North by Northwest (1959)

Roger A. Thornhill (Cary Grant)is a successful advertising executive in New York City whose rather mundane existence changes dramatically one day when he meets some business associates for drinks at the Plaza Hotel. He is a mistaken for a man named George Kaplan and kidnapped by a couple of thugs who spirit him away to a country estate that bears the name of "Townsend." At the estate, Roger meets Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and Leonard (Martin Landau). Phillip, continually calling him "Mr. Kaplan," asks Roger how much he knows about his operation. Roger protests that he's not Kaplan, but Phillip refuses to listen to him. Convinced that "Kaplan" isn't going to cooperate, Phillip has his minions get Roger drunk by forcing him to consume a massive quantity of bourbon. They then put him behind the wheel of a car and send him careening down a dangerous mountain road. Roger somehow manages to negotiate his way down the road, but his wild driving attracts the attention of two officers in a squad car. Roger finally brings the auto to a screeching halt and is rear-ended by the police car.

He's arrested for drunk driving, and the next morning his mother Clara Thornhill (Jessie Royce Landis) arrives to bail him out. No one, including his mother, believes his story, but police accompany him to the Townsend estate to check it out. They are greeted by a woman whom Roger had seen the night before. Calling him "Mr. Thornhill," she chides him for having had too much to drink. Roger demands to see Mr. Townsend and is told Townsend is at the United Nations building where he is a delegate. The police are satisfied that Roger's kidnapping story is a hoax, and his mother caustically agrees. Nevertheless, he persuades her to visit the Plaza and to get the key to the mysterious Mr. Kaplan's room. In the room he finds a photo of Phillip, but little else of interest. Before he leaves, he answers the phone and recognizes the voice as belonging to one of the men who kidnapped him.

As he and his mother ride the elevator to the lobby, he sees his kidnappers among the passengers. When the elevator reaches the lobby, he exits quickly, summoning a cab and heading for the UN building. There he asks to see Mr. Townsend and is introduced to Lester Townsend (Philip Ober), a man he's never met before. He asks about Mr. Townsend's country estate, and Mr. Townsend tells him he hasn't been there for a month because he lives in his Manhattan apartment when the UN is in session. Roger then shows him the picture of Phillip, but before Mr. Townsend can look at it, he pitches forward into Roger's arms, a knife sticking out of his back. Onlookers quickly surmise that Roger has stabbed Mr. Townsend, and Roger, in a panic, runs from the building.

Meanwhile, at the US Intelligence Agency, the agency chief, (Leo G. Carroll) and his aides are discussing the situation. It seems that George Kaplan is a fictitious character created by the agency as part of a plot to trap master spy Phillip. The fake agent was created to divert suspicion from the agency's real agent, who has been able to get close to Phillip. To interfere now, Professor contends, would only endanger the agent, so he elects to let Roger deal with Phillip and the police as best he can.

After leaving the UN, Roger heads for Grand Central Station where he boards a train heading for Chicago. He has learned that Kaplan's next destination is Chicago, where he is to stay at the Ambassador East. On the train, he meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who covers for him as police search the train. She allows him to share her room, but, without his knowledge, she slips a note to a porter, who delivers it to another car—one in which Phillip and Leonard are traveling. It's obvious that she is part of Phillip's operation, but when the train arrives in Chicago, she offers to contact Kaplan for Roger and to arrange a meeting with the man. Roger agrees, and Eve fakes a phone call to the hotel, actually calling Leonard at another pay phone in the station.

Leonard gives her instructions, which Eve relays to Roger. He is to take a bus headed for Indianapolis and get off at a specified point where he will be met by Kaplan. Roger does as instructed and finds himself at a rather desolate crossroads surrounded by cornfields. He waits as a few cars go by, then notices a biplane dusting crops in the distance. Suddenly, the plane turns and starts right for him as he watches disbelieving. The plane is almost at ground level and roaring forward when Roger hits the ground. He's then stunned to see the plane circle and come at him again. As he runs and then dives for the ground, gunfire bursts around him. He attempts to take refuge in a cornfield, but the pilot then releases a cloud of chemicals over the field, forcing Roger out. Roger runs for the road and flags down an approaching oil truck. As the truck comes to a halt, the plane crashes into it, causing a terrific explosion. As drivers stop to look at the accident, Roger jumps in a vacated pickup truck and heads back to Chicago.

