“It’s a deadly game of “tag” and Cary Grant is ‘it’!” is the tagline for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller “North By Northwest”. Needless to say, it’s very appropriate. Cary Grant stars as an advertising executive who is mistaken for a spy out to steal government secrets. Grant’s chase takes him from New York, to the film’s iconic scene in Indiana, to a deadly finale atop of Mount Rushmore. But why are we reviewing this ancient film? Because “North by Northwest” is a true action classic, and helped set the blueprints for the action movie genre.
The main reason “North by Northwest” succeeds is with thrills. Sure, in today’s day and age of Michael Bay over-the-top CGI effects it may seem bland, but Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman lay out a taut thriller filled with action, suspense and even romance. (The last part a necessity given Grant’s gentleman charms.)
The film starts out with advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Grant) riding to a lunch meeting a swank New York hotel. It’s here where on a trip to the bathroom he is abducted by two thugs who mistake him for a spy named George Kaplan. Thornhill is brought to the main villian of the film, Philip Vandamm (yes that is his name), played with a flair of evilness by James Mason. Vandamm claims to be a UN diplomat by the name of Lester Townsend, and threatens Thornhill (who he thinks is Kaplan) to reveal what he knows. When Thornhill repeatedly denies he’s Kaplan, he is forced to drink bourbon in order for Vandamm’s goons to stage a fatal drunk driving accident. However, this only results in Thornhill being arrested, and his story being dismissed by everyone — including his mother — as bogus.
Thornhill attempts to get to the bottom of his abduction. He goes to the UN to meet up with Townsend, who turns out to be a completely different person. Before he can get any information out of him, Townsend is murdered in public and Thornhill is framed. It is here that the nationwide chase to capture Thornhill is on.
“North by Northwest” then delves into a chase film, but a fine one. Grant plays Thornhill with the right amount of “I’ve been framed!” sympathy. He slips onto a train headed to Chicago to find Vandamm, where he bumps into the lovely Eve Kendall (a classic Hitchcock blonde played by the gorgeous Eva Marie Saint). Here the romance of the movie starts as chemistry builds between Thornhill and Kendall as she hides him from authorities. However, it’s shown that Eve is in cahoots with Vandamm and company.
Eve helps Thornhill by arranging a meeting with Vandamm, which turns out to be a random cornfield in Indiana. This is where the film’s iconic airplane chase sequence occurs, and what’s impressive about this scene is the lack of music which helps bring the tension up instead of being distracting. Knowing that he’s been set up, Thornhill quickly retreats to Chicago to chase Vandamm and clear his name for good.
A few more twists and turns happen along the way, but the point is that “North by Northwest” never lets up. Screenwriter Lehman once claimed he was attempting to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures” and it certainly comes close. Grant, who was approaching the twilight of his movie career here in his mid-50’s, is still believable as a sex symbol and an action hero. (It’s clear here why he was considered for “Dr. No”, one of all time classic movie what-ifs.) Even though the plot has a few holes and the ending is a bit too abrupt, “North” is still an achievement in action cinema. If you consider yourself an action movie buff and haven’t given it a chance, I suggest you take a look immediately.
“North by Northwest” was recently re-released in a 50th Anniversary Edition on DVD and Blu-ray. I got a chance to view the Blu-ray edition, which was simply stunning. Rumor has it that Warner Bros. spent over $1 million on the restoration and the results show — the movie looks amazing. Special features where also a treat; I particularly enjoyed the thorough PBS special on Cary Grant’s life. All in all, “North by Northwest” is simply an action classic and this edition is a must own for movie buffs.
5 out of 5