A+ List: North by Northwest

A glib advertising man with two ex-wives and a drinking problem becomes the victim of mistaken identity. Foreign spies want to kill him, and the police want to arrest him for the murder of a man killed by the spies. Clever witticisms won’t help him this time.

Alfred Hitchcock made thrillers more frightening and thoughtful than North by Northwest. But he never made one more entertaining. Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman provide almost as many laughs as thrills, and balance them deftly. Sheer entertainment value earns this movie a spot on my A+ list, where I honor the great films that I’ve loved for decades.

Hitchcock made quite a few movies about regular people caught up in the dangerous world of spies. He made even more about innocent people accused of a crime they did not commit. He combined these two plot tropes three times. In North by Northwest, he combined them for the third, the last, and best the time.

We barely get to know advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) before evil foreign spies mistake him for American counterspy George Kaplan–a man that they very much want dead. Then the spies kill a man and Thornhill is blamed for the murder. So Thornhill must now avoid the bad guy and the police while trying to find out the real story and prove his innocence.

Lehman wrote Thornhill, and Grant plays him, as a witty but shallow opportunist with little regard for the truth. “In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only expedient exaggeration.”

As the story marches on, he finds something–or someone–he really cares about: Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint. An actress associated with serious drama and working-class characters (for instance, On the Waterfront), Saint stepped out of her onscreen image to play one of the best so-called Hitchcock blondes–beautiful, glamorous, poised, and outwardly cold–until she turns up the heat.

I’m a sucker for suave, aristocratic, unfailingly polite villains–the sort who would treat you with every courtesy before killing you. James Mason plays that character to perfection in North by Northwest. As Vandamm, the head of the foreign spies, he’s the sort of man you would like to have at your dinner party–assuming there’s no one there he might need to permanently silence.

Vandamm is as witty as he is ruthless and polite. Much of the film’s humor comes from his banter with Thornhill:

Vandamm: Mr. Kaplan, you are quite the performer. First you’re the outraged Madison Avenue advertising executive who claims that he has been mistaken for someone else. Next, you play the fugitive from justice supposedly trying to clear himself of a crime he knows he didn’t commit. And now, you’re the jealous lover spurned by love and betrayal.

Thornhill: Apparently the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.

Vandamm: Your very next role, and you’ll be quite convincing, I assure you.

Hitchcock and Lehman knew when to be funny, when to be suspenseful, and when to combine the two. There’s no humor in the famous crop-dusting scene, and no suspense (well, not much) in Thornhill’s and Kendall’s comic flirting. Interestingly, the broadest, silliest gag in the whole movie comes just before the nail-biting climactic sequence.

Visually, North by Northwest takes its audience on a journey by train, bus, and plane from New York City to Chicago to South Dakota’s Mt. Rushmore (a more accurate title would have been West by West North). This was Hitchcock’s fifth and last film shot in Paramount’s large-frame VistaVision format. The higher definition helps enhance the scenery, even when that scenery is part of the rear-projection special effect.

VistaVision also helps emphasize the film’s glamour and its uniquely modern architecture. The film was a major influence on the early James Bond movies.

According to Alfred Hitchcock, “Some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake.” North by Northwest is a rich, dark chocolate cake served with vanilla ice cream.