In Chicago, he goes to the Ambassador East and asks for the room of Mr. Kaplan. He's told that Kaplan checked out at seven in the morning, two hours before Eve allegedly talked to him. He spots Eve in the lobby, then shows up at her door. He lets her know that he is wise to her duplicity, then feigns taking a shower as she gets a call, copies down an address, and leaves. He manages to get the address by rubbing a pencil over the imprint on the next sheet of the pad. He goes to the address and finds Eve, Phillip, and Leonard at an art auction. He lets Eve know what he thinks of her, in no uncertain terms, and she is on the verge of tears. Phillip purchases an art object, then departs with Eve and Leonard, leaving some henchmen behind to deal with Roger.

Roger then creates a scene at the auction, making ridiculous bids and criticizing the offerings, forcing management to summon the police. They arrive and arrest Roger, who, feeling he'll only be safe in police custody, tells them he's Roger Thornhill, wanted for murder, and demands to be taken to jail. An officer radios in the report and is instructed to take Roger to Midway Airport. There, they turn him over to Professor then tells Roger the whole story about the fictitious Mr. Kaplan, adding that Eve is the agent they are trying to protect. He tells Roger they need his help in further solidifying Eve's cover, asking him to go to Rapid City, South Dakota where Phillip has a mountaintop retreat. Roger reluctantly agrees to help. Ruse The next day he is in a crowded restaurant at the Mount Rushmore Memorial, awaiting the arrival of Phillip and Eve.

They arrive, and Roger, pretending to be Kaplan, tells Phillip he knows he plans to leave the country that night, and will thwart those plans unless Phillip turns Eve over to him. Phillip is surprised by how much Roger despises Eve, but before he can consider Roger's offer, Roger and Eve get into an argument and Eve pulls a gun from her bag, fires two shots at Roger, then departs. Roger collapses and is quickly attended to by Professor, who has him taken away by ambulance. The ambulance heads deep into the woods where Roger meets with Eve. The shooting was a ruse to convince Phillip that Eve was loyal to him, and now Roger tells Eve he loves her and wants to marry her. However, it seems Professor neglected to tell Roger about one of the wrinkles to the plot—that Eve is leaving that night with Phillip to continue getting information about his operation. Roger is furious, and that night he heads for Phillip's retreat. He spies on Leonard and Phillip, learning that Leonard found Eve's gun loaded with blanks and now knows the shooting was faked.

Phillip understands and tells Leonard that Eve will be dispensed with after they take off. Roger uses a book of matches to get a message to Eve, then meets her in her room, where he tells her that Phillip is wise to her and that she is to be killed. She then rejoins Phillip and Leonard and heads for the plane that is to take them out of the country. Before Roger can follow, he is discovered by the housekeeper, who holds him at gunpoint. Roger escapes and drives to the waiting plane as Eve is about to board. She bolts from Phillip and jumps into the car with Roger, but they soon find their way blocked by a huge gate. They head off on foot and find themselves on Mount Rushmore, surrounded by Phillip's men. They begin to climb down the monument and all looks grim, but Professor and his agents arrive and save the day. In the last scene, Roger and Eve are on board a train, heading away on a honeymoon trip.

Of all of Hitchcock's tricky thrillers, North by Northwest is one of the trickiest, with a new and mostly unexpected twist at every turn. Here the great suspense director went to the zenith of his imagination in creating a nonstop action film wherein the hero may meet an ugly fate from frame to frame. Hitchcock's wild ideas Although Ernest Lehman wrote the script, Hitchcock rewrote it verbally with the screenwriter through many months of wild mental imaginings. The director once said that the film "didn't end on Mt. Rushmore in one version. We got up into Siberia nearly with it, Ernie Lehman and I. I remember I had a sequence where the girl is kidnapped. They get her across the straits and they're going along a road in Siberia in an open car and a helicopter from the Alaskan side is chasing the car with a rope hanging from it and they were saying to the girl 'Grab the rope!' And she's rescued from the car but the heavies try to grab her back … it was the most daring rescue you've ever seen."

