Sunday, June 19, 2011

North by Northwest

Title: North by Northwest
Year: 1959
Studio: Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Screenplay: Ernest Lehman
Source Material: This is an original screenplay.
Running Time: 130 minutes

Sunday 19th June, 8:30am
It seems I am forever doing laundry. How can one person, living alone, manage to accrue so many dirty clothes in the space of one week. Am I leading a double life? Do I have multiple Personality Syndrome? Who can say? Suffice to say that I have been getting up and down off the couch to reload the washing machine during the length of the movie - and a rather long movie at that. I think it's his longest movie to date (I could go back and check, but frankly, I cannot be arsed). This film is renowned for many reasons and it is also considered one of the top 100 American films ever made. Let's roll!

Roger Thornhill - Cary Grant
Eve Kendall - Eva Marie Saint
Phillip Vandamm - James Mason
Clara Thornhill - Jessie Royce Landis
The Professor - Leo G Carroll
Handsome Woman - Josephine Hutchinson
Lester Townsend - Philip Ober
Leonard - Martin Landau
Valerian - Adam Williams
Victor Larrabee - Edward Platt
Licht - Robert Ellenstein
Auctioneer - Les Tremayne
Dr Cross - Philip Coolidge

Roger Thornhill is an advertising executive working in New York. He leaves his office with his secretary and heads to the Plaza hotel for a meeting with some other gentlemen. Through a misunderstanding, two heavies assume he is a secret agent named George Kaplan and bundle him off in a car and take him to a country house - despite his protestations.
Here he meets an enigmatic man who calls himself Lester Townsend and he threatens 'Kaplan' in order to get him to cooperate. Roger refuses, continually insisting he knows nothing about what 'Townsend' is talking about. 'Townsend' leaves to attend to his dinner guests whilst the heavies pour bourbon into Roger and take him out to set up his demise. They place the steaming Thornhill into a car and set him off driving down the road, hoping he'll steer himself off the cliff. However, Roger commands the car better than they expect but are soon dissuaded from pursuing further when Roger is stopped by the police.
At the station, Roger has little luck making anyone believe his mother. In court the next day, the judge and even his own mother fail to believe his mad story. He, his mother and the detectives head back out to the country house, only to find no scene of any crime and the mistress of the house lies through her bare teeth, saying Roger was there for a party and drove off drunk later in the night. She also says her husband is at the General Assembly Building for the United Nations.

Let out on bail, he returns to the Plaza with his mother. They search the supposed room of George Kaplan and discover that the clothes there would not fit Roger.
Roger finds a photo of the man he knows as 'Townsend' and
The phone rings and Roger answers. This unfortunately does not help prove he is not Kaplan to his kidnappers who then come up to get him. They meet them in the lift and evade capture. Roger escapes in a taxi and heads to the general Assembly Rooms. There he introduces himself as Kaplan to the receptionist and he gets them to page Townsend. Townsend appears, but it is not the man he met the night before. He tries to get answers from this new man but before he gets any further one of the heavies has thrown a knife which sticks in the poor man's back and kills him. Roger is discovered lifting the knife from the fatal wound and caught on camera - he is now wanted for murder.

Meanwhile, in a private office, a man known as the Professor discusses the recent events with his cohorts. They are a government agency and their 'George Kaplan' never existed. He was invented as a decoy to keep their enemy unaware of a real double agent within their midst. They are happy for this Roger Thornhill to play the role whilst they sit back.

Roger escapes to Grand Central Station where he passes by the guards without a ticket and boards the train to Chicago having learned that this is where Mr Kaplan was supposed to have headed since checking out of the Plaza.
On board, he evades capture with the help of a beautiful young woman named Eve Kendall. He dines with her and they have instant chemistry. She comments on the initials on his personalised match-book as she is curious about his three initials R.O.T. She hides him within her compartment when the police board and search the train.

