Note, I have tried to avoid spoilers in the discussion below, but there may be some to be found in the various clips I have included.
In the off chance you haven’t seen the film yet (and what are you waiting for?), Cary Grant plays New York ad man Roger Thornhill, who finds himself mistaken for a U.S. spy. After a kidnapping/murder attempt by foreign operative Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) goes awry, Grant sets off to try to find the real agent and to set the record straight.
Along the way, he manages to also get framed for the murder of a United Nations representative and meets and falls in love with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) on a train ride from New York to Chicago. Ultimately, the chase winds up at the footsteps and then the top of Mount Rushmore. There, Thornhill and Kendall attempt to elude Vandamm’s men, one of whom, Leonard, is played by a very young and very effectively creepy Martin Landau.
The film kicks off with a driving overture by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann. Rumbling timpani and low woodwinds complement the roar of Leo the Lion and the MGM logo, building to what Herrmann referred to as a “kaleidoscope orchestral fandango” that plays off of a superb title sequence designed by Saul Bass (the first time kinetic typography was extensively used in a film title) that culminates in possibly the most famous of Hitchcock’s cameos:
There is nary a wrong step in this movie, to the point where even an obvious blooper is held up as a classic. This is the kind of role that Cary Grant was born to play (originally, Hitchcock had wanted Jimmy Stewart in the role, and while I like Stewart, I have a hard time seeing him doing as well here). One of my favorite acting sequences is Grant playing off of rear projection has he is forced to drive a car while blind drunk (having been force-fed a bottle of bourbon…not sure how that works). Grant absolutely sells it as he struggles to navigate the road as Herrmann’s fandango theme plays in the background.
Eva Marie Saint is superb in her portrayal of someone whose motives and loyalties are kept somewhat unknown through the first two thirds of the movie. One of her best scenes is her conversation with Thornhill on the train as they share dinner together. The scene also is a good example of the quality of Ernest Lehman’s script, including a wonderful throwaway “button” line that would probably be cut in a movie today.
Herrmann also composes a beautiful love theme for Thornhill and Kendall, which appears throughout the film with various instrumentation (usually performed by solo clarinet or violin).
As the film’s primary villain, Phillip Vandamm, James Mason is excellent at playing both suave and polite yet also cold and calculating. Watching Mason and Grant duel with words provides, not only another example of terrific dialogue, but the opportunity to hear two of the all-time great voices in Hollywood. As I recently remarked on Twitter, I could easily sit through a two-hour movie of nothing but the two of them talking to each other.
Although Herrmann did not write a specific theme for Vandamm, he did compose one to represent George Kaplan, the man for whom Thornhill has been mistaken. This theme appears multiple times and represents the “suspense” portion of the score. The theme is slow, consisting primarily of a series of three notes that repeatedly rise and fall. A second motif is a repetitive two-note figure that occurs at various tempos throughout the film, usually during a sequence when the characters are on the move.
“The Cafeteria” (George Kaplan theme)
“The Police” (two-note motif)
Of course, NORTH BY NORTHWEST is probably best known for its famous sequence where Thornhill is sent to the middle of nowhere in Indiana and is attacked by a biplane. Despite the limitations of the technology at the time, the sequence holds up remarkably well, even on the big screen. Unlike some uses of rear projection (including in this film), it is used here in such a way that it is absolutely convincing. Smartly, the scene is completely unscored (aside from the “music” of the plane propeller), until the chase ends in a fiery crash that is accompanied by an “explosion” from the orchestra as well.
It was a real treat to have the opportunity to see this classic film the way it was meant to be seen. While it is certainly a product of it’s time (there are, admittedly, some creaky special effects shots), it still holds up well. When you add in three terrific lead performances (four actually, as Martin Landau is quite good as well), plus a great score by one of the era’s top composers in Bernard Herrman, you wend up with what is certainly one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films.
If you had a chance to catch NORTH BY NORTHWEST in the cinema, or if you’d simply like to talk more about this great film, please leave a note in the comments!