The Quintessential Hitchcock Film

A case of mistaken identity
A case of mistaken identity
Gleaming 20th century architecture
Gleaming 20th century architecture
The grey suit
The grey suit
Steamy
Steamy
So chic
So chic
Waiting out his assassins
Waiting out his assassins
Frank Lloyd Wright House (ala Culver City)
Frank Lloyd Wright House (ala Culver City)
Scaling history
Scaling history

North By Northwest was filmed in 1959 but has a familiar thematic ring unmistakably reminiscent of The 39 Steps, made twenty-four years earlier. First, North By Northwest is about buildings and architecture. By this time, Hitchcock was fascinated with them: their beamed foundations; cross-hatched construction; shining, lofty glass windows and artistic integrity. He utilizes some of the most famous buildings in New York City as well as the statuesque faces of Mount Rushmore and a phenomenal Frank Lloyd Wright house.

After buildings and trains, the movie is about advertising executive, Roger Thornhill, played by Cary Grant. He plays the archetypal ad guy: slick, the gray suit, polished, handsome, smart wry humor, confident, plenty of cash on hand. The movie begins as did The 39 Steps, and many other Hitchcock thrillers, when our hero’s life is flowing at its usual every day pace but is suddenly interrupted by cold war chaos. Roger Thornhill is rushing off the elevator of an imposing, downtown building delegating orders to his secretary who must follow him out to the street taking notes. With the way these street scenes are filmed, there is the sensation of all movement taking place on conveyor belts.

Thornhill’s life is so robust and his calendar so full of client-meetings that his secretary has to ride with him in a cab in order to scribble it all down as he dictates. Cary Grant hops from elevators to sidewalk curbs to the glistening marble halls of the Ambassador Hotel like a sleek gazelle and then glides into the bar for a martini with his somewhat dazzled clients. Then, by a sheer case of mistaken identity, after a ploy to entrap someone else, two glorified thugs with quiet, German accents stupidly accost Thornhill and abduct him out of the Ambassador, into a cab and out to the sprawling, remote neighborhood of a country mansion. The lurking captors waiting within, like pompous vultures, make homicidal threats. And just as Hanay in The 39 Steps, the innocent Thornhill has been spirited away into the underworld of espionage and murder.

Thornhills captors, for all of their snobbish arrogance - James Mason Plays an exceedingly articulate Phillip Vandamm - seem rather dim-witted at figuring out a way to keep their hostage subdued. They force a bottle of brandy down his throat to render him useless; but, they underestimate Thornhill’s threshold for liquor. He is definitely smashed – lolling his head around and singing out of key, but he is an advertising guy, and ad guys can drink! Soon Thornhill manages to thwart his captors, but now, like Hanay, he must solve his own case. He enlists his mother for a while. A well-heeled, attractive, middle-aged bridge player played by Jessie Royce Landis, (who was really too young to actually be his mother); she is the essence of sarcasm and incredulity: being an experienced woman, she does not trust her son, but she keeps him amused.

Then there is the beautiful blond on the train, just as in The 39 Steps, but this blond, played by Eva Marie Saint, appears to be much more helpful! She is mostly well equipped for some very steamy scenes, 1950’s style, in the train compartment, as well as conducting our Thornhill onto a Greyhound bus and out to the flat, Midwestern boonies, where, at a crossroads, Thornhill stands alone and waits for the famous airplane, chase-scenes. The dry, brown American landscape is nothing like the Scottish highlands: and this alone seems to render his plight more harsh. Hitchcock somehow understood the good and the bad of our country: revering 20th century progress and the great, gleaming architecture of downtown Manhattan and the gifted architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright; yet, while at the same time, pointing out the prosaic and the petty-mindedness that is stitched into the fabric of our relatively young culture.

