North by Northwest (1959) is a suspense film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason, and featuring Leo G. Carroll and Martin Landau. The screenplay was written by Ernest Lehman, who wanted to write "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures. The film is one of several Hitchcock movies with a film score by Bernard Herrmann and features a famous title sequence by the graphic designer Saul Bass.
The movie's world premiere took place in the San Sebastian International Film Festival. North by Northwest is a tale of mistaken identity, with an innocent man pursued across America by agents of a mysterious organization who want to stop his interference in their plans to smuggle out some microfilm (a classic MacGuffin).
North by Northwest is cited as the first film to feature kinetic typography.
Leonard and the other two men force a large quantity of bourbon down Thornhill's throat and then Valerian and Licht put him in a stolen car, intending to stage a fatal accident. He breaks free and, after an exciting chase on a perilous road through the dark in Glen Cove, NY, is rear-ended by a police car. Thornhill is apprehended and charged with drunk driving. He tries to convince the police, the judge, and his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) that he was kidnapped and forced to drink the liquor, but they are all skeptical, especially when a woman posing as Townsend's wife informs them that Townsend is a United Nations diplomat.
Realizing that the only way to prove the truth of his far-fetched story is to locate George Kaplan, Thornhill visits Kaplan’s hotel room, where he finds a photograph of the man he believes is Townsend.
Narrowly avoiding capture when Valerian and Licht appear, Thornhill catches a taxi to the General Assembly building of the United Nations, where Townsend is due to deliver a speech. When he meets him, Thornhill is surprised to find that he is not the man who interrogated him. At that moment, Valerian throws a knife that strikes Townsend in the back. He falls forward, dead, into Thornhill’s arms. Unthinkingly, Thornhill removes the knife, making it appear that he is the killer. A passing photographer captures the scene, forcing him to flee.
Still in pursuit of Kaplan, Thornhill needs to get to Chicago since Kaplan has now checked out of the Plaza and his itinerary indicates he has a reservation in a Chicago hotel the next day. Seeing a train as the best means of being able to travel unobtrusively despite the manhunt searching for him, Thornhill goes to Grand Central Station and sneaks onto the 20th Century Limited going to Chicago. On board, he meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who helps Thornhill evade policemen searching the train by hiding him twice: once in the overhead, fold-up bunk in her compartment and again in the bathroom when the porter comes to make up the bed. During a conversation, she asks about his personalized matchbooks with the initials ROT; he says the O stands for nothing.
It is during the time that Thornhill is in the bathroom that a note is given to the porter by Eve. The note reads "What do I do with him in the morning, Eve?". It is given to Vandamm and Leonard who are in another compartment.
Arriving at Chicago's LaSalle Street Station, Thornhill borrows the uniform of one of the porters, and carries Eve’s luggage through the crowd. Although the police are alerted to his disguise, the sheer number of porters allows Thornhill to elude them. Meanwhile, Eve (who is Vandamm's lover) converses with Leonard using the station's telephone cubicles, and lies to Thornhill about arranging a meeting with George Kaplan.
In an iconic scene, Thornhill travels by bus to meet Kaplan at a remote crossroads in the middle of a perfectly flat, open countryside. The only other person in sight is a man who is dropped off by a car and waits at the bus stop. Before boarding the next bus and leaving Thornhill alone, he observes that a crop duster is "dusting crops where there ain't no crops." Without warning, the plane flies towards Thornhill and starts shooting at him. He dives for cover, is chased through a cornfield and dusted with pesticide. Finally, Thornhill flags down a gasoline tanker, which stops barely in time. The plane then crashes into it, triggering a large explosion. Taking advantage of rubberneckers stopping, Thornhill steals a pickup truck and returns to Chicago.
Thornhill goes to the Ambassador East Hotel, where he believes George Kaplan is staying. He is surprised when he is told that Kaplan checked out earlier that day (before Eve claimed to have spoken to him), leaving a forwarding address in Rapid City, South Dakota. Whilst doubting her honesty, Thornhill spots Eve in the lobby. He visits her room but is asked to stay away from her. He removes his suit for cleaning, and pretends to take a shower as she leaves. Using a pencil to reveal the indentations on a notepad, Thornhill learns her destination and follows her to an art auction, where once more he comes face to face with Vandamm.
Vandamm purchases a pre-Columbian Tarascan statue. He still believes that Thornhill is George Kaplan; indeed, he accuses Thornhill of overacting the role of the innocent bystander. After being threatened once more, Thornhill tries to leave, only to find all exits covered by Leonard and Valerian. To avoid capture, he deliberately makes a scene, placing nonsensical bids, so the police are called to remove him. To make sure that he stays safely in custody, Thornhill identifies himself as the UN killer, but the officers are ordered to take him to Chicago Midway International Airport (where a gate for Northwest Airlines is seen, playing on the film's title).
Thornhill meets the Professor (Leo G. Carroll), a spymaster who is trying to stop Vandamm from smuggling microfilmed secrets out of the country. The Professor reveals that George Kaplan is imaginary, a fiction created to distract Vandamm from the real government agent—Eve, whose life is now in danger because of Thornhill's interference. In order to protect her, Thornhill agrees to help the Professor and his agency fool Vandamm.
