Trouble lurks around every corner in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North by Northwest. Sinister motives, international espionage and a captivating beauty have ad exec Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) on the run from the law across the USA.
Throughout his career the Master of Suspense frequently pushed innocent, unsuspecting men into hot water. From The 39 Steps to The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man, Hitchcock’s charismatic leading men were implicated, wrongly accused and forced to extricate themselves from potentially catastrophic circumstance. A career-best Grant leads North by Northwest with effortless cool. Having appeared as a cat burglar in To Catch a Thief four years previously, he here retains composure and movement of such feline grace that he is simply a delight to watch.
As though North by Northwest boasts some of Hitchcock’s most ambitious and memorable set pieces it is also one his most terrifically funny, playful moving pictures, cutting just the right line between suspense and belly laughs. Written by the great Ernest Lehman (who would go on to script West Side Story and The Sound of Music), the screenplay places the poised Grant two steps behind his unseen puppet masters (principally a mercurial yet charismatic James Mason) at almost every turn. But even as he is toyed with and manipulated the great actor’s charm and ingenuity counterbalance the sheer bad luck of an instance of mistaken identity that is the catalyst for the many calamities thereafter.
Ostensibly kidnapped by heavies who take him for CIA agent George Kaplan, Grant remains cool under pressure but after being forced to imbibe near on a pint of bourbon and put behind the wheel of a car against his will, the careening descent that follows is as hilarious as it is terrifying with Grant’s drunken eyes moving in as many erratic directions as his vehicle. “No, they didn’t give me a chaser,” he mumbles down the phone to his mother, granted a call at the police station. There are a litany of truly priceless moments of which this is one.
However, though Hitchcock may miss a bus in his early cameo appearance, the director’s timing and slow-build of unease doesn’t skip a beat, spurred on with the impetus of Bernard Herrmann’s compelling score: Thornhill reaffirming the lie being perpetuated by presenting himself as Kaplan; an extraordinary sequence at the UN building in New York which leaves blood on his hands; Grand Central Station and a narrow escape by train. Why does the stunning Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) inexplicably come to Roger’s aide? Amid remarkably frank, modern discussion of sexual attraction – and some rather heavy petting – something in her eyes betray secrets unknown.
From the vast, hustling metropolis of New York to a non-descript dusty wasteland between Chicago and Indianapolis and a certain crop-dusting incident, the range of locations in North by Northwest hits its state-hopping, breathtaking peak as Hitchcock ratchets up the tension for the Mount Rushmore climax, one final bold, daring, death-defying feat for Roger and Eve to conquer in this cinematic masterpiece that, thanks to the BFI’s Who Can You Trust? thriller season, is once again gracing our screens for all to behold in rapt wonderment.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens