Let me preface this post by saying that this movie—1959’s North by Northwest, one of my very favorite films from the erstwhile Master of Suspense—has been on my mind ever since Caroline over at Garbo Laughs announced her Queer Blogathon (which, incidentally, is next month—and if you haven’t already signed up to participate, you definitely should!). I thought about holding this review until June to coincide with the blogathon, but in the end decided to go ahead and post it now, since I will be discussing other themes in addition to the underlying homosexual tension involving the “bad guys” in the movie (just to give you a hint as to what’s ahead).
[Besides, I have an entirely different topic in mind for next month, involving a pretty man and lots of very pretty pictures. Hint: said man just so happens to be the star of this film.]
Perhaps more than any other film in Alfred Hitchcock’s extensive repertoire, North by Northwest encapsulates the combination of dark humor and perfectly-pitched suspense that so defined the director’s inimitable style. In this movie, all of the peripheral elements come together to make an engaging and ultimately thrilling chase film—and, in fact, N/NW remains one of the highlights of that particular cinematic sub-genre. Hitch’s efforts are helped mightily by a winning script, a fantastic score, and the peerless performances of a talented cast, led by the indelible Cary Grant.
Grant stars as Roger Thornhill, a successful New York advertising man who lands in the midst of a sticky case of mistaken identity. At a restaurant one day, two thugs mistake Roger for a man named George Kaplan and forcibly take him to a large house on Long Island. A man named Phillip Vandamm (a delightfully oily James Mason) questions Roger, refusing to believe that Roger is not Kaplan. He tells his trusted gunman, Leonard (Martin Landau) to eliminate “Kaplan,” and Roger is forced to drink a large amount of bourbon before being strapped into a car. However, he is stopped and arrested for drunk driving before he can do any damage to himself, though the police—and his own mother (Jessie Royce Landis, in a charming albeit brief performance)—don’t believe his story. Due to Vandamm’s machinations, Roger is framed for the murder of a United Nations diplomat and must go on the run. He decides to follow the trail of the mysterious Kaplan, hopping a train to Chicago, where he meets the alluring Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who offers to hide him in her private train compartment. But Roger doesn’t realize that the enticing young woman is Vandamm’s lover, and she’s under orders to ensure that “Kaplan” doesn’t make it out of Chicago alive.
Grant so thoroughly embodies Roger—effortless charm, dashing good looks, sly humor, and quick wits—that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Yet another Hitchcock favorite, James Stewart, was initially interested in the part. In the earliest drafts of the screenplay, the casting might have worked. But Ernest Lehman, the brilliant writer behind the screen adaptations of such classics as Sweet Smell of Success (1957), West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965), and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), altered the original concept of the movie, ultimately rendering Stewart inappropriate for the role. Whereas Thornhill was originally going to be a traveling salesman—a sort of ordinary work-a-day figure, which befitted Stewart’s typical on-screen personality—Lehman changed the character to a more sophisticated advertising executive, a more worldly type of figure better suited to Grant’s inimitable style.
Grant and Stewart ultimately starred in four films each for Hitchcock: Grant in Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), and To Catch a Thief (1955) prior to this one, and Stewart in Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and Vertigo (1958). And each man naturally brought something very different to these films. Hitch took advantage of Stewart’s “everyman” persona by casting him in roles that are almost startlingly against type, thereby thwarting audience expectation of Stewart’s roles—instead of the stalwart “Boy Scouts” that virtually defined his career, these Hitchcock-flavored characters are men who are more anti-heroic than laudable. This is especially true in Rear Window, where Stewart’s gruff disaffectedness plays well against Grace Kelly’s luminous determination (who turns down Grace-freaking-Kelly?), or in Vertigo, where Stewart’s blind infatuation with Kim Novak becomes something utterly disturbing. Yet despite the grittier nature of Stewart’s roles for Hitchcock, every character is still relatively grounded, imbibed with the down-to-earth spirit that infused most of Stewart’s memorable roles throughout his career.
Grant, on the other hand, embodied the suave sophistication that many critics claimed was a reflection of how Hitch wished he himself could be perceived. Grant’s roles for the director shared a common vein of easy refinement—even when he’s playing a perceived wife-killer in Suspicion, or a true ass like Notorious‘ Devlin, Grant oozes a high-class appeal. His Hitchcockian characters are smooth, secretive, charming … and utterly devastating to the opposite sex. There’s nothing even remotely down-to-earth about them.
So imagine if Stewart had gotten his way and appeared as Thornhill in this movie. I think it’s safe to say that it would have been an entirely different film. And I think it’s also safe to say that it probably wouldn’t have been half as good. The success of North by Northwest rests on Grant’s performance as the proverbial fish out of water who nonetheless never loses his cool and doesn’t let the dire straits in which he has been so unceremoniously tossed disrupt his self-assured demeanor. The character is nothing if not urbane to the core. Even when facing danger, Roger Thornhill can still crack wise, can still cleverly maneuver his way out of trouble, and can still get the girl … all without mussing his well-coiffed hair or tearing his well-cut suit. Maybe it’s just me, but given the screenplay’s ultimate characterization of Thornhill, it’s hard to envision Stewart, who generally lacks that kind of sophisticated aura, successfully stepping into the man’s erudite, cultured shoes.
