‘North by Northwest’
Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Jessie Royce Landis
Running time: 136 minutes
Rating: Not rated
Widely considered to be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, I finally decided to sit down and watch “North by Northwest” and was treated to a fantastic spy thriller.
In fact, I discovered the influence its chaotic plot, diabolical villains and dramatic locations had on many espionage movies such as the James Bond franchise, whose inaugural installment “Dr. No” would premiere only three years later.
The 1959 movie tells the tale of Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a New York City advertising executive who gets mistaken for the spy George Kaplan by a mysterious criminal organization.
Two thugs kidnap Thornhill at gunpoint from a hotel bar and whisk him off to a country estate, where he is interrogated, force-fed bourbon and put behind the wheel of a car to make his death look like an accident. Thornhill manages to escape with his life, but the organization continues to go to any length to dispose of him.
While Thornhill is charming and articulate, he is also naïve. His bumbling routinely gets him into more trouble. For example, after witnessing the stabbing death of an official at the United Nations headquarters, Thornhill incriminates himself by grabbing the murder weapon, sparking a nationwide manhunt.
While he is trying to avoid being arrested by the police or murdered by the bad guys, Thornhill becomes determined to find the real George Kaplan, chasing him from hotel room to hotel room all across the country. During this escapade, he runs into Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) on a train.
Kendall immediately takes a liking to Thornhill and helps him evade capture on several occasions. From the beginning, she is obviously in cahoots with the criminals — after all, she seems to have no problem with romancing a murder suspect. Thornhill reciprocates Kendall’s feelings and never suspects an ulterior motive.
From there, the movie becomes a winding path of twists and turns as Thornhill and Kendall try to avoid death or capture. The final scene fittingly involves a showdown on the giant faces of former presidents at Mount Rushmore.
A few things make “North by Northwest” such an enjoyable film.
For one, the cinematography is fantastic, earning an Oscar nomination for art and set decoration. Hitchcock put together scenes that seem like they should be hanging on the walls of an art museum, but he does it without sacrificing suspense or teetering into the “artistic film” genre.
The accompanying soundtrack of orchestra music adds a final touch of suspense to each climactic scene.
Secondly, so many spy thrillers that have come since “North by Northwest” were influenced in some form or fashion by the movie. There is a degree of James Bond charm to Thornhill and the mysterious and possibly untrustworthy Kendall is evocative of so many female leads in spy movies.
Lastly, the film’s actors are top notch.
Saint is a classic silver-screen starlet who still appears in movies to this day. Kendall is a character caught in between two powers much greater than her, but she rises to the occasion — for better or for worse — again and again because she desperately wants to lead a life of consequence and importance. Saint flawlessly melds this motivation with Kendall’s trepidation as circumstances spiral out of her control.
Grant is simply the best actor for the role of Thornhill. His natural charismatic and charming personality fits a successful advertising executive from New York, while Thornhill’s general irreverence and dogged determination to find the real George Kaplan continues to push the plot forward. Thornhill never becomes tiresome or predictable throughout the two-hour movie.
If you are in the mood for a classic thriller, especially one involving spies, romance and suspense; then “North by Northwest” is the movie for you. You can rent or buy “North by Northwest” from Amazon Instant Video for $2.99-$12.99.
Andrew Akers is a columnist for The Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.