Cary Grant in North by Northwest.
With the exception of Psycho, North by Northwest is generally regarded as Alfred Hitchcock's best film. It also marks the fourth and final collaboration between him and leading man Cary Grant. Whenever I watch this movie I am always struck by the opening credits. The words are shown in slanted block letters against the side of a glass skyscraper in which the reflection of the traffic on the Manhattan streets below can be seen. After forty-five years this still seems fresh and modern. Hitchcock, who appears in a cameo in nearly all his movies, is seen waiting for -and missing- a bus in a brief moment of screen time, then the story proper begins.
Cary Grant is Roger Thornhill a sophisticated -and very well-tailored- New York advertising executive who finds himself unexpectedly caught up in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with a nefarious group of spies, who mistakenly believe him to be George Kaplan, a covert government agent. An agent, by the way, who doesn't really exist. He was created by the CIA as a decoy and they are only too thrilled when they discover that their fictitious agent has suddenly sprung to life. He is kidnapped at gun point in the middle of a power lunch, taken to a mansion out on Long Island, forced to drink an entire bottle of bourbon and then sent to his presumed death behind the wheel of a stolen car. He somehow manages to survive only to find himself wanted for the murder of an important American diplomat at the U.N. building. He flees town in a train where he meets the beautiful femme fatale Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint. Like all Hitchcock women she is a blond ice goddess. Anyway she saves Grant from being discovered by the police by hiding him in her stateroom. They head to Chicago where she sends Grant to that fateful crossroad in the middle of nowhere, where (in one of the most famous sequences ever committed to film) he gets chased by a crop dusting plane. So just whose side is this mysterious woman on anyway? The answer to that question leads to the movies iconic climax on Mount Rushmore.
This was the perfect part for Cary Grant. He could play the sophisticated New Yorker in his sleep, and at fifty-five he was still in great shape and seemed only to get more handsome as he got older. Eve Marie Saint, for her part, gives her second most famous performance. Her most celebrated role is as Brando's girlfriend in On the Waterfront. James Mason is perfect as Phillip Vandamm , the bad guy that she must pretend to be in love with. He had such a distinctive voice and way of speaking. Like Grant he was adept at playing the sophisticate but with a decidedly sinister edge. A young Martin Landau rounds out the main cast as one of Mason's henchmen. His most famous moment comes when he sadistically steps on Cary Grant's fingers as Cary dangles precariously with one hand from atop the historical monument while holding on to Eva Marie Saint with his other hand.
Nobody built and maintained suspense like Hitchcock. And though that statement has long since become a cliché, it is nonetheless true. North by Northwest was made at the absolute peak of his talents.
Cary Grant in North by Northwest.
Made in 1959, North by Northwest holds up extremely well. The intrigue and the suspense has never been done better. The crop dusting scene and the climax on Mt Rushmore are classic scenes, as Patrick wrote, but my favorite part of the movie is the heat between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.
Grant and Saint exchange some great dialogue as they flirt with each other. At one point Saint says to Grant, "I'm a big girl." To which Grant replies, "Yeah, and in all the right places, too." Grant also says to Saint, "The moment I meet an attractive woman, I have to start pretending I have no desire to make love to her." Saint then asks, "What makes you think you have to conceal it?" "She might find the idea objectionable." He answers. But then Saints cooly concludes, "Then again, she might not."
It had been so long since I had seen this movie that I could not remember how their relationship turned out. The train scenes, in particular, has the two leads flirting and concealing so much with each other that you, as well as the characters, never know where it will lead. The action scenes in this movie are the most remembered but, to me, the interaction between Grant and Saint is what makes this movie so great.
The scene on Mount Rushmore holds up well.
So Roger and Eve are married and on their honeymoon on a train and the final scene is the train entering a tunnel? You have to love how filmmakers worked sexuality into movies while the Hayes Code was in effect. The movie also insinuates that Martin Landau's character is gay, but never overtly. However, while Grant and Marie Saint are allowed to talk a sexy game, when it comes down to it, he ends up spending the night on the floor during their first train trip.
As you both mentioned, the airplane scene is the most famous scene in this movie. It is set-up very, very well. Grant stands at the crossroads with practically nothing in sight on the flat landscape. You hear the drone of the plane and the other guy at the bus stop mentions how it's funny that the plane is dusting a field without any crops in it. The suspense builds until finally it chases him in the famous part of the scene. Looking at the scene objectively though, I just kept thinking, isn't this the dumbest way to kill someone ever? All they had to do was send a car, but for some reason they chose a plane. So that kind of ruined the moment for me.
I prefer Grant in lighter, comedy roles, but he does do a very good job in this part. Reportedly this is the movie that made Ian Fleming want Grant to play the part of James Bond, the idea of which he was shopping around to studios at the time. Although this is a dramatic movie, Grant does bring a little levity to some scenes. I liked his line to the professor about how he wasn't going to play the patsy for him. "I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself 'slightly' killed."
The final scene on Mount Rushmore holds up very well for its age. It really looks as if they were there, unlike some of the driving and walking scenes where it's very clear that they are walking in front of a screen.
One thing I've always admired about Hitchcock is that he has a very distinctive directing style, but he never makes that style the star of the movie. He uses his skill to tell a story, not just show off. He was an artist, but one who knew that his main job was to entertain. A job he more than accomplishes here.
Photos © Copyright Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1959)