on to play a murderer but was edited into a misunderstood gambler, the actor had doubted his collaborations with the director. The easiest way to overcome Grant’s protests was to ignore them. Hitchcock did just that and they subsided. Grant’s relationship with Hitchcock had always been rocky, but not problematically so; it never prevented them from working together. Availability and budget restraints often foiled their potential collaborations, but Hitchcock always envisioned his leading men as Cary Grant—a well dressed, sharp-witted hero. The actor and director only collaborated on four pictures, the others being Notorious and To Catch a Thief. So Grant remained baffled by Lehman’s improbable scenario, criticizing the lack of logic from scene to scene, and Hitchcock wanted him that way, since it reflected how the bewildered Thornhill should feel wrapped up in a tangled web of spies.

Although the director approached Princess Grace (Kelly), Cyd Charisse, Sophia Loren, and Elizabeth Taylor for the Mata Hari role, he selected an unlikely blonde, Eva Marie Saint, who had won an Oscar four years prior for On the Waterfront. She would follow a long line of elusive Hitchcock blondes, all placed in distress and obliging a male hero to save them. Grace Kelly embodied that role in Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, and Rear Window; Tippi Hedren in The Birds and Marnie; Janet Leigh in Psycho; Kim Novak in Vertigo—the list could go on. The director went to great lengths to assure Saint, an unassuming but pretty actress, look beautiful in every scene, using precise wardrobe choices and lighting to achieve the effect, as well as treating her like royalty off-camera to affix her own self-image. She was instructed to lower her voice, avoid using her hands, and look directly at Cary Grant in her scenes opposite him. These details, as coached by Hitchcock, helped coagulate Saint’s alluring, yet pointedly distant onscreen persona. That her character must remain enticing and mysterious to preserve her double-agent guise makes Eve the decisive Hitchcock blonde, since the role itself necessitates what would otherwise be Hitchcock’s fetishist quality of character.

In their scenes together on the train, Grant and Saint share delightful passages of Lehman’s clever and sexy dialogue. Seated across from each other in the dinning car, the conversation quickly moves into a playful exchange of innuendo. “I tipped the steward five dollars to seat you here if you should come in,” Eve tells him. “Is that a proposition?” Thornhill asks. She declares, “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.” “You’ve already eaten.” “But you haven’t.” The audience loses themselves in this romantic banter, forgiving how easily these strangers leap into each other’s arms. Allowing the fugitive Thornhill into her compartment where they become close, Eve asks, “How do I know you aren’t a murderer?” “You don’t,” he replies. “Maybe you’re planning to murder me right here, tonight,” she suggests. “Shall I?” “Please do.” And then they kiss. This scene mirrors the one in Notorious between Grant and Ingrid Bergman, what was then called the longest screen kiss ever put on film, yet the dialogue in that scene breaks up a dozen smaller kisses, just like this one. Lehman, the writer of Sabrina and Sweet Smell of Success, layers every scene with double meanings and suggestive overtones; dissecting it proves just as thrilling as the spy-themed suspense.

The ever-suave James Mason plays the villain, Vandamm, a courier of top-secret intelligence.  Mason, as the characters in Hitchcock’s Rope remarked, is “attractively sinister” and manages to be at once despicable and devilishly charming. Hitchcock’s villains have a way of doing that—just look at Claude Rains as the charismatic Nazi from Notorious. Mason’s presence comes through, even though on-set he felt like another one of the “animated props” that Hitchcock called actors. Vandamm’s right-hand-man Leonard, played by Martin Landau, was accused of having a “flavor of homosexuality” by censors, but no changes were made to adjust the censors’ interpretation. The last major addition to the cast was Jesse Royce Landis, who plays Thornhill’s mother; the actress was almost a year younger than Grant, and though she may not look it, her blithe and sarcastic character behaves as much.

