North by Northwest: Hitchcock's Finest Two Hours
In early 1959, while brainstorming with screenwriter Ernest Lehman about The Wreck of the Mary Deare, a film that he ultimately passed on to someone else, director Alfred Hitchcock suggested they forget about their current difficulties and take a break along with some alcoholic refreshment.
They found their way to a bar somewhere in Hollywood, relaxed their nerves and allowed their minds to drift temporarily out of the universe of the cinema. But with Hitchcock time away from movies was always short-lived. Under the cooling effects of gin, the quirky Englishman began to explain a fantasy he had been nurturing.
“For a long time,” he told Lehman in the voice that has been among the favorite of impersonators for the last fifty years, “I’ve wanted to film a chase scene on Mt. Rushmore. Perhaps as the climax of some sort of great adventure.”
Hitchcock had paid $10,000 to journalist Otis Guernsey for the rights to a story about a spy who was involved in a case of mistaken identity and he imagined that might be interwoven into the story about Rushmore. Lehman, equally loose and free, began to play with the idea of an advertising executive (which he had previously been himself) in New York who might be somehow abducted and swept up in an improbable caper.
By the time the two men had imbibed their full complement of alcohol, history had accidentally been made in the anonymous bar. When the pair had entered the bar they had been stumped by plans for a project that they later abandoned. When they left, they had developed the embryonic idea for the greatest of all the movies the legendary director was to make in his distinguished career, a movie that was also the high point of its screenwriter’s body of work.
It was no accident that the resulting production, North by Northwest, became a classic. It turned out to be the most perfect collaboration in motion picture history between a director and a screenwriter.
For it was Lehman, equally as much as Hitchcock, who drove the project forward, adding an element of fun, breeziness, wit and tomfoolery that was much more prominent than in other Hitchcock films such as Rebecca, Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds.
And the two of them were blessed to find the perfect man to play Roger O. Thornhill, the alter-ego of Lehman’s imagination: Cary Grant, who also reached the pinnacle of his career in the role.
Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant), a prosperous twice-divorced New York advertising executive, is planning on a theater date one evening. While trying to hail a cab in a crowd he makes a gesture which is mistaken by undercover spies as an acknowledgment that his name is George Kaplan, a mysterious character who is thought to be traveling freely about the country in the service of American intelligence.
Thornhill is abducted by two men, forced into a taxicab and taken to the Long Island estate of someone named Lester Townsend, who is actually a UN diplomat but is being impersonated by a spy named Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Vandamm interrogates Thornhill, forces him to drink bourbon until he is falling-down drunk, and instructs Leonard (Martin Landau), his assistant, to dispose of him.
The intoxicated Thornhill is given a car to drive along a winding seaside road and he narrowly escapes catastrophe in a wreck. He is imprisoned and brought before a judge who doubts his improbable story even after his mother arrives to help him. He returns to New York, finds a room reserved under the name George Kaplan in the Plaza Hotel, and enters the room. One of Vandamm’s agents calls him, and he then flees to the UN to track down Townsend.
As soon as he discovers that Townsend is actually not the man he saw the previous night, Thornhill is implicated in a murder when one of Vandamm’s henchmen throws a knife in Townsend’s back and Thornhill is photographed removing the knife. He flees the scene and sneaks onto a Chicago-bound train, the 20th Century Limited, remembering that Kaplan had a hotel booked in Chicago the following night.
While traveling in disguise to elude a massive nationwide manhunt for Townsend’s killer, Thornhill meets an attractive young blonde, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), onboard the train. She is actually a U.S. Government spy serving as the mistress of Vandamm. Thornhill and Kendall quickly fall in love. Once in Chicago they must be discreet, but Kendall tells Thornhill that he is to meet Kaplan the following day at a crossroads in rural Indiana.
Thornhill travels to the meeting only to discover a crop-dusting biplane is flying overhead to try to assassinate him. He takes cover in a cornfield and escapes when the biplane crashes into a truck that he throws himself in front of.
