NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) revisited

 Greetings again from the darkness. It seems apropos that Hollywood’s first stylish thriller with tongue planted firmly in cheek should come from director Alfred Hitchcock. We get two of the most iconic scenes in one film: Cary Grant being targeted by a crop duster, and the chase across the faces of Mt Rushmore. That combined with the stellar writing of famed screenwriter Ernest Lehman (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) provide one of the all-time most entertaining and beloved thrillers.

Cary Grant plays Roger O Thornhill (the O stands for nothing), a Madison Avenue Advertising hotshot who gets mixed up in a wild case of mistaken identity that involves the CIA and an unnamed foreign intelligence agency. Spies who nab the wrong guy … there’s something funny about that, as long as you aren’t “the guy”. The story is tied into the Cold War, but really the fun part of the film involves watching Thornhill maneuver his way through the maze with very little assistance. Well, Eve Kendall (played by Eva Marie Saint) says she is helping, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that she’s no innocent bystander … what blonde is ever innocent in a Hitchcock film? The bad guy is Vandamm, played with true menace by James Mason (whose wonderfully creepy voice always made him a terrific villain). His henchman is a young Martin Landau, whose mannerisms will have you raising an eyebrow throughout. While many rave about the scenes with Grant and Ms. Saint, my favorites involve Grant and Mason. Two suave masters going at each other with verbal sparring that stands up more than 50 years later.

 This was Hitchcock’s only film for MGM, and I would argue it is his most visually stylish … clothing, set decorations and the beautiful scenery and camera work. Also, he makes his cameo very early here … just missing a city bus as the doors close in his face.  And of course, one can’t help notice the poor gray suit that Grant wears through most of the film. It looks fabulous on him, even after he crawls out of the corn fields. Mr. Grant may be the most elegant actor to ever grace the silver screen. He moves like a dancer and has the face of model. This is a true movie star. I have often stated that he mastered the confounded grimace and the quick, sly smile and built a career.

Bernard Herrmann delivered yet another perfect score and Lehman’s risqué’ (for the times) dialogue is especially fun in the train’s dining car. Finally getting to see this one on the big screen gave me a whole new appreciation for the crop dusting scene and Mt Rushmore. The scale of both segments is pure Hitchcock art. On a final note, there are so many character actors whom you will recognize throughout the film. Many went on to long careers in the 60’s and 70’s and even beyond. A true classic from the master.

**Note: Jessie Royce Landis plays Cary Grant’s mother in the film … actually, she was only 7 years older than Grant.

watch the trailer:

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