North by Northwest (1959) is the last Alfred Hitchcock film that can fairly be called straightforward entertainment. Everything that came after it at least attempted to be more than pure entertainment. For that matter, a good many of the 1950s films that preceded it had also been weightier in tone. When Hitchcock made the film, it came on the heels of The Wrong Man (1956) and Vertigo (1958) — two movies that did Hitch no favors at the box office. North by Northwest is a return to more tried-and-true romantic-comedy thriller material, but is hardly a retreat. Rather, it’s the filmmaker’s final statement on a favorite concept — the innocent man on the run for a crime he did not commit, a premise Hitchcock had been mining since The 39 Steps in 1935. Here, he would take that idea to new extremes — and in wide-screen (VistaVision) Technicolor with all the gloss MGM could muster. Who could ask for more?
Armed with Ernest Lehman’s Hollywoodized screenplay, Hitchcock managed to turn an essentially 1930s idea into a very contemporary comic thriller. The manner in which Cary Grant’s Madison Avenue advertising executive, Roger O. Thornhill, is mistaken by spies for a non-existent U.S. agent would be right at home in an Astaire-Rogers picture. Making Grant an advertising man — a much derided profession even then — was a masterstroke. His Thornhill is a charming but shallow fellow — he even claims the middle initial “O” stands for nothing (a Hitchcock dig at producer David O. Selznick’s meaningless initial) — so shallow, in fact, that he really has no identity until he’s mistaken for the fictitious American spy George Kaplan. (Kaplan is an FBI fabrication meant to mislead foreign agents.) It’s a neat trick — a man with no particular identity becomes a man who doesn’t exist (at least in the minds of the foreign agents).
The plot proper doesn’t really kick in until Thornhill is tagged with the murder of a United Nations contractor — the event that sends him on the run from the police and on the search for the “real” Kaplan. This is also what gets him onboard the Twentieth Century Limited bound for Chicago, where he meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). We’re very nearly right back to Robert Donat meeting Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps, but in highly sexualized terms (at least as far as 1959 censors allowed) — and with a lady of considerably greater complexity than Carroll’s virginal ingenue. But in essence that’s what all this is — a modernized and more complex variation on Hitchcock’s earlier success.
The famous cornfield sequence is an elaboration on Donat being pursued across the Scottish moors — with the business of a plane “dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops” being a nod to the windmill turning the wrong direction in 1940’s Foreign Correspondent. The auction-house scene is a reworking of Donat being mistaken for a parliamentary candidate and having to give an impromptu speech. Master spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) is a new version of Godfrey Tearle’s Professor Jordan from The 39 Steps. And so it goes, though the big climax on Mount Rushmore owes more to Hitchock’s 1942 39 Steps variant Saboteur with its Statue of Liberty climax — only here it’s bigger and more suspenseful.
In reality, North by Northwest is simply a deliberate attempt to create the ultimate Hitchcock picture — and while it may not quite pull that off, it comes so close that complaining seems like nitpicking. As sheer entertainment goes, it’s a tough act to follow — and maybe that’s why Hitchcock never tried. And no one else has ever quite come near it.
The Asheville Film Society’s Big Screen Budget Series will show North by Northwest Wednesday, June 19, at 7:30 p.m. at The Carolina Asheville (downstairs). Admission is $5 for AFS members and $7 for the general public.