At the cafeteria at the base of Mount Rushmore, Thornhill (now pretending to be George Kaplan) meets with Eve and Vandamm. He offers to allow Vandamm to leave the country unhindered in exchange for Eve. The deal is refused. In a staged struggle, Eve shoots Thornhill and flees. Vandamm and Leonard quickly depart, as the apparently critically wounded Thornhill is taken away by stretcher in a station wagon, accompanied by the Professor. The makeshift ambulance is driven to a secluded spot; Thornhill emerges unharmed to speak with Eve privately. He becomes highly agitated when he learns that she is using the "shooting" to get Vandamm to take her with him, so that she can gather further intelligence. The "park ranger" driver then knocks Thornhill unconscious with a punch. When he wakes up, he finds himself locked in a hospital room under guard to prevent his further meddling. He talks the Professor into getting a bottle of bourbon, changes his clothes, and escapes through a window.
Thornhill arrives at Vandamm’s mountainside home. He scales the outside of the building and slips inside undetected. He watches as Leonard convinces his boss Vandamm that the shooting he witnessed was faked by firing the gun (filled with blanks) at him. Vandamm decides to throw Eve out of the plane once they are airborne. Thornhill manages to warn her by writing a note inside one of his ROT matchbooks and dropping it where she will see it.
Just before she boards the plane, Eve escapes with the microfilm, which is hidden in the statue from the auction, and joins Thornhill. (He was supposed to create a diversion to help her get away, but was held up by the housekeeper, armed, he finally realizes, with the blanks.) They are chased across Mount Rushmore by Leonard and Valerian, the latter of whom ends up falling to his death during a fight with Thornhill. When Eve slips and clings desperately to the mountainside, Thornhill reaches down and grabs one of her hands, while precariously steadying himself with his other hand. Above them, Leonard arrives and begins grinding his shoe on Thornhill's hand. They are saved from a fatal fall by the timely arrival of the Professor and a police marksman, who shoots Leonard.
Thornhill pulls Eve to safety and the film smoothly cuts to him pulling her into an overhead train bunk, where they are spending their honeymoon. The final scene shows their train speeding into a tunnel.
Alfred Hitchcock's cameo is a signature occurrence in most of his films. In North by Northwest he can be seen missing a bus, two minutes into the film. Some say that there is a second cameo in this movie; Hitchcock dressed as a female passenger on the train. The lady surely looks like Hitchcock, but it could also be Jesslyn Fax a character actress seen in other Hitchcock productions, although her role is unbilled for his movie.
Alfred Hitchcock had agreed to do a film for MGM, and they had chosen an adaptation of the novel The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes. Composer Bernard Herrmann had recommended that Hitchcock work with his friend Ernest Lehman. After a couple of weeks, Lehman offered to quit saying he didn't know what to do with the story. Hitchcock told him they got along great together and they would just write something else. Lehman said that he wanted to make the ultimate Hitchcock film. Hitchcock thought for a moment then said he had always wanted to do a chase across Mount Rushmore.
Lehman and Hitchcock spitballed more ideas: a murder at the United Nations Headquarters; a murder at a car plant in Detroit; a final showdown in Alaska. Eventually they settled on the U.N. murder for the opening and the chase across Mount Rushmore for the climax.
For the central idea, Hitchcock remembered something an American journalist had told him about spies creating a fake agent as a decoy. Perhaps their hero could be mistaken for this fictitious agent and end up on the run. They bought the idea from the journalist for $10,000.
Lehman would sometimes repeat this story himself, as in the documentary Destination Hitchcock that accompanied the 2001 DVD release of the film. In his 2000 book Which Lie Did I Tell?, screenwriter William Goldman, commenting on the film, insists that it was Lehman who created North by Northwest and that many of Hitchcock's ideas were not used. Hitchcock had the idea of the hero being stranded in the middle of nowhere, but suggested the villains try to kill him with a tornado. Lehman responded, "but they're trying to kill him. How are they going to work up a cyclone?" Then, as he told an interviewer; "I just can't tell you who said what to whom, but somewhere during that afternoon, the cyclone in the sky became the crop-duster plane.
In fact, Hitchcock had been working on the story for nearly nine years prior to meeting Lehman. The "American journalist" who had the idea that influenced the director was Otis C. Guernsey, a respected reporter who was inspired by a true story during World War II when a couple of British secretaries created a fictitious agent and watched as the Germans wasted time following him around. Guernsey turned his idea into a story about an American travelling salesman who travels to the Middle East and is mistaken for a fictitious agent, becoming "saddled with a romantic and dangerous identity". Guernsey admitted that his treatment was full of "corn" and "lacking logic". He urged Hitchcock to do what he liked with the story. Hitchcock bought the sixty pages for $10,000.
