#263) North by Northwest (1959)


#263) North by Northwest (1959)

OR “Did Somebody Say MacGuffin?”

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Written by Ernest Lehman

Class of 1995

The Plot: Madison Avenue exec Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) leads “too dull a life” until the day he is abducted by two thugs who think he’s FBI agent George Kaplan, hot on the heels of their boss, Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). After thwarting Vandamm’s attempt on his life, Thornhill vows to find the elusive Kaplan to set everything straight. Thornhill’s cross-country travels involve a murder at the United Nations, a train rendezvous with the seemingly innocent Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a brush with a deadly crop-duster, and a very intimate tour of Mount Rushmore.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “one of [Hitchcock’s] most stylish and entertaining thrillers”, praising Hitch, Ernest Lehman, and Bernard Herrmann along the way. There’s also an essay by Hitchcock expert Thomas Leitch.

But Does It Really?: Lehman set out to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures” and that’s exactly what he did. “North by Northwest” is everything you want from a Hitchcock thriller: big stars, great dialogue, wonderful action, and plenty of memorable moments. It’s not as artsy as “Vertigo” or as thrilling as “Psycho”, but “North by Northwest” is prime classic Hitchcock, and a no-brainer for NFR inclusion.

Shout Outs: Not necessarily a reference, but Thornhill whistles “Singin’ in the Rain” while in the shower, and this is an MGM movie after all.

Everybody Gets One: Future Oscar Winner Martin Landau opted to subtly play henchman Leonard as gay, a choice supported by Hitchcock and Lehman, who added Leonard’s line “Call it my woman’s intuition.”

Wow, That’s Dated: References to the Cold War and Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, plus a shout-out to Charles Addams before the Addams Family was known outside a New Yorker subscription.

Take a Shot: No one says the title, nor does it have any connection to the events in the film (Thornhill’s overall route is more west-southwest). Hitchcock and Lehman intended “North by Northwest” to be a working title until they came up with something better.

Seriously, Oscars?: Like many a Hitchcock film before and after, “North by Northwest” lost all three of its Oscar nominations. Art Direction and Editing went to that year’s juggernaut “Ben-Hur”, while Lehman’s Original Screenplay nod went to…“Pillow Talk”? This is why we can’t have nice things.

Other notes

  • Saul Bass, you’ve done it again! Those credits are perfection, and the Bernard Herrmann score is the icing on the cake.
  • Sorry Hitch, this bus is for non-creeps only.
  • Cary Grant is just so natural on screen. No wonder he never won an Oscar; you can’t “see” the acting.
  • It’s a Most Unusual Day”? Real subtle, everyone.
  • Most of this write-up will just be me praising the screenplay. Lehman wastes no time getting to the first plot point. You meet Thornhill, get a minimum amount of exposition, and then you’re thrown right into the action.
  • Hitch finally took the suggestion from “Rope” and cast James Mason as the bad guy. Vandamm doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but Mason’s established screen persona carries most of the weight.
  • Thornhill never says the name of the show he has tickets for, but in the summer of 1958 the Winter Garden was housing “West Side Story”. Get it?
  • Why is Roger the same age as his mom? Hitchcock!
  • Kaplan has dandruff.
  • The UN forbade Hitchcock from filming on their premises, so the shot of Thornhill walking up the front steps was filmed discreetly from a van parked across the street. Look closely for one pedestrian who recognizes Cary Grant.
  • The 20th Century Limited is still running back now! Say hi to Carole Lombard for me!
  • We got us another readout on the Michael Douglas Scale. Cary Grant was 20 years older than Eva Marie Saint, though Grant would later admit to being embarrassed about getting the girl in his older age.
  • The censors had problems with Leonard’s very understated homosexuality, but kept most of Roger and Eve’s (hetero)sexually charged dialogue intact. Aren’t double standards great?
  • Best line in the movie: “It’s going to be a long night, and I don’t particularly like the book I’ve started.”
  • Eva Marie Saint should have been the sexy lead in a lot more movies. Hell, she’s still going strong, let’s make it happen!
  • The crop-duster scene is iconic for a reason. In addition to the brilliantly suspenseful silence leading up to the moment, the stunt itself still resonates because it’s actually happening. That’s really Cary Grant running away from a real biplane. The movies don’t get much better than this.
  • Was Cary Grant the first person to walk away from an explosion in a movie?
  • Vandamm suggests the FBI needs more training from the Actors Studio. Perhaps Eve and Leonard can help.
  • The Professor refers to Vandamm as an “importer-exporter”. Like Art Vandelay!
  • Why is Lincoln so far removed from the other three presidents on Mount Rushmore? And when are they gonna finish that damn thing?
  • Everyone’s favorite child extra: In the Mount Rushmore cafeteria, watch for the kid who covers his ears before the gun goes off. He was paying attention during rehearsal; he knows what’s up.
  • Why are Roger and Eve meeting up on the “Sound of Music” set?
  • Despite all of this film’s positive attributes, the climactic chase across Mount Rushmore loses something for me. I think it’s the obvious matte paintings and set pieces that detract from my enjoyment.
  • And we end on what can only be described as the ultimate Hitchcock shot: An ordinary object turned into one giant innuendo. Goodnight, everybody!


  • That crop-duster scene, man. Everyone has referenced it. When it’s done well it’s an homage, when not it’s a rip-off.
  • In addition to the film’s iconic imagery, Cary Grant’s gray suit was called the most influential suit in film history by a 2006 GQ.
  • Released three years before “Dr. No”, “North by Northwest” has been viewed as a template for the early Bond films. Yeah, that makes sense.
  • The only reference to this movie in “High Anxiety” is a joke about the main character’s middle name. “High Anxiety” just isn’t the bulls-eye it should have been.
  • The South by Southwest music festival got its name from this film.
  • The biopic “Hitchcock” implies that it was at the premiere of “North by Northwest” that Hitch realized his films were becoming formulaic, leading him to make “Psycho” as his next picture.
  • There’s a stage version? How?

7 thoughts on “#263) North by Northwest (1959)”

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