Screenwriter Ernest Lehman wanted to write the definitive Hitchcock movie. The assignment Hitchcock chose for him, an adaptation of Hammond Innes' novel The Wreck of the Mary Deare, was not it; in Lehman's opinion the novel, about a Marie Celeste-type sea mystery, began with an intriguing premise but concluded with a let-down of a denouement the writer felt was impossible to lick. He turned the master of suspense down; shortly thereafter, Hitchcock abandoned the project for the same reason. (Lehman and Hitchcock were right; the film, eventually made by Michael Anderson, failed to solve the problem.)
Still wanting to write that definitive Hitchcock movie, Lehman hastily launched into a spec script he hoped would capture the director's interest. It was a thriller Lehman initially titled In a Northerly Direction, then Breathless, about an advertising man who is mistaken by spies for a government agent on their trail. Completing it in record time, he submitted the script to Hitchcock, who was delighted with it – and the script, finally retitled North by Northwest, went before the cameras almost immediately.
North by Northwest is not the definitive Hitchcock movie, for while the master's metier is indeed the thriller, his thrillers are not all the same type. Vertigo, his previous film, is as different in style and tone from North by Northwest as Psycho, the film he made after North, is from both of them.
What Lehman did achieve is the definitive Hitchcock chase movie, a delightful homage to and summation of such earlier Hitchcock films in the same vein as Saboteur, Foreign Correspondent, and the grandaddy of them all, The 39 Steps, the prototypical wrong man on the lam who finds romance chase thriller that brought Hitchcock international acclaim and, ultimately, his ticket to Hollywood.
Saboteur and Foreign Correspondent remain noted for their memorable climactic set pieces – a fall from the Statue of Liberty in the former, a subjective eye view of a plane crash in the latter. The 39 Steps sparkled with charm and wit, as well as thrills, while lacking such spectacular set pieces. North by Northwest offers the best of all three. It is a film of spectacular set pieces linked by some of the brightest dialogue in the romantic comedy canon and performances to match.
Two of the film's set pieces are among the most famous in movie history: Grant's pursuit through a cornfield by a plane dusting crops where there aren't any crops; and the hair-raising climax on Mount Rushmore where Grant and Eva Marie Saint are chased across the faces of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt by thugs Martin Landau and Adam Williams. The crop-dusting chase was shot on location, but the Mount Rushmore sequence was not. The U.S. Department of the Interior denied its cooperation and Hitchcock was forced to shoot the scene in the studio, employing oversized sets, backdrops and photographic plates of the actual monument to remarkable effect. Next to the shower murder in Psycho, it's probably the most acclaimed, and frequently studied, scene in a Hitchcock movie.
North by Northwest marked the fourth and final appearance by Cary Grant, one of Hitchcock's favorite leading men, in a Hitchcock movie – in a role that was written expressly for him and suits his persona of comic urbanity to a T. As complacent ad man turned long-distance runner for his life Roger O. Thornhill ("That's me. Rot."), Grant charms the pants off the audience and co-star Saint, the not-soice-cool blonde who may or may not be on his side.
James Mason makes a perfect match for Grant in the suavity department as the bad guy – and is axiomatic of Hitchcock's policy that the better the villain, the better the film. Composer Bernard Herrman's striking, and still influential, fandango score is also a high point – although, amazingly, there's only seventeen minutes of it in the entire 136-minute film!
Release Date: 1959
Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, Leo G. Carroll, Philip Ober, Josephine Hutchinson, Martin Landau, Adam Williams, Edward Platt, Robert Ellenstein, Les Tremayne, Philip Coolidge, Edward Binns, Pat McVey, Ken Lynch, John Beradino, Nora Marlowe, Doreen Lang, Alexander Lockwood, Stanley Adams, Larry Dobkin, Madge Kennedy, Tommy Farrell, Maudie Prickett, Ned Glass, Alfred Hitchcock, Harvey Stephens, Walter Coy, Harry Seymour, Frank Wilcox, Robert Shayne, Carleton Young, Paul Genge, Robert B. Williams, James McCallion, Baynes Barton, Doris Singh, Sally Fraser, Susan Whitney, and Maura McGiveney
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Ernest Lehman
Source Citation: McCarty, John. "North by Northwest." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 846-849.