*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge – My 40 Favourite Movies: 18 – North by Northwest


18: NORTH BY NORTHWEST: 1959. Director: Alfred Hitchcock. US. Espionage thriller. Cary Grant. James Mason. Eva Marie Saint. Leo G. Carroll. Martin Landau. Jessie Royce Landis.
This is the third of my favourite Hitchcock movies, billed as “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures”, the screenplay written by Ernest Lehman, developing a long-standing, if rather vague, idea of Hitchcock’s to feature a climax fight on Mount Rushmore, in South Dakota. Initially Lehman and Hitchcock were trying to adapt the 1956 Hammond Innes novel The Wreck of the Mary Deare, but gave up it on, and decided to write their own original screenplay instead. The Innes novel was eventually scripted by Eric Ambler, and starred Gary Cooper, also released in 1959. While many critics now tout Vertigo as Hitchcock’s greatest, others challenge this, and certainly North by Northwest has the most memorable and iconic images of any Hitchcock film other than the Bates Motel and the shower scene in Psycho – that of the crop-duster plane and the fight on the sculptured Presidents’ heads on Mount Rushmore, although both are not what they seem. The Indiana farmland was really near Wasco, California, in the Joaquin Valley, north of Bakersfield (Hitchcock even had the square panel Indiana-style road signs erected to perfect the image); while the Rushmore heads were authentic mock-ups created in the MGM studio at Culver City, CA. Hitchcock later claimed his original working title was The Man On (or In) Lincoln’s Nose. The final title was often assumed to be from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “I am but mad north-north-west, when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw,” but actually in Lehman’s script, his hapless hero travelled from New York to Chicago, to the South Dakota Black Hills, and (never realised in the final draft) on to Alaska, so a north-westerly direction. Hitchcock himself pointed out there was no such compass point, it actually should be ‘north-west by north’.
This was Hitchcock’s first venture with MGM, and, as a one-off, the studio replaced CinemaScope with Paramount’s big-screen Vista-Vision. The budget eventually came in at $4.3million. A large chunk of this was on Cary Grant’s salary, which was initially at $450,000, but there was a clause stipulating $5,000 a day if filming ran over a set schedule – which it did, big-time, as actual filming had not even started when the schedule time-limit expired. The bonus therefore kicked in and Grant had 78 days more days, earning him an extra $390,000! In addition to this he also got a share of any profits, as he had with his previous Hitchcock film. Box office takings were $9.8million. Hitchcock’s other male star regular, Jimmy Stewart, had initially wanted the part, but Hitchcock felt Cary Grant’s persona more suited. Not wanting to hurt Stewart’s feelings, he wanted until Jimmy was already committed to making another movie before offering it to Grant. One source says the movie was Bell, Book and Candle, but this was released in 1958. Stewart was making Anatomy of a Murder in 1959. For much of the shooting, Grant couldn’t make head nor tail of the plot, but to Hitchcock this was good. Roger Thornhill, the character he was playing, had no idea what was going on either! Right up until it was released, Grant was convinced the movie would be a flop. Running time was 136 minutes – quite long for a Hitchcock movie – and MGM wanted to cut 15 minutes. However, Hitchcock checked his contract, which gave him absolute control, and simply refused. Likewise, MGM had wanted Gregory Peck for the Roger Thornhill role, and the actress/dancer Cyd Charisse in the Eve Kendall part. Hitchcock, however, always wanted Grant – he argued to MGM Peck was too “stony-faced”. He would have liked Grace Kelly back as Eve, but, as Princess Grace of Monaco, that was always a non-starter. Even Hitchcock had met his match there! In fact, the stuffy Monaco authorities banