North by Northwest (1959)

2013 #81
Alfred Hitchcock | 136 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG

North by NorthwestAlfred Hitchcock is famous for a good many movies — I wager most people would jump to Psycho if asked to name one, but that’s not to ignore Rear Window, Vertigo, Rebecca, Dial M for Murder, Strangers on a Train, Notorious, Rope… And those are just the others on the IMDb Top 250 — what about The Birds, or The 39 Steps, or… so many more. But of them all, North by Northwest is so packed with his trademark plots, characters, and style, that it is perhaps the ultimate Hitchcock movie.

A ‘wrong man’ spy thriller, it starts with Cary Grant’s New York exec, Roger Thornhill, being mistakenly snatched by some hoods. Quizzed by their boss, he can’t answer any of his kidnapper’s questions because he doesn’t have a clue who they think he is. Before long he finds himself on the run from the police, and on the tail of the mysterious criminals, desperate for the truth and to clear his name. Along the way we’re treated to a blend of suspense, humour and action that could be a tonal mess but, under such a sure guiding hand, feels more like all-out entertainment.

The big set pieces (the crop duster; Mount Rushmore) may be well known now, but being aware of them isn’t the same as seeing them play out in full in context, and they remain fabulous. The direction is as glorious as you’d expect, not just in those big action sequences but in any given scene, be it a simple conversation or an auction room face-off. Throughout there’s gorgeous cinematography by Robert Burks, which looks utterly stunning on Blu-ray. There’s great special effects work too — not something you commonly call on in a ’50s thriller, but it helps to create some especially memorable imagery.

The hills have eyes... and noses... and mouths...Grant is as wonderful as ever, a perfect ‘everyman’ to guide us through the crazy turns of events, but also finding the appropriate level of humorous edge where it exists. Eva Marie Saint is a textbook ‘Hitchcock Blonde’, attractive but duplicitous — women, eh? James Mason makes for an excellent English-accented villain — today it may be a terrible cliché to use Brits as villains in Hollywood movies, but we’re so damn good at it. That said, Martin Landau makes for a deliciously creepy henchman, so there’s no monopoly. There’s also Leo G. Carroll, who to me will always be best known from Science Fiction/Double Feature, but is equally memorable here as the apparent head of US intelligence.

Perfection is a rare — perhaps impossible — thing to achieved in film… and far be it from me to criticise Hitch, but I’m going go. I think it’s revealed far too early that (spoilers!) George Kaplan doesn’t really exist. Wouldn’t it be more effective as an ‘end of act two’ twist, when Thornhill himself finds out? He’s our figure of identification after all. Still, in the grand scheme of things this is a minor complaint: though it may’ve been even more effective if we didn’t find out until much later, the story and excitement still work regardless of the audience having that knowledge.

While Psycho may stand out from Hitchcock’s filmography for the common man, it’s not particularly typical of his oeuvre as a whole. For that, it’s difficult to imagine a film that is a better summation, distillation, and celebration of his work than North by Northwest.

5 out of 5

North by Northwest was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, which you can read more about here.

It also placed 4th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2013, which can be read in full here.

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4 thoughts on “North by Northwest (1959)

  1. I’d suggest Rear Window as an alternative regards the ultimate Hitchcock movie (but my personal favourite is Vertigo). North by Northwest has always felt just a bit too lightweight to me: a natural crowd pleaser and of course very popular, but there is something missing. Rear Window keeps you guessing whereas Northwest reveals its twists too early, maybe that’s it. Maybe its just Grace Kelly!

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  2. Along with Raiders of the Lost Ark, I see this as pretty much the most purely entertaining film ever made. What fun! I rewatch it on average once per year and every time know I’m in for a blast of a time.

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  3. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    I think a lot of modern blockbusters could learn something by paying more attention to how these old films can still entertain viewers, and less to how many cuts can be squeezed into a second.

    Regarding other Hitchcocks, Rear Window is on my list for watching this year, and I saw Vertigo so many years ago that I confess I don’t remember it very well. Really ought to make time for a rewatch.

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