Another Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece is 1959’s North by Northwest. This thriller is a tale of absorbing themes and characters built around some preposterous set pieces. It forms on Hitch’s common motif of mistaken identity, but inflates the material to almost silly heights and serves as another prime instance of “pure cinema.”
North by Northwest is also a compilation of Hitchcock’s work in America, functioning as a chase film with quixotic interludes, ambiguity and the tale of a man with a lot of growing up to do. The screenplay by Ernest Lehman doesn’t cover a lot of forthright intrigue and the MacGuffin isn’t even brought up until the last few moments of the picture, but it still works beautifully.
Cary Grant is advertising executive Roger Thornhill. He’s slick and used to life in the big city. One day when meeting clients at a bar, Thornhill is picked up by two ruffians and taken to meet a man (James Mason) in a mansion. Mystified, the ad man keeps trying to escape but is ultimately force-fed a flagon of brandy and sent to his demise by DUI.
Thornhill is picked up by the cops, however, and booked. While trying to prove his story to the fuzz, the hapless protagonist is thought to be the perpetrator of a murder at the United Nations. On the run, he meets Eve (Eva Marie Saint) on a train and falls in love. True to form, she isn’t who he makes her out to be either.
North by Northwest functions in this fashion and obstinately throws characters at the audience who aren’t who they say they are. Mason’s character, for instance, is first thought to be Townsend and is eventually revealed be someone else. Likewise, Eve is thought to be a woman on the train before she’s exposed to be someone else…and then someone else.
Issues of identity have long fascinated Hitchcock and North by Northwest offers him the opportunity to meld these notions together into one behemoth of a thriller. Along with having his protagonist as the victim of a case of mistaken identity, he offers him little to work with from a moral sense.
Grant’s Thornhill has only ever really cared about himself; his phone call from the slammer is to his mother and he has two ex-wives to show for his egotism. Even as he is picked up by police after the hysterical auction scene, he jokes around about his circumstances. It’s only when Thornhill learns that his behaviour has perhaps put Eve in danger that he smartens up.
Naturally, North by Northwest is one of those pictures that draws memories of a few critical scenes. There are many highlights, from the aforementioned auction scene to the finale on Mount Rushmore. But the film’s most well-known – and most enthralling – scene is the chase through the cornfield.
In this section, space is an issue and time is almost entirely off the table. The establishing shots vividly illustrate the isolation of Grant’s character as he gets off the bus. Here is a man used to a seething metropolis, to some veneer of chaotic direction, and he winds up in the middle of nowhere. This in and of itself would be awkward.
But like the true artist he is, Hitchcock has given the audience the essential information to know that Thornhill is in trouble. What kind of trouble he’s in isn’t shown until an unsociable crop-duster begins making the rounds in the still cobalt heavens. By first forming the space and signifying exactly where the character would have to go, Hitchcock has set the stage for madness.
This captivating attention to detail infuses the filmmaker’s work and sets up gorgeously throughout North by Northwest. Without Hitchcock’s sense of motion and attention to his themes of Self, maturity and restoration, the plot contrivances of this picture wouldn’t have worked. But in the hands of the master, the end result befits a true work of art.