As expected, United Nations officials declined Hitchcock permission to shoot an assassination sequence on location. But the director refused to give up. He placed cameraman Robert Burks inside a covert carpet-cleaning truck to sneak a shot of Grant approaching the entrance. For the accurate interiors by production designer Robert Boyle, Hitchcock and a still photographer posed as tourists to steal some shots of the inner building. In Rapid City, The Department of Interior officials in charge of Mount Rushmore tried to limit Hitchcock’s crew by cutting their shoot time to two days and allowing filming only in the cafeteria and parking lot. It was more than enough time for Hitchcock, who captured enough still photographs for Boyle to create replicas and interior recreations on Hollywood sets. The director wanted Cary Grant to slide down Lincoln’s nose, hide in his nostril, and then suddenly have a sneezing fit. The landmark’s authorities would not allow any shooting of the actual faces, even their duplications, only between the faces, so the idea was scrapped.

Choosing these landmarks was a conscious choice on Hitchcock’s part to infuse murder and suspense into the iconography of a well-known landscape or national monument. The United Nations and Mount Rushmore were easily identifiable locales that the audience would recognize, and Hitchcock used that to twist them into something macabre or fantastic. He enlivened these locations, just as he did on several other pictures featuring landmarks. In Saboteur, the villainous spy is dropped to his death off the Statue of Liberty; Vertigo features a woman leaping into San Francisco Bay in an attempted suicide, the Golden Gate Bridge looming in the backdrop; the Dutch windmills play a key role in Foreign Correspondent; and the entire French Riviera has a pivotal part in To Catch a Thief. Of course, North by Northwest proved the most monument-heavy picture of them all, but Hitchcock also made sure his backgrounds were entirely functional within their scenes.

For the film’s most famous sequence, the crop duster chase in the Illinois field, Hitchcock went into great detail to construct one of cinema’s most memorable scenes. Thornhill arrives by bus to a crossroads, waiting as the occasional car drives by one after another. In the distance, a crop duster sprays a field. A car pulls out from a dirt road and drops off a man, not Kaplan. The man, waiting for a bus, observes, “That’s funny… That plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops.” Hitchcock makes the audience aware of the plane and the open isolation of the setting long before anything happens. Alone again, Thornhill notices the crop duster coming toward him. It begins to attack, diving and shooting machine gun rounds. He runs and ducks as it continues to lunge, and then he hides in a nearby cornfield. All at once he dashes to wave down an approaching tanker that breaks and nearly flattens him. As the crop duster, its pilot’s face never shown, makes its last advance, it crashes into the tanker, inciting an explosion.

Hitchcock once proclaimed that the plane and who was flying it mattered not, “So long as the audience goes through the emotion.” As Grant, still looking sharp despite his sprint, runs from the plane approaching him, the audience goes through whirling emotions as the scene crescendos. Hitchcock added this magnificently gratuitous scene just for the sake of exploring the antithesis of thriller cliché. He does the opposite of those typically claustrophobic scenes in thrillers, wherein the dark of night a killer stalks his prey into a tight alleyway that offers no escape. He gives Thornhill a free range of space to maneuver, in broad daylight no less, but also gives him nowhere to go. Assembled through bravado editing, the sequence, one of the most splendidly thrilling in all film, comes from Hitchcock’s ingenious blend of technical apparatuses. A combination of location footage and matte paintings set the scene, as does Herrmann’s score. Barely any dialogue is spoken for nearly seven minutes. The plane dives about the landscape. The star clearly runs toward the camera, whereas doubles run away from it, with some scenes shot on location and others in studio. Bits and pieces come together to make a seemingly effortless montage, rivaling Hitchcock’s shower scene in Psycho. The sequence is what the director called “pure cinema.”

Censors waved their fingers at Thornhill boasting about his many divorces and the implicitly sexual overnight train-compartment relationship between Thornhill and Eve. The original line “I never make love on an empty stomach” became “I never discuss love on an empty stomach” thanks to none-too-subtle dubbing. Still, Hitchcock got away with plenty. The film’s famously suggestive final scene shows the train entering a tunnel in an unquestionably sexual fashion. By leaving it to the Production Code office to point out the symbolism, Hitchcock, in turn, took it out of their hands. Censor Geoffrey Shurlock wanted the moment prior to this locomotive penetration to include a line where Thornhill says to Eve, “Come along, Mrs. Thornhill,” thus suggesting their marriage. The line was dubbed in after filming had wrapped, much to the satisfaction of Shurlock, who was apparently none the wiser about the visual innuendo that immediately followed it. Not since Ernst Lubitsch had such an explicit illustration of the underlying meaning of a scene’s sexual implication been approved under Production Code rule.

