#19 – North by Northwest
The Plot in Brief: Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is an advertising executive whose life is stuck in a rut. One day, responding to a page in a restaurant, he is mistaken for government spy George Kaplan. Some other spies are chasing Kaplan and a strange sculpture full of microfilm. How will Thornhill convince everyone that he is not George Kaplan? Will Thornhill ever find the real George Kaplan? What does all of this have to do with Mount Rushmore?
Clearly, North by Northwest is a boy’s adventure film. It posits adulthood as a life of drudgery, boredom, and routine, and it knows we all secretly long to be tested by action and excitement. Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill is alive but has no “life.” He longs to break free of the shackles of business and live a life like he sees in the movies. Watching North by Northwest is like taking a crazy vacation where our lives are in danger at every turn.
North by Northwest represents the height of moviemaking in the 1950s: the plot is clever, the dialogue is witty and urbane, the performers are glamorous and believable, the direction is astute and never calls attention to itself, the set-pieces (including the crop duster scene and the Mount Rushmore face chase) are iconic, and the musical score is rousing and memorable—truly a full evening’s entertainment. This film is a glass of bubbly champagne, courtesy of Mr. Hitchcock. It never takes itself too seriously, but it provides its thrills and intrigues with class and energy.
North by Northwest’s three miracles: the perfect mix of all things Hitchcock: improbable story told with precise logic, big star performances, and a twinkling sense of humor, even about inappropriate things; James Mason plays a terrific “Bond villain”—suave, sophisticated, and menacing—five years before Bond was ever put on screen; and Cary Grant turns in one of his best, typically effortless, performances.
“In nomine Hitchcock, et Grant, y spiritu Ernest Lehman… amen.”