The director was also acutely aware of the strict controls that society wants to place on us, and of the ordinary citizens who will eagerly volunteer for the cause of entrapping an innocent man, as in Thornhill’s Grand Central Station getaway, where young police guards stand peering through the crowds for the killer, and a ticket taker who keeps a photograph of Thornhill near the bars of his station ready to be the one to identify him. Or when Thornhill pops up once again to meet his killers at a silent auction and the well-dressed elite turn up their noses, one woman archly calling him “an idiot”, and an auction attendant who, with pursed lips, quietly phones the police. The film’s pace is magnified throughout by the fantastic, sonorous base and viola symphony music of Bernard Herman. The music is on the same grand scale as the architecture, including the Wright house in which high-angle, camera shots bring the stylish Grant down through the stylish, textured surfaces to yet another escape.

Hitchcock had a keen sensibility for the spy and counter-spy machinations of the cold war era. He puts particular emphasis upon the role of Washington in those high-stakes international, political games. And with a clean swipe, the director suggests that the White House and “the U.S. Intelligence Agency” are covertly involved in all of this. Yet, the faces of the presidents in the Mount Rushmore Monument seem to look worried, cross, austere as well as enthralled at what is going on after their time.


Comments 28 comments

ng0208 profile image

ng0208 6 years ago from Kentucky

Love Hitchcock! Great hub! Thanks for sharing : )


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thanks for stopping by - and for the great compliment!


drbj profile image

drbj 6 years ago from south Florida

This was such a great film I have seen it twice and enjoyed it just as much the second time. Hitchcock was a master when it came to films of intrigue. And Cary Grant was the epitome of cool tho we called it suave at the time.

Thanks for the reminder with your cool hub.


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thanks, drbj. Suave is a good word ~ wish I would have used it. Cary Grant was definitely cool and suave! I will never understand why he never received one oscar - he deserved at least one!


Dixon Steele profile image

Dixon Steele 6 years ago

Credit too to Ernest Lehman for the only original screenplay of his career. the rest were adaptions.

There definitely is something conspiratorial about the architecture in that film, the perpendicular angles, the overhead matte shot of Grant leaving his hotel. The weighty extravagence is a flamboyant counterpoint to the more seedy paronia masterpieces of the fifies (Kiss Me Deadly (1955)anyone? Also utilises modernist aricheture) and is all the more subversive for it. Hitch's stolen shot of the UN building, the authority's refusal to let the film-makers shoot on location on Mount Rushmore. In the words of Kafka's Joseph K, 'is there any doubt that behind all this a vast network is at play'. (paraphrase)


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thanks, Dixon Steele, for your awesome comments! I have not seen Kiss Me Deadly - will look into that. What about the "stolen" shot of the UN building - was he not aloud to film it? How outrageous. Yes, Hitch had keen insight into the conspiratorial element. Have your read my piece on The 39 Steps? Soon I will provide links for easier cross-referencing.


Dixon Steele profile image

Dixon Steele 6 years ago

Indeed, the exterior shot of Grant entering the UN was shot on the sly because permission had been denied.


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Hmm - Maybe the UN, or the powers that be, thought that Hitchcock and his troop were all spies.


billyaustindillon profile image

billyaustindillon 6 years ago

A great hub, Hitchcock is still brilliant to watch, Birds, Psycho


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Billyaustindillon(great name!). It's funny, I love Hitchcock, but I don't know that I have the stomach for Birds; its the one Hitch movie I have not seen - that and the one with "Britain" or "British" in the title - only because it's hard to come by. Psycho is a favorite, but I confess it scares the heck out of me!


epigramman profile image

epigramman 6 years ago

you can never go wrong with Hitchcock - and you can never go wrong with one of your hubs either!

And to use that 'word' again - they both have something in common - QUINTESSENTIAL!!!


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thank you very much for that warm praise. I will keep hubbing! Hitchcock speaks to my heart, so I guess I write about him from my heart ~ Thanks for stopping by!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States

Tracy - I love Hitchcock as well as Cary Grant, who was one marvelous actor. North by Northwest is such a classic that even kids know it, especially the famous scene when the plane is chasing Thornhill. Great hub. Plus you've used one of my favorite words - quintessential.