The final visual ingredient added appears at the beginning of the film. The slowly wrapping production had cost $1.3 million more than the originally estimated $3 million budget, the shoot (and retakes) running longer than expected. Saul Bass’ animated title sequence came about when the over-budget and behind schedule production had no remaining time or money to complete Hitchcock’s intended opening—a chain of scenes that set up Thornhill as an ad man—though Grant was willing to shoot the sequence free of charge. Just the time and equipment would have cost more than MGM was willing to spend. Instead, Bass conceived a slanted graph, which slowly builds momentum with Herrmann’s whirling score to construct the skyscraper of the film’s first live-action shot. As with all of the designer’s work, which include the opening of Psycho and the animated sequences in Vertigo, his concept was simple, dynamic, and in due course iconic. Immediately following it, a montage of city scenes takes us through the remaining credits, ending with Hitchcock himself missing a bus in one of his ever-present cameos.

Bernard Herrmann’s career as a film composer had begun long before his famous partnership with Hitchcock. Having arranged scores for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre broadcasts, he followed Welles into the realm of cinema beginning with a little film called Citizen Kane, moving on to The Magnificent Ambersons and eventually winning an Oscar for his work on William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster. He scored a total of seven Hitchcock films, beginning in 1955 with The Trouble with Harry. Herrmann even oversaw the sound design for The Birds, though that film has no actual score. For North by Northwest, the composer sustains the momentum of the picture from the outset, revamping a Spanish dance called the fandango for the main theme. Hitchcock trusted Herrmann implicitly, never interfering with his process; the results produced some of cinema’s most unforgettable music selections, and this film’s is on the top of that list.

From the crop duster sequence to the pure joy of Cary Grant’s charm, North by Northwest is a motion picture whose basis resides in fabrication and nothingness. Any serious scrutiny of how these factors come together results in disarray and confusion. Puzzlement notwithstanding, the film can be used as a guidebook to identify common traits in Hitchcock films beginning with The Lodger, lasting through Saboteur, and ending with Frenzy. Blondes, wrong men, and national monuments all appear frequently throughout his career. But their purpose in the director’s earlier films was never to specifically highlight their utter superfluousness as story elements; here they emphasize the importance of the raw thrills and suspense, which only seem essential to the plot because its director has spun them that way. Although the film is an assemblage of familiar Hitchcockian components pieced together here and there in the structure of a twisting scenario, something miraculous happens when the director puts those components together. Hitchcock told François Truffaut that The 39 Steps summed up his British work, whereas North by Northwest served as the epitome of his Hollywood films. Indeed, no other Hitchcock effort amasses a series of otherwise unconnected ideas and ties them together so creatively to instill the impression of a tightly bound motion picture. That sort of illusory filmmaking, which despite being so plainly presented before the viewer’s eyes remains deceptively composed, is exactly what makes Hitchcock the master of his craft.


Krohn, Bill. Hitchcock At Work. London: Phaidon, 2000.

McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light.New York: Regan Books, c2003.

Modleski, Tania.The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory.New York: Routledge, 2006.

Petrie, Graham. Hollywood destinies: European directors in America, 1922-1931. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, c2002.

Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. New York: Pantheon, 1988.

Schickel, Richard. Cary Grant: A Celebration. Boston: Little, Brown, c1983.

Schickel, Richard. The Men who made the movies: interviews with Frank Capra, George Cukor, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Vincente Minnelli, King Vidor, Raoul Walsh, and William A.Wellman. New York: Atheneum, 1975.

Truffaut, François. Hitchcock. With the collaboration of Helen G Scott. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Žižek, Slavoj. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock). London; New York: Verso, 1992.

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