Hitchcock, for his part, realized that Stewart could not play the role as it had been rewritten, and was not above using a little manipulation to keep the actor out of the film. Hitchcock blamed Stewart’s aged appearance in part for the lackluster success of Vertigo, which had been released the previous year, and preferred Grant’s more “dignified” appearance for the character of Roger (despite the fact that Grant was actually older than Stewart!). Still, the director apparently did not want to hurt his frequent collaborator’s feelings. So in order to avoid having to tell Stewart point-blank that he could not have the role, Hitchcock instead put North by Northwest to the side until Stewart had signed on to star in another film, Anatomy of a Murder (1959). When Stewart had signed his ironclad contract, Hitchcock finally offered him the part of Roger Thornhill, knowing the actor would have to turn it down. Thereby, in one shrewd move, Hitch neatly avoided insulting Stewart while securing Grant for the role. They didn’t call him the “Master” for nothing, people.
The film was, at various points in time, known as The Man on Lincoln’s Nose (alluding to the climactic Mount Rushmore scene) and In a Northwesterly Direction (alluding to the film’s journey from New York across the Midwest to South Dakota), but MGM recommended North by Northwest as a temporary title, and that’s the one that stuck. This title is borrowed from a line in Shakespeare (English nerd alert!)—specifically, the tragedy Hamlet. Whether viewers were meant to recognize a link between the film and the play or not—whether, indeed, such a link was ever intended or not—the two stories nonetheless share an interesting theme. One of the biggest debates surrounding that play is the question of whether the young Prince of Denmark is mad or simply behaving that way in order to reveal the truth of his father’s death. Having been visited by his father’s ghost, who claims to have been murdered by his usurping brother, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, Hamlet decides to feign madness in his quest to uncover Claudius’ guilt. Some critics and readers have wondered over the years if Hamlet’s madness, effective as it is within the plot of the play, is all too real to be a mere act.
But in Act II, Hamlet reaffirms to old chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he is merely playing pretend, explaining, “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is/southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw” (lines 361-362). In other words, he is merely an actor upon a stage, playing “mad” when it suits his aims, and embracing sanity in all other circumstances. And so, too, are the characters in North by Northwest “playing”: Thornhill is forced to “take over” the role of George Kaplan if he wishes to find a way to survive; Vandamm plays the part of “good man” to the outside world, disguising his true nature to most; Eve must play a dual game to disguise her mission from Vandamm and hide her true feelings about Roger from both men.
In essence, each character acts out a series of lies throughout the film. But this is nothing new for any of them—Eve is a government agent (so lying is practically in her job description), while Vandamm is a career criminal. And even Roger, the ostensible hero of the film, engages in lies through his job as an advertising executive, though he is reluctant to label it as such. As he states to his secretary at the beginning of the movie, “Ah, Maggie, in the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only the expedient exaggeration. You ought to know that.” No one, not even one of the “good guys,” is exempt from mendacity in Hitchcock’s world view. In the context of the 1950s, this point of view is reflective of the broader attitudes at work in America during the Cold War, a time in which uncertainty was a constant way of life.
In a particularly “meta” moment in the film, during the auction house scene, Vandamm and Roger engage in a brief discussion of Roger’s “performance” thus far in the film:
It’s an interesting moment—actors, embodying characters that are conceivably different from their “real” selves, draw attention to the artifice surrounding the act of performing … while they are performing. And it’s doubly interesting considering the context of Roger’s retort, which provides a heavy dose of foreshadowing, as Roger’s next “performance” will indeed be to “play dead” in order to relieve Vandamm’s growing suspicions of Eve.
The sense of artifice in the film is exacerbated by the use of a typical Hitchcock plot device known as the “MacGuffin.” As defined by the director, the MacGuffin is the ostensible center of a film’s plot, but its actual nature is typically undefined or unknown. Ultimately, the MacGuffin matters only as a means to motivate the characters’ actions and drive the plot forward. In North by Northwest, the MacGuffin is the microfilm hidden in Vandamm’s antique statue. But the secrets themselves are unimportant; the nature of the information contained in the microfilm is not revealed, nor does the audience really care what those secrets are. It just doesn’t matter. The screenplay pays a winking tribute to this during Thornhill’s initial conversation with the Professor (Leo G. Carroll, in the last of the six roles he would play for Hitchcock), in which Roger inquires as to what line of “business” Vandamm is in:
The Professor’s almost lackadaisical response tells the audience that our focus should not be on the microfilm, for the secrets themselves are superfluous. The vital factor here is not the exact contents of the information stolen by Vandamm; it is whether or not Roger will be able—and willing—to fully don the role of “Kaplan” in order to protect Eve’s cover.
