Film & TV

North by Northwest Turns 60

Cary Grant in North by Northwest (Screengrab via YouTube)
It’s Hitchcock’s greatest achievement, and perhaps the best movie ever.

Once upon a time, Alfred Hitchcock had a bit of an odd idea. More of a scene, really. He had this picture in his mind’s eye of Cary Grant hiding in Abraham Lincoln’s nose on Mount Rushmore. The villains who are chasing him are looking all over but can’t find him anywhere when, all of a sudden, they hear sneezes coming from old Honest Abe’s nostrils: Cary’s given himself away with a fit of sternutation. That was it, the idea in its entirety. A little unusual, but Hitchcock liked it and wanted to be able to incorporate it into a film. And a few years later, he was able to do just that — well, almost. Lincoln’s nose and the sneezing fell by the wayside, but Hitchcock was able to get Cary Grant running around Mount Rushmore in what became one of the most famous scenes of one of his most famous movies: North by Northwest, which celebrates its 60th birthday this July 1.

The term “greatest film ever made” gets thrown around a bit too cavalierly, but few films are more deserving of inclusion in the debate than North by Northwest. The film is the epitomizing work of Hitchcock’s career and contains all the hallmarks of his unique style; the plot twists, the clever dialogue, the gorgeous and innovative camera work — one particularly inspired shot is a bird’s-eye view of the protagonist, Roger Thornhill, running out of the U.N. headquarters, filmed from the top of the multistory building. North by Northwest comes closer than any other entry in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, and, indeed, closer than just about any other movie, to being the perfect movie.

The American Film Institute has created lists of the top 100 films in all of what are considered the most significant genres of film: comedy, action/suspense, and romance. These categories are, perhaps, cinema in its purest form. After all, it is a visual medium, one meant for audience immersion. We want to laugh, we want to see acts of courage, we want to watch a romance unfold, because these desirous elements are often lacking in real life. And even when they’re not, who could get enough of them? There’s a reason that artsy dramas, however critically acclaimed, tend not to perform well at the box office: They simply fail to capture the imagination in the same way, fail to offer something to audience members’ lives that they actually want there. In North by Northwest Hitchcock pulled off a rare feat, seamlessly weaving together those genres we all love into arguably the purest, most beautiful work of escapism ever to hit the silver screen.

Hitchcock’s prolific work in the thriller genre earned him the nickname “the Master of Suspense,” and North by Northwest reminds us just why that is. The movie is tense from the start, aided by the fact that the plot is far from boilerplate. Thornhill, mistaken for a man who does not exist, is kidnapped. The kidnappers attempt to kill Thornhill by forcing him to drink dangerous quantities of alcohol, then putting him behind the wheel of a car. A man is assassinated by a thrown knife that makes it look like Thornhill is the culprit. And that’s just the first act! The series of events that make up the plot are increasingly unexpected, leaving the viewer unsure of what is to come next but eager to find out.

But North by Northwest is prevented from becoming just another Hitchcock thriller in large part owing to the film’s casting. Hitchcock got his first choice of both leading man and leading woman with Cary Grant and Eva-Marie Saint. Any other actors might have struggled with a script that called for such a nuanced performance, but Grant and Saint switch believably back and forth from innuendo-laden quips one second to running for their lives the next.

Grant played Roger Thornhill as he did most of his roles, which is to say, as Cary Grant. The character is all classic Grant; charming, wry, and ever put together. While already an established actress in her own right, Saint was, as anyone else would have been, less of a star than the legendary actor she was paired with. But on screen as Eve Kendall she is Grant’s absolute equal, beautiful, cool as can be, and just as quick with the banter. The crackling on-screen chemistry between Grant and Saint is so fierce, the dialogue between them so suggestive, that watching their scenes together one almost wants to laugh at how much Hitchcock was able to get around the notoriously stringent censors. An example of such a moment:

Kendall: I’m a big girl.
Thornhill: Yeah, and in all the right places too.

And my personal favorite:

Kendall: It’s going to be a long night.
Thornhill: True.
Kendall: And I don’t particularly like the book I’ve started.

It is these two characters that we see interact the most, but Grant and Saint are supported by a stellar cast of costars. James Mason plays the big, bad Phillip Vandamm and oozes charisma from every pore, while his right-hand man Leonard (Martin Landau) provides more menace than such a lanky man ought to be capable of.

North by Northwest has all anyone could want in a movie; comedy, romance, suspense, Cary Grant in what’s been declared the greatest suit in film history. Six decades after it was made, the film still feels fresh — thanks in no small part to another summer blockbuster cycle of tiresome sequels, reboots, and remakes. And another 60 years down the road, I can’t imagine North by Northwest will have lost any of its luster.

Alec Dent is a freelance writer and a panelist on Ricochet’s Young Americans podcast.

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