During the journey, Eve sends a note to her employer, Phillip Vandamm (the man Roger knows as the fake Townsend) simply asking What do I do with him in the morning? Eve.

When they arrive in Chicago, he leaves wearing a porter's uniform and whilst he changes in the restrooms, Eve speaks to one of the heavies. She tells Roger she has telephoned the hotel at which George Kaplan is supposedly staying and she has got some specific instructions of where he wants to meet. She says goodbye but seems regretful of her actions.

Arriving in the middle of nowhere by bus, Roger waits patiently at the proposed co-ordinates. Cars pass by without stopping. A man arrives and waits for a bus. Initially, Roger thinks this must be Mr Kaplan, but it's merely an innocent bystander who is curious when he spies the crop-duster plane dusting where there are no crops. As the bystander leaves on his bus, the plane turns and heads toward Roger.
He tries to hide in the nearby corn, but they force him out with the dusting of chemicals. He rushes out into the road to stop a truck, but the small plane than crashes right into the truck and explodes. Roger escapes as he steals the car of a passer-by whose curiosity got the better of him.

Roger returns to Chicago and to Kaplan's supposed hotel. He sees Eve there. He goes up to her room - he is now suspicious of her after she seemingly gave him instructions to his would-be death. He flirts with her to make her believe he isn't suspicious but when she leaves as he fakes showering, he follows her to an auction house.
Here he discovers her with Vandamm and his heavies. Vandamm is purchasing a statuette. During the auction, Vandamm drags Eve away, realising she has feelings for Roger and leaves the heavies to finish Roger off. Roger causes a commotion at the auction and is arrested by the cops who have consequently just saved Roger from imminent doom.

When calling in to the station to report the capture of Roger Thornhill, they are given instructions to take him to the airport instead. They do as they are told and it as at the airport Roger meets the Professor. The Professor explains the situation - the decoy, the fact Eve is their double agent etc - and persuades Roger to maintain the façade for another 24 hours, for Eve's sake. They head to South Dakota...

A meeting is arranged at a public venue in a café at Mount Rushmore National Park. Here, Roger tells Vandamm that he will allow him to leave the country only if he gets to keep Eve. Vandamm refuses, but Roger grabs Eve but she pulls out a gun and shoots him. She runs away and the Professor confirms the wounding of Roger. Vandamm leaves.
Roger's wounded body is taken to hospital, but on the way, they stop at a rendezvous point in the woods where they meet up with Eve. The gun had blanks and Roger is fine. It was all part of a plan to fool Vandamm. It is then revealed by the Professor that the new plan is for Eve to continue as her role as a double agent and she is to go with Vandamm on the plane out of America. Thornhill is furious, but is knocked out by the Professor's driver before he can retaliate.

Roger is then being kept at the hospital in a locked room. The Professor brings him clean clothes and at the earliest opportunity, Roger climbs out of the window and makes his escape.
He takes a taxi to Mount Rushmore. On the mountainside is a lodge where Vandamm is hiding out with his henchmen and Eve. Roger listens in at the window and overhears a great deal - including the whereabouts of the microfilm within the belly of the statuette. He also learns that one of Vandamm's henchmen has figured that Eve is a double agent so they plan to dispose of her. Roger climbs up into her bedroom but he is too late, she has already gone downstairs. He writes on the inside of his personalised match-book a quick note:

"They're onto you - I'm in your room."

He creeps out of the bedroom and tosses it down to the lounge area hoping she'll see it. She does. Eve reads the note, makes an excuse about a lost earring and retreats to her room. Roger tells her that she is in danger and tells her she has to get away from them.
She returns to Vandamm and starts to move out to the plane that is awaiting them.
Thinking he is alone in the lodge, Roger tries to follow but is surprised to find himself held at gunpoint by the maid. He realises in time that the gun is the same one that Eve used - full of blanks - and escapes to the car outside. Eve makes a break for the car away from her captors and they drive down to the gate - however, it is locked, so they dash off through the woods.
They find themselves on top of the monument of Mount Rushmore and attempt to climb down to get away from their pursuers. The two heavies try to follow but in the ensuing fight, both fall to their demise. One is thrown by Roger, the other is shot by the Professor who has made it in time. Eve is struggling to hold on from the precipice from which she is dangling. Roger reaches out and pulls her up. We cut to the two of them in the compartment of a train as newly-weds and as they embrace, the train enters a tunnel.


