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North by Northwest (1959) - Illustrated Reference

Updated on April 25, 2017

North by Northwest was directed by Sir Alfred Hitchcock and premiered on the 17th July 1959. Starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau and Leo G. Carroll. Screenplay by Ernest Lehman. Music by Bernard Herrmann. 131 mins.

Roger Thornhill, a middle aged advertising executive, is kidnapped by a gang of spies in the mistaken belief he is government agent George Kaplan.

After Vertigo Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) had chosen to direct The Wreck of the Mary Deare for MGM. But screenwriter Ernest Lehman suffered writer’s block and couldn’t come up with a working screenplay. Hitchcock told him that they would find another project to work on.

Hitch and Lehman worked closely together on a story about a spy ring and an innocent man on the run (surprise!), some of the ideas they came up with include a man being murdered at the United Nations, a fake agent used as a decoy and a chase on Mount Rushmore.

Eve Kendall: Roger O. Thornhill. What does the O stand for?
Roger Thornhill: Nothing.

Cary Grant (1904-1986) / Roger Thornhill, mistaken by Vandamm and his men for the non-existent agent George Kaplan, invented by a US Intelligence Agency to act as a decoy to protect their real agent.

Born in Bristol, England, Cary Grant is one of the Hollywood greats and has starred in many classic movies including 3 more for Hitchcock – Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946) and To Catch a Thief (1955).

Roger Thornhill: The moment I meet an attractive woman, I have to start pretending I have no desire to make love to her.
Eve Kendall: What makes you think you have to conceal it?
Roger Thornhill: She might find the idea objectionable.
Eve Kendall: Then again, she might not.

Eva Marie Saint (1924-) / Eve Kendall, Vandamm’s mistress who is also revealed to be a government agent. Sophia Loren and Cyd Charisse were considered for the part.

Born in New Jersey, USA, Eva Marie Saint won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for On the Waterfront (1954). Her last movie role was as Martha Kent in Superman Returns (2006).

Phillip Vandamm: Seems to me you fellows could stand a little less training from the FBI and a little more from the Actor's Studio.
Roger Thornhill: Apparently the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.
Phillip Vandamm: Your very next role, and you'll be quite convincing, I assure you.

James Mason (1909-1984) / Phillip Vandamm, a foreign spy attempting to smuggle microfilm containing government secrets out of the U.S. Yul Brynner was considered for the part.

Born in Yorkshire, England, one of the great English actors James Mason has appeared in over 100 films and was Oscar nominated for his roles in A Star is Born (1954), Georgy Girl (1966) and The Verdict (1982).

Leonard: You're not taking her on the plane with you?
Vandamm: Of course I am. This matter is best disposed of from a great height, over water.

Martin Landau (1928-) / Leonard, Vandamm’s personal secretary and right hand man.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, a versatile actor, Martin Landau has appeared in many films and hit TV series such as Mission Impossible (1966-1969) and Space 1999 (1975-1978). Landau won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar playing Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994).

Roger Thornhill: I don't like the games you play, Professor.
The Professor: War is hell, Mr. Thornhill. Even when it's a cold one.

Leo G. Carroll (1886-1972) / The Professor, chief of the government intelligence agency out to get Vandamm.

Leo G. Carroll has appeared in more Hitchcock films than any other actor – Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), The Paradine Case (1947), Strangers on a Train (1951) and North by Northwest (1959). He also played Alexander Waverly in the popular 60’s spy series The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1964-1968).

Clara Thornhill: You gentlemen aren't REALLY trying to kill my son, are you?

Jessie Royce Landis (1896-1972) / Clara Thornhill, Roger’s disbelieving mother. Born in Chicago, Illinois, Landis was only 7 years older than Cary Grant. She played Grace Kelly’s mother in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955).

“North by Northwest” was the working title for the film with the assumption a better title would be found later. Filming took place between August and December 1958.

The phrase is spoken by Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play – “I am only mad north by northwest. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” Hamlet is telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he is only feigning madness.

