North By Northwest: Movie Review
North by Northwest stars Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill, Eve Marie Saint as Eve Kendall and James Mason as Phillip Vandamm. Alfred Hitchcock directed it from a screenplay by Ernest Lehman. It was released in 1959.
And, in case you’re wondering what ‘North by Northwest’ even means, it’s a quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet where Hamlet says:
I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.
Warning: Major spoilers are blacked out like this: [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
North by Northwest: Logline
When an innocent advertising executive is framed for murder by foreign spies, he must evade the authorities for long enough to uncover the spies’ plot, and save the enigmatic woman who’s mixed up with them.
North by Northwest: Plot Summary
Roger Thornhill is a successful advertising executive on Madison Avenue, New York. One evening, he is mistaken for a spy called George Kaplan, kidnapped and taken to a house on Long Island. There, the suave Phillip Vandamm interrogates him. Tiring of Thornhill’s refusal to admit to being Kaplan, Vandamm orders his disposal in a drink driving ‘accident’.
By pure luck, Thornhill survives. The next day, he returns to the house with the police but there is no sign of Vandamm and so the police don’t believe Thornhill’s story. Thornhill discovers the house belongs to a United Nations diplomat, and he goes to the UN Building to find out the truth.
At the UN, Vandamm’s men frame Thornhill for murder. Seeing that no one will believe he’s innocent, Thornhill goes on the run.
The 20th Century Limited
Thornhill knows that the mysterious spy Vandamm mistook him for, Kaplan, has a reservation at a Chicago hotel. So he sneaks onto a luxury train called the 20th Century Limited that goes from New York to Chicago. On the train he meets Eve Kendall, who helps him avoid detection by the authorities. In Chicago, Eve tells Thornhill she’s arranged for him to meet Kaplan.
Thornhill travels by bus to an isolated spot in the country. There, a crop-dusting plane attacks him. He tries to escape by flagging down a petrol tanker, causing the crop-duster to crash into the tanker.
Having survived the latest attempt to kill him, Thornhill catches up with Eve at an art auction. He finds her with Vandamm, which confirms his suspicions that she’s part of the gang. Trapped at the auction by Vandamm’s thugs, he surrenders to the police to avoid being killed.
The police take Thornhill to ‘The Professor’, a US spy-master. The Professor reveals [blackout] Kaplan is not an actual spy but a fictitious ‘red herring’ distracting Vandamm from the real threat. The actual agent in Vandamm’s organisation is Eve. [/blackout]The Professor asks Thornhill to help him save Eve from Vandamm.
Thornhill meets Eve and Vandamm in the café of the Mt. Rushmore Visitors Centre. He tries to blackmail Vandamm into leaving the country without Eve. When Vandamm refuses, Thornhill grabs Eve, but she shoots him. An ambulance takes Thornhill away, apparently dead. It looks as if Vandamm is going to escape…
…but, in the woods, [blackout]Thornhill gets out of the ambulance uninjured. Eve shot him with blanks.[/blackout]
He [blackout]talks to Eve and learns she’s leaving the country that night with Vandamm. The Professor has Thornhill locked up in hospital, to stop him interfering, but he escapes and goes after Eve.[/blackout]
At Vandamm’s mountainside house, [blackout]Thornhill tries to contact Eve without arousing Vandamm’s suspicions. Vandamm learns Eve faked the shooting and decides to throw her out of his airplane once airborne. Thornhill warns Eve that Vandamm has blown her cover.[/blackout]
Thornhill [blackout]and Eve escape, clambering across the face of Mount Rushmore. Eve slips and hangs from a ledge. Thornhill grabs her with one hand and holds on with the other. At the last second, the Professor arrives with the police and takes Vandamm into custody whilst Thornhill pulls Eve to safety.[/blackout]
North by Northwest: Analysis
The plot of North By Northwest is a twist on the archetypal ‘Man on the Run’ that I call a Straight Run (see Spy Novel Plots).
The ‘Straight Run’ Plot
- Is involved in an Inciting Incident with a group of Antagonists.
- Realises they are not safe from the Antagonists.
- Is also not safe from the authorities, as they are tricked or controlled by the Antagonists.
- Goes on the run, pursued by both the Antagonists and the authorities.
- Involves one or more Allies in their escape (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Narrowly avoids capture and death (or is captured and escapes) by both the Antagonists and the authorities.
- Persuades the authorities they should work together to stop the Antagonists.
- Confronts the Antagonists and stops (or fails to stop) them.
North by Northwest is a comedy-romance-thriller, with the emphasis on comedy-romance. The film centres around Cary Grant’s usual fast-talking, wise-cracking screen persona and mildly suggestive banter with Eve Marie Saint. Some quips are prototypes of Bondish innuendo (North By Northwest pre-dates even Dr. No).
Roger Thornhill: Now, what can a man do with his clothes off for twenty minutes?
Eve Kendall: You could always take a cold shower.
Grant plays most scenes for laughs, the auction for example, and the jeopardy never feels very real. Glamorous settings like the 20th Century Limited, The Oak Room and The United Nations abound. Both Grant and Mason play up the suaveness, and Eve Marie Saint supplies the sex appeal. It does what it sets out to do very well.
North by Northwest scores very low for realism. The only thing that’s remotely plausible about it is that Vandamm’s gang of foreign spies have no great world shattering goals. They merely seek to escape back to their country with their MacGuffin (some unspecified American secrets).
Supposedly, the real-life Operation Mincemeat, which is better known from the film The Man Who Never Was, inspired North By Northwest. The actual stories are, however, almost completely different.
Scoring zero for realness, the inciting incident, where the spies mistake Thornhill for Kaplan, is pure coincidence. When Thornhill foolishly picks up the knife that the spies have just used to kill the UN diplomat, he’s acting in a similarly contrived way.
And of all the ridiculous ways to kill someone, luring them to the middle of nowhere and then attacking them with a crop-dusting plane must be right up there. Would it not have been simpler to get Thornhill to the rendezvous and then simply arrive in a car and shoot him? Of course, it’s a magnificent scene and a lot of fun – realism is not the aim.
For a darker take on the story of a woman infiltrating a spy gang through romance with the mastermind see Notorious, also directed by Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant, but this time opposite Ingrid Bergman.
North by Northwest: My Rating
Lots of fun. Fast paced. Full of wisecracks, retro charm and light-hearted thrills. Perfect relaxing escapism.
Want to watch it?
Here’s the trailer, with Hitchcock presenting the film in ironic style, as if it’s a travelogue.
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