Great Lines
The screenplay has witty and clever lines in abundance. Here are a few:

Thornhill: "In the world of advertising there's no such thing as a lie. There's only 'expedient exaggeration'."


Clara Thornhill: "I think I'd like to meet these killers!"
leading to the moment in the lift when she asks; "You gentlemen aren't really trying to kill my son, are you?"


Eve sees the initials 'R.O.T.' on Roger's match-book.

Eve: "What does the 'O' stand for?"

Thornhill: "Nothing."


This nest line is delivered so curiously and innocently by the bystander, but it signposts something much more ominous:

Man: "That plane's dusting crops where there ain't no crops!"


When the valet tells Roger his suit will be cleaned, pressed and returned within 20 minutes, Roger says to Eve: "Now, what could a man do with his clothes off for 20 minutes? Couldn't he have taken an hour?"

To which Eve responds coolly: "You could always take a cold shower."


At the auction house, Roger meets with Vandamm again.

Vandamm: "What possessed you to come blundering in here liek this? Could it be an overpowering interest in art?"

Thornhill: "Yes, the art of survival."


When Eve asks why his previous two wives divorced him, Roger has a deeply ironic reply.

Thornhill: "I think they said I lead too dull a life..."

Cary Grant - a man who can do no wrong. Yes, he may be too old for the role and yes, he is only seven years younger than the woman playing his mother, but they are both brilliant in their respective roles with an utterly believable mother/son rapport.

Eve Marie Saint is a stunner and can play the cool blonde as well as the next actress, but I do feel there's an uncomfortable distance between her and Hitchcock. Maybe I'm wrong, but given his track record, I may be on the nail here.

James Mason is incapable of delivering a line badly. Every word he utters is magnificently menacing in a suave and charismatic way. Lawd bless 'im, guvnor.

In the scene where Eve 'shoots' Roger, a kid in the background sticks his fingers in his ears, obviously aware of what's about to happen. Bah! Hitch should have sacked him.

Bernard Herrmann's score is fantastic. In fact, he is in the middle of a brilliant hat-trick. The scores for Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho are all magnificent pieces of work.

One of the most notable things about North by Northwest is the many* unusual and occasionally unnatural camera angles used by Hitchcock throughout. They certainly lend an air of uncomfortable voyeurism in many shots. My absolute favourite is when Roger flees from the Assembly Building and we see his tiny figure sprint down a path to a taxi from so high above, it almost looks cartoon-like. It's a striking image highlighting his remoteness from everything safe.

*I nearly wrote 'myriad' at this point, but isn't that term just becoming so pretentiously ubiquitous these days - and often incorrectly used. Grrr!

My Verdict
Genuinely entertaining. All the hallmarks of classic Hitchcock; Innocent man on the run, icy blonde, lots of suspense. A few plot-holes here and there, but you fly past them so fast, you probably won't notice. Despite being so revered, I still only give it 9/10 - like Vertigo previously, I admire it greatly but still do not love it. (And, frankly, that's what this blog is about, right?)


  1. As a fan of screenwriters, I'm thrilled to see that Ernest Lehman also wrote or adapted Family Plot (screenplay), Hello, Dolly! (1969), Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Sound of Music (1965), West Side Story (1961), Sweet Smell of Success (novella and screenplay) and the The King and I (1956),,,

  2. That is worth noting. Interesting to see he worked with the brilliant and versatile director Robert Wise.