It was a blockbuster release 56 years ago, one of Hitchcock’s best. It’s North by Northwest out of MGM in 1959 and starring Cary Grant and the not so saintly Eva Marie Saint. What a production! My images are screen shots from Turner Classic Movies.
Music is by Bernard Herrmann. Titles by Saul Bass. Lines drawn across the screen become the backdrop for titles that slide into place along the lines. The lines eventually morph into the windows of a Manhattan skyscraper, the place of employment for advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Grant).
Thornhill quickly gets himself inserted into international intrigue. At a cocktail luncheon he decides he needs to send a cable to his mother. These were the days before the Internet. He goes for the telephone at the same time a “George Kaplan” is being paged.
Ruthless communist agent killers spot Thornhill and hustle him into a waiting car at gunpoint. At a mansion in Glen Cove (out on Long Island) he is questioned by spy ringleader Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and his henchman, Leonard (Martin Landau). Obtaining nothing, the spies ply Thornhill with liquor (pour it down his throat) and load him into a stolen car, a Mercedes Benz. They then push the car off a cliff. Almost.
Thornhill makes his escape. That doesn’t do any good. Back at the mansion with the cops Mrs. Lester Townsend (Josephine Hutchinson) explains to the police and to Thornhill and his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) that there’s been a big mistake. Roger had too much to drink at the party and took somebody’s car by mistake. Here we see a nice Alfred Hitchcock device he’s used before. The impostor Mrs. Townsend puts on a sweet smile and waves a pleasant farewell, a sparkle in her eye and evil in her heart. She mouths a silent “goodbye,” knowing Mr. Thornhill will not be long for this world.
Where Hitch has used this before is in Strangers on a Train. Here the hero’s fiancée Ann has visited the mother of psychopathic killer Bruno Anthony to explain that her son is a murderer. Mrs. Anthony (Marion Lorne) dismisses the intrusion and excuses Ann with a pleasant smile and a little wave of the hand. Evil triumphs again.
Things do not get any better for Thornhill, not if Hitchcock has anything to do about it. At the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, where the real Lester Townsend works, Thornhill confronts him with the news that strangers have been in his house while he’s been staying in Manhattan for the session. One of the spies throws a knife at the opportune moment, and Thornhill catches the late Mr. Townsend as he falls. Naturally a press photographer is there to snap the picture, which picture will quickly be posted on the front page of newspapers across the country.
Unable to face the music, Thornhill continues his flight, and the movie plot. He takes a train to Chicago in search of the mysterious Mr. Kaplan. On the train his luck turns better when he meets the receptive Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint).
Too bad. She’s in cahoots with the spies, and she steers Thornhill to a meeting with the spy master along a lonely stretch of highway in Indiana. Now comes the iconic scene in the movie. Waiting alone beside the highway, Thornhill is ambushed by killers with a tommy gun in a crop dusting airplane. This is exciting stuff.
Escaping the ambush (plane crashes into a gasoline transport on the highway), Thornhill rescues himself from yet another (comical) encounter with the spies and is hustled aboard an airplane by an American spy master, known only as The Professor (Leo G. Carroll). This is where I thought they got the name for the movie. It appeared to me they were boarding a Northwest Airline flight.
The Professor explains that sweet Eve is really an American agent, and Thornhill needs to play a little charade for the spies to dispel any notion they may have that she has compromised their plans. The act is an arranged confrontation in the diner at the Mount Rushmore monument. Eve shoots Thornhill with a pistol loaded with blanks. Here is a classic Hitchcock goof. The kid at the table in the background has been through a previous run through of the scene, and he knows to expect a gunshot. He’s already covered his ears before the shooting starts.
All of this leads to the climax of the movie—the spies get wise to the ruse, and Thornhill rescues Eve from their clutches. They escape down the mountain along the face of the Rushmore monument. And this is what the movie is all about. Hitchcock from the beginning wanted to make a movie that involved an escape down the face of Mount Rushmore. It took some maneuvering and some plot bending, but he got it worked in.
And that’s the climax of the move. No, it’s not. Here is the climax of the movie. Roger and Eve are now bedding down on the train heading back to New York, and the train plunges into a tunnel. It’s a classic movie metaphor. Only Hitchcock could get away with this kind of corn.
By now you’ve spotted everything wrong with the plot.
The spies are trying to eliminate the ephemeral George Kaplan. But first they need to pump him for information. That failing, they need to eliminate him. What do they do? Do they simply plug him and dump him in the water? Bury the body and get on with their lives? No. They employ a stolen car, which can be traced, put the luckless Thornhill in, and attempt, unsuccessfully, to run it off a cliff. With no assurance the crash will kill him. These people have their eyes more on plot development than on executing a successful caper.
Thornhill brings the police back to the mansion. They question the phony Mrs. Townsend. She sends them away with a wave and a smile. The police do not verify this is actually Mrs. Townsend. The real Mrs. Townsend has been many years dead.
At the United Nations Roger Thornhill is questioning the real Mr. Townsend. An assassin waits nearby to kill him with a well-aimed knife throw. Really? In a crowed lobby in the United Nations General Assembly Building nobody is going to notice a man putting on a pair of gloves and hurling a knife into the back of one of the delegates? And why kill Townsend? The unfortunate Mr. Townsend is completely peripheral to their scheme.
Thornhill runs. Why? Townsend has just told him his wife, the person the police were earlier talking to, has been dead many years. His house in Glen Cove is closed while he is in session with the U.N. Thornhill has a perfect comeback for the police now. All he has to do is to lead the police out to the mansion and demonstrate the woman they talked to was an impostor. So what does he do instead? He takes off for Chicago. Got to keep the plot moving. Hitchcock needs to get the action moved closer to Mount Rushmore.
The spies are still trying to rub out Roger Kaplan, AKA Roger Thornhill. They have the sexy Ms. Kendall set up the fatal meeting. Where? Why, out along the highway in Indiana. How? They engage, on short notice, a crop dusting plane. And send along an assassin with a tommy gun. They are going to machine gun Thornhill from the air. They are not going to just drive by and shoot him as he stands beside the road. The problem is if the spies did that, then the producers wouldn’t have that great image to put on the movie poster.
I first caught Eva Maria Saint in 1954 when she starred opposite Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. There she was so desirable and so innocent. Here she is so desirable, absent the innocence. A few years later she was more mature and appeared as Yves Montand’s love interest in Grand Prix. I find it hard to believe she’s 91 now.
Along those lines, Cary Grant was 55 when this movie came out. And he had to have his mother come and bail him out of jail after the car scene? And he latches onto sweet Eve Kendall (26)? By the time I got to 55 women of that age had long stopped looking. Older women, as well. Then of course, this was Cary Grant.