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Yes, Hitchcock is still a hit with everybody ~ that was Sir Alfred's genius, the ability to speak to the souls of many for years to come. Thank you so much for coming by and reading. I respect anyone whose favorite word is quintessential!


eilander1542011 profile image

eilander1542011 6 years ago from Everywhere

When I read a piece, anything at all, I love coming away feeling satisfied. But more than just satisfied, enthralled and inspired. That is exactly what I felt through the climax and transitional interpretation. Beautifully executed.


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 6 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thanks a lot, eilander, for your warm accolades. I'm glad you enjoyed this hub. The movie is even better!:)


Ben Zoltak profile image

Ben Zoltak 5 years ago from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA

Interesting piece, I've just located 39 Steps on Netflix because of your allusions above. It's been a long time since seeing North By Northwest, I had no idea there was a viola based orchestra involved, I used to play that instrument so one more reason to love this Hitchcock movie. We're aiming to maybe get a wide screen in the coming months after reading your review I think I will make it the first movie we see. Well done, I also enjoyed the take on Wright's architecture and the Washington observation at the end.

Ben


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 5 years ago from San Francisco Author

Ben, The music contributes hugely to this film! You'll have to let me know what you think after seeing it on a wide screen. And maybe you will decide to take up the viola again, too?:) Thanks for the encouraging compliments!


Cogerson profile image

Cogerson 5 years ago from Virginia

A great review on a great movie....I really enjoyed your insights into one of my favorite films. Voted way up and awesome.


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 5 years ago from San Francisco Author

Cogerson, This one is a favorite of mine too! Thanks so much for the great comments ~ it's nice to have a new, enthusiastic follower:)


Tyler 5 years ago

This is my second favorite Hitchcock movie, only behind To Catch a Thief, great writing, I really enjoyed all the great intereing things you put in your hub, voted up and awesome.


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 5 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thanks, Tyler! I just left a message refering to you in the Cameos hub. Comparing Hitchcock to Where's Waldo ~ Haha! You have excellent taste: To Catch a Thief & NBNW are so polished! Thanks for the accolades:)


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 5 years ago from London, England

My favourite Hitchcock film, excellent work tracykarl99.

The film is packed with memorable moments and along with the shower murder in Psycho the cropduster chase is the Hitchcock sequence everyone remembers. A Hitchcock masterpiece.

Voted Up.


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 5 years ago from San Francisco Author

Steve, Mine too - this is my favorite of Hitchcock's later films. As you said, "memorable" is key with the Hitchcock popular persona. Psycho is not one of my favorites at all, but it is certainly memorable!

Thanks for the compliments and the vote up!:)


hinton1966 profile image

hinton1966 5 years ago

I love this movie, it was my father's favorite ever, I have such fond memories of watching it with him. Nice hub.


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 5 years ago from San Francisco Author

hinton, It is a classic! My mother adores this film too - and anything with Cary Grant:) How wonderful that we can enjoy great films like this through the generations! Thank you ~


Davidwork 4 years ago

Just read and commented on your Rear Window hub. Went to look at your other hubs and I DON'T BELIEVE IT!

This has got to be just about my all time favourite film. I never tire of it. I watch the dvd regularly, and I know this might sound crazy to you, but I always think of this as the perfect film to watch on an autumn Sunday evening! I usually settle down to watch it on September or October Sunday evenings.

I visited New York in October 2008, and went into the UN Building. The foyer was still exactly as it had been in the film nearly 50 years earlier.

One of my big ambitions, when I can afford it again, because I'm unemployed right now, is to travel on an overnight train from New York to Chicago.

By the way, are you aware that the dramatic Mount Rushmore scene at the end of the film uses just a bit of artistic licence? Apparently, it wouldn't have been possible for the couple to run from the car at the locked gate to the President's heads, because there is only a sheer drop at the rear of those heads.

Hub voted up!


tracykarl99 profile image

tracykarl99 4 years ago from San Francisco Author

Thanks, David! Yes, I knew about the Mount Rushmore scene. I read that it was done in the Culver City studios! Haha! Thanks for the vote up! :)

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    North By Northwest

    More by this Author


    Click to Rate This Article
    working