Hitchcock often told journalists of an idea he had about Cary Grant hiding out from the villains inside Abraham Lincoln's nose and being given away when he sneezes. He speculated that the film could be called "The Man in Lincoln's Nose" (Lehman's version is that it was "The Man on Lincoln's Nose) or even "The Man who Sneezed in Lincoln's Nose", though he probably felt the latter was insulting to his adopted America. Hitchcock sat on the idea, waiting for the right screenwriter to develop it. At one stage "The Man in Lincoln's Nose" was touted as a John Michael Hayes — Alfred Hitchcock collaboration. When Lehman came on board, the travelling salesman — which had previously been suited to James Stewart — was adapted to a Madison Avenue advertising executive, a position which Lehman had formerly held. It has also been speculated that Hitchcock felt Stewart was too old and this had hurt their previous collaboration Vertigo, but in fact Hitchcock had planned to reunite with Stewart on his next film "The Blind Man".
The central theme is that of theatre and play-acting, wherein everyone is playing a part, no one is who they seem, and identity is in flux. This is reflected by Thornhill's line: "The only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead." Significantly, Thornhill is a successful advertising executive (a man who makes his living by distorting reality and deceiving the public). In the role of Thornhill, Grant was distressed with the way the plot seemed to wander aimlessly, and he actually approached Hitchcock to complain about the script. "I can't make heads or tails of it," he said (unwittingly quoting a line that Thornhill utters in the film).
The title, North by Northwest, is often seen as having been taken from a line in Hamlet, a work also concerned with the slippery nature of reality. Hitchcock noted this in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich in 1963. Lehman however, states that he used a working title for the film of "In a Northwesterly Direction", because the film was to start in New York and end in Alaska. Then the head of the story department at MGM suggested "North by Northwest", but this was still to be a working title. Other titles were considered, including "The Man on Lincoln's Nose", but "North by Northwest" was kept because, according to Lehman, "We never did find a [better] title". The Northwest Airlines reference in the film plays on the title.
The plot of this film is one of the purer versions of Alfred Hitchcock's idea of the "MacGuffin", the physical object that everyone in the film is chasing after but which has no deep relationship to the plot. In North by Northwest, the spies are attempting to smuggle microfilm containing government secrets out of the country and try to kill Thornhill, who they believe is the fictitious agent George Kaplan on their trail.
There are similarities between this movie and Hitchcock's earlier film Saboteur (1942), whose final scene on top of the Statue of Liberty foreshadows the Mount Rushmore scene in the later film. In fact, North by Northwest can be seen as the last in a long line of "wrong man" films that Hitchcock made according to the pattern he established in The 39 Steps (1935).
Some refer to North by Northwest as "the first James Bond film" because of the similarities to the splashily colorful settings and secret agents of the later Bond movies, not to mention the elegantly adventurous leading man. Based on the strength of North By Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock was seriously considered to direct the first conceived James Bond film by Ivar Bryce (co-owner of Xanadu Productions), Ian Fleming, and Kevin McClory. Hitchcock read the script that would eventually become Thunderball and was interested in directing it. Later the team shared doubts about Hitchcock's involvement because of his minimum salary requirement and the amount of control over the picture they would have to give up. Hitchcock ultimately passed on the Bond film in order to direct Psycho.
At Hitchcock's insistence, the film was made in Paramount's VistaVision widescreen process, making it one of the few VistaVision films made at MGM. In François Truffaut's book-length interview, Hitchcock/Truffaut (1967), Hitchcock said that MGM wanted North by Northwest cut by 15 minutes so the running time would be under two hours. Hitchcock had his agent check his contract, learned that he had absolute control over the final cut, and refused.
MGM wanted Cyd Charisse for the role later taken by Eva Marie Saint. Hitchcock stood by his choice of Saint as she won the role.
One of Eva Marie Saint's lines in the dining car seduction scene was redubbed. She originally said "I never make love on an empty stomach", but it was changed in post-production to "I never discuss love on an empty stomach". It is said that the censors felt the original version was too risqué.
The car chase scene in which Thornhill is drunkenly careening along the edge of cliffs high above the ocean, supposedly in New York, was actually shot on the California coast.
At the time, the United Nations prohibited film crews from shooting around its New York City headquarters. In an example of guerrilla filmmaking, Hitchcock used a movie camera hidden in a parked van to film Cary Grant and Adam Williams exiting their taxis and entering the building. The cropduster sequence, set in northern Indiana, was shot on location near the towns of Wasco and Delano, north of Bakersfield in Kern County, California. The plane was piloted by Bob Coe, a local cropduster from Wasco. In a remarkable detail, Hitchcock even placed replicas of square Indiana highway signs in the scene.
The house at the end of the film was not real. Hitchcock asked the set designers to make the set resemble a house by Frank Lloyd Wright, the most popular architect in America at the time, using the materials, form and interiors associated with him. The set was built in Culver City, where MGM was located.
This film is the only one directed by Alfred Hitchcock that was released by MGM. However, it is now owned by Turner Entertainment — since 1996 a division of Warner Bros. — which owns the pre-1986 MGM library.
The scene of the train speeding into a tunnel was a bit of symbolism reflecting Hitchcock's mischievous sense of humor.