And of course, we know he will, because Roger is infatuated with the woman almost against his will. Eve, the prototypical “cool Hitchcock blonde,” oozes sex from virtually every pore, yet still maintains that kind of detached bemusement that draws men like bees to honey. North by Northwest is, arguably, Hitchcock’s sexiest film; there is a vibrant thread of barely-suppressed sexuality that runs through most of the movie, prominently displayed in the smoldering attraction between Roger and Eve. Their initial conversation on board the train is filled with innuendos and rather bold, outright declarations of sexual interest:
Though Roger is more than willing to engage in verbal games with Eve (and to attempt to do even more than that when she offers him refuge in her train car), her “betrayal” causes him to do an about-face. Ignoring his own behavior—and the implication throughout the film that he has spent many a night in the beds of any number of women—the ego-bruised Roger harshly judges Eve for “using sex like some people use a flyswatter,” labeling her a “tramp” (he, on the other hand, is merely a man, like any other man, only more so—to borrow a line from Casablanca). Of course, once the Professor explains that Eve was merely doing her job, Roger’s fit of pique is forgotten—she is once again a clean and shining figure of feminine virtue, and he dons the mantle of “white knight” in order to “save” her from having to “bed down” with Vandamm in the name of national security.
Interestingly, despite her position as the man’s lover, there is little perceived passion between Eve and Vandamm. In fact, their interactions with one another in the context of the film are almost businesslike, with little intimacy implied beyond their treasonous conspiracy. This is likely indicative of Eve’s true purpose, as she is responsible for infiltrating Vandamm’s operation and ultimately helping to bring him to justice through her efforts. But the lack of chemistry between Vandamm and Eve only serves to emphasize the homosexual undertones in his relationship with his right-hand man, Leonard.
Landau has openly admitted in the past that any hints of Leonard’s hidden homosexuality in the movie are completely intentional. In his performance, Landau deliberately chose to characterize Leonard as a closeted gay man whose desire to kill Eve Kendall was not entirely mercenary, but born out of jealousy of her sexual relationship with his boss. It was an inspired decision on the actor’s part, and it so impressed Lehman that he altered a key bit of dialogue to better highlight Leonard’s effeminacy. As Thornhill, unseen by the bad guys, watches from outside the window, a suspicious Leonard tries to convince Vandamm to leave Eve behind when he flees the country:
The term “woman’s intuition” is a deliberate addition on the part of Lehman, and Landau delivers the line with a barely-disguised, knowing smirk. Vandamm, for his part, catches the inherent envy at the heart of Leonard’s argument, even calling out his employee on his jealousy, claiming to be “touched” by Leonard’s concern. Though seemingly tongue-in-cheek, this response is Vandamm’s only indication that he fully understands the true nature of Leonard’s feelings for him—and that he doesn’t reject Leonard outright hints that perhaps Vandamm is himself bisexual (or, at the very least, accepting of his henchman’s “proclivities” … an almost unheard-of reaction to homosexuality for the relatively staid 1950s …).
As one might imagine, the Production Code office was none too happy about how “in touch” Leonard appeared to be with his feminine side. Obviously, Hitchcock couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the Code, and in fact the director seems to have gone out of his way to goad the censors with his final product. Not only is the dialogue populated with double entendres, but the closing scene of the film features a lingering shot of a train barreling through a tunnel—an unrepentantly phallic (and utterly hilarious) image.
Underlying the action throughout the movie is Bernard Herrmann’s score, beautifully crafted to heighten the tension. Herrmann’s style is perfectly suited to the film, and in fact this was only one of several Hitchcock films scored by Herrmann—he also did the music for Vertigo, Psycho (1960), and Marnie (1964), among others. Herrmann’s work is particularly effective in the final scenes of the film on Mount Rushmore, as Roger and Eve scramble across the monument with Vandamm’s henchmen in hot pursuit and dangle from dizzying heights in their quest to escape. But one of the wisest decisions in regards to the film’s soundtrack involves no music at all. In what is perhaps the movie’s most famous scene, Roger is pinned down in the middle of nowhere by a rogue crop-dusting plane. Rather than trying to build tension by scoring the scene with a crescendo of orchestral maneuvers, as some directors might have been tempted to do in similar circumstances, Hitchcock simply eliminates music altogether and instead relies on the ominous whine of the plane to fill the silence. In the process, the filmmaker creates an almost indescribable sense of dread that rivals even the creepy screech of violins from yet another iconic Hitch moment.
Though one of his more popular efforts, North by Northwest is not generally considered by critics to be Hitchcock’s “masterpiece.” [For that title, I would personally nominate 1943's Shadow of a Doubt and 1954's Rear Window, as I've stated in previous entries on this blog.] But N/NW is nonetheless one of the director’s strongest films, effortlessly combining humor and suspense to create a slick, engrossing thriller. It is, without a doubt, an endlessly entertaining movie, no matter how many times you watch it. The beauty of Hitchcock is how skillfully he builds layer upon layer of meaning while constructing his story, necessitating multiple viewings to capture all of the nuances of his vision. For film fans, that’s an invaluable quality, because each fresh viewing of the movie brings new perspectives and interpretations. And in the end, who wouldn’t love a film that presents you with something new every time you watch it?
This post is part of an ongoing countdown of Hitchcock’s twenty greatest films. North by Northwest is number four on that list. For other entries in this series, check out our category devoted to “Hitch.”