He begins to grow suspicious of Kendall back in Chicago and follows her to an art auction, where he sees her serving Vandamm. Vandamm successfully bids on an ancient Mexican statue and quickly leaves the auction. When Thornhill tries to follow him Vandamm’s guards seal the exits and Thornhill begins making outrageous bids to draw police attention, then reveals himself at the man wanted in the UN murder manhunt.
Police take him into custody but rather than imprisoning him they turn him over to The Professor (Leo G. Carroll), a senior government agent in charge of the Kendall spy ring. The Professor informs Thornhill that George Kaplan is a fictitious red herring intended to divert Vandamm’s attention away from Kendall’s role as a spy. Thornhill agrees to assume the name George Kaplan in order to continue following Kendall and protect her from harm.
Vandamm travels to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota to arrange for a secret transport of microfilm that is hidden in the Mexican statue, presumably to the U.S.S.R.. Aware that Kendall is a U.S. spy, he plots her murder, but is approached by Thornhill, who negotiates her transfer to prosecuting authorities in the Mount Rushmore visitor center.
Kendall is carrying a gun with blanks, and shoots it at Thornhill, who pretends to go down and is rushed away in an ambulance to meet up with The Professor in a nearby forest. Kendall then must return to follow Vandamm on his flight and continue extracting secrets. In his mountainside home she discovers that Vandamm knows the murder of Kaplan was staged.
Thornhill sneaks into Vandamm’s house and warns Kendall she will be murdered during the flight. They seize the Mexican statue from a safe and flee to the top of Mount Rushmore. Leonard and another Vandamm agent chase them on the large faces of Rushmore. Eve slips off the edge of one cliff and is caught by Thornhill, who hangs to life by his hand on the edge of the precipice.
As Leonard goes to step on Thornhill’s hand and kill them both he is shot by a U.S. Forest Ranger and Kendall and Thornhill are rescued by The Professor, who has also captured Vandamm. The microfilm-bearing statue falls over the cliff and the next day Thornhill and Kendall are married and embark on another train trip.
Lehman’s goal was to write “the Hitchcock film of all Hitchcock films”, and he succeeded. All of the great director’s storytelling hallmarks—sudden reversals of fortunes and roles; suspense; macabre crimes; eccentric behavior; voyeurism; sinister encounters with nature and law enforcement; a subculture of violence, perversity and intrigue; an icy blonde heroine madly desired by a middle aged man; the involvement of prominent landmarks and monuments in the setting—are featured in the storyline Lehman developed largely on his own for North by Northwest.
Here we also have the unexplained “MacGuffin”, Hitchcock’s term for the simple plot contrivance which propels action forward, in this case the vague “government secrets”. And here we have the unassuming everyman, Cary Grant, in the most enduring role of his career. At age 55 he was then at the height of his debonair charm and was given the perfect vehicle for his wry wit and stylish, lady-killing personality.
Hitchcock, unlike such predecessors and D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin, and such successors as Oliver Stone and Spike Lee, felt no desire to use his medium to put forward an agenda. His pictures had no “message” and he removed all elements of preaching from his stories. They were pure entertainment, tomfoolery, shenanigans, and “MacGuffin-fests”. He decided early in his career that the purpose of his fledgling medium was to take an audience away from humdrum reality, not to remind the audience of it.
Nevertheless, he was unable to achieve the perfect medium for his ideal except in this one production. The blackness of Rebecca, Suspicion, Notorious and Psycho (the middle two also featuring Grant) made their viewing a totally different type of experience than North by Northwest. One imagines also in Rear Window and Vertigo the filmmaker projecting some of his own sexual frustrations onto the protagonists played by James Stewart. The feeling of the audience at the end of The Birds, Frenzy and Rope is rather one of alarm than of contentment.
What separates North by Northwest from these other Hitchcock films, all of them outstanding works in their own way, is Lehman’s success in steering the story away from the director’s personal demons and frustrations and instead toward what Lehman knew the audience most wanted: fun, action, suspense, adventure, a perfectly happy ending and a storybook romance involving the most charming actor in the history of the cinema.
Never before and never again did either Hitchcock or Grant have such a benevolent guiding hand involved in one of their projects: a self-professed fan of them both, with enormous talent in his own right, writing a script to make them both look their best.
© 2015 James Crawford