This scene was never included in the film, nor were many other scenes the director wanted desperately to make. "I remember one scene I wanted. I said: 'Can't we work it in somehow? We ought to have a scene showing a vast plain of ice and two little black figures walking towards each other … enemies or something.' I don't know what would have happened when they got together … they are going along and there is a hole in the ice, and, suddenly, a hand comes out of the hole. You've got to go wild and then tone it down. Where would the hand come from? I don't know. That's what you have to work out afterwards—That's the hard work. Get the idea, which is a startling thing, then you've got to say how you came by that. You shock 'em first and explain later. That's the power of technique."

Hitchcock's humor The title of the film stems from a line appearing in William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2, when Hamlet says to Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern: "I am but mad north-northwest; when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw." Hitchcock's tongue-in-cheek idea here was that neither he nor the tragic Hamlet were mad, although some of the scenes of North by Northwest are certainly bizarre, such as the terrifying seven minutes in which Roger is strafed and pursued by an unseen, maniacal cropdusting pilot. The great director even makes lighthearted fun of his common-man victim, Roger, or rather, has Roger himself emphasize his own peril by mocking it. As he is dragged from the auction, he passes one of Phillip's sinister minions and remarks: "I'm sorry, old boy, keep trying."

Later he tells Eve in a wry and ironic comment (they are hanging on a sheer stone face of Mt. Rushmore) that "My wives divorced me. They said I led too dull a life." Hitchcock, according to one report, considered the film to be "one big joke," and was later quoted as saying that "when Roger was on Mt. Rushmore I would have liked to put him into Lincoln's nostril and let him have a sneezing fit." The impressive Mt. Rushmore scene was actually done on a gigantic MGM set using the Schufftan Process. Hitchcock supervised every technical aspect of the film, which gives it that extremely smooth, glossy look, although he later claimed that he intended no specially designed Freudian images except one, the last shot. "The train entering the tunnel after the love scene between Roger and Eve. It's a phallic symbol but don't tell anyone."

Hitchcock received a $4 million budget for this film and a personal salary of $250,000 with 10 percent of the gross over $8 million (the film went on to earn $6.5 million in its initial release, but added another $14 million in rereleases). Grant, who is wonderful as the suave but utterly trapped victim, received $450,000 for his performance plus whopping weekly overtime payments. He had appeared in three other Hitchcock films (Suspicion, 1941; Notorious, 1946; and To Catch a Thief, 1955) and this would be his last film with the great director of suspense. So familiar with each other were actor and director that Hitchcock hardly directed Grant at all and often took the actor's suggestions about angles and setups. Saint was a Hitchcock creation, another cool, aloof blonde whom he transformed from "the mousey" type seen in On the Waterfront (1954) to a sleek, sexy, and sophisticated woman, selecting every bit of Saint's wardrobe for her. The supporting cast is first-rate, with Mason as the introspective but ruthless spymaster and Landau, Adam Williams, and Robert Ellenstein doing journeyman work as a trio of despicable villains. Jessie Royce Landis is a standout as Grant's capricious mother, and Carroll is convincing as the world-weary American chief of intelligence.


Performer, Character

Cary Grant, Roger Thornhill

Eva Marie Saint, Eve Kendall

James Mason, Phillip Vandamm

Jessie Royce Landis, Clara Thornhill

Leo G. Carroll, Professor

Philip Ober, Lester Townsend

Josephine Hutchinson, Handsome Woman

Martin Landau, Leonard Adam

Production Credits:

Producer, Alfred Hitchcock

Director, Alfred Hitchcock

Screenwriter, Ernest Lehman

Editor, George Tomasini

Cinematographer, Robert Burks

Composer, Bernard Herrmann