Roger Thornhill: Now you listen to me, I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself "slightly" killed.

James Stewart had wanted the lead role in North by Northwest but Hitchcock was disappointed by the poor box office of Vertigo the year before, the studio wanted Gregory Peck but Hitch decided Cary Grant was the right man for the job.

Filming around the United Nations was prohibited, Hitchcock used a hidden camera inside a truck to film Cary Grant exiting a cab and walking up the steps to the UN building.

Man at Prairie Crossing: That's funny, that plane's dustin' crops where there ain't no crops.

The famous cropduster sequence came about after Hitchcock had the idea of the hero being stranded in the middle of nowhere, a great open space where you weren’t sure where the threat would come from. He suggested to Lehman that the villains try to kill him with a cyclone, Lehman wondered how the villains were supposed to work up a cyclone. As the afternoon chat wore on the cyclone turned into a cropdusting plane.

Cary Grant seems to flub one line when he says “Look who’s here… our friend who’s assembling the general assembly this afternoon” (at the United Nations) instead of “addressing the general assembly.”

When Eve Kendall pulls a gun on Thornhill in the Rushmore cafeteria watch the little boy sitting behind Eve, he puts his fingers in his ears before the gun goes off.

Hitchcock’s cameo is one of his most memorable he misses a bus at the end of the opening credits.

Roger Thornhill: I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

The film’s famous climax takes place on Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Rapid City, South Dakota. Permission to film on Mount Rushmore was denied, so replicas of parts of the monument were built on studio sets for the actors and stuntmen to climb on (and fall off). The matte artists completed the effect.

At one point Hitchcock wanted Cary Grant to hide in Lincoln’s nose and than have a sneezing fit, but snooty National Park officials did not see the funny side and the idea was nixed.

One of the films chosen for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1995. It was ranked #55 in AFI’s 100 Greatest Films List, #4 on AFI’s 100 Greatest Thrills list and #7 on the AFI's Top 10 Mystery Films.

North by Northwest was nominated for three Oscars – Best Writing, Best Editing and Best Art Direction.

The film ends with Cary Grant pulling Eva Marie Saint up on the upper bunk of a train compartment followed by a shot of the train speeding into a tunnel. The sexual metaphor a perfect finish to Hitchcock’s hugely enjoyable spy romp.

North by Northwest is the quintessential Hitchcock thriller with a witty script, great actors and a thrilling score by music maestro Bernard Herrmann. Unmissable entertainment.

The Critic’s Wrote -

"A suspenseful and delighful Cook's Tour of some of the more photogenic spots in these United States... With Mr. Hitchcock at the helm "North by Northwest" is a colorful and exciting route for spies, counterspies and lovers." (New York Times)

"Metro's "North by Northwest" is the Alfred Hitchcock mixture as before--suspense, intrigue. comedy, humor. Seldom has the concoction been served up so delectably." (Variety)

"That master magician has done it again... The Mt. Rushmore scene alone is worth the money." (News of the World)

"Fifty years on you could say that Hitchcock’s sleek, wry, paranoid thriller caught the zeitgeist perfectly. But there’s nothing dated about this perfect storm of talent, from Hitchcock and Grant to writer Ernest Lehman, composer Bernard Herrmann and even designer Saul Bass, whose opening-credits sequence still manages to send a shiver down the spine." (Time Out)

"A real shaggy dog spy story which taken seriously makes no sense whatsoever. This is fortunate because, taken seriously, its implications about the heroine's morals, the methods of American intelligence agencies and sundry other matters are alarming to say the least. It is amazing, nevertheless, how entertaining the picture is." (Moira Walsh, America)

"For its mixture of humour and thrills, it has rarely been matched. For those who like to spot homophobia in Hollywood films, try the relationship between the two villains, James Mason and Martin Landau; and for lovers of phallic symbolism, there's also the treat of the train carrying Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint into a tunnel." (Chris Tookey)

North by Northwest Trailer


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