Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) is the filmmaker’s last work in full The 39 Steps (1935) mode. Yes, there are elements of 39 Steps in Frenzy (1972), but Frenzy seems more like a cousin—more closely related to Young and Innocent (1937) than to The 39 Steps. The concept of the wrong man blamed for a crime and on the run to prove his innocence is a central theme in much of Hitchcock’s work—expressing the director’s own obsessive fear of being accused of a crime he didn’t commit. But The 39 Steps, Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest are the most closely related.
Time—and a penchant for Hitch’s 1950s work—has come to favor North by Northwest as the best of the lot. Myself, I’d rank it in a virtual dead heat with Saboteur. While Saboteur suffers from its WWII propaganda tone and a blandly conceived leading character, North by Northwest has to bear up under a typical 1950s padded length of 131 minutes. There’s not really anything like 131 minutes worth of story here. What you have then in about 90 to 100 minutes of romance/spy yarn and a good 30 minutes of padding that—so far as I can tell—exists mostly for the sake of size, as part of the movies of the era offering something that TV couldn’t.
Even so, I’d call North by Northwest Hitchcock’s last completely entertaining film. By that I mean, it’s a film with no pretense of deeper meaning. Oh, there’s some pretty simplistic Freudian symbolism (the train going into a tunnel for God’s sake—you don’t get more simplistic than that), but really this is a spy thriller with attractive, sophisticated people in interesting locations saying and doing entertaining and/or clever things. And when those people are Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, how much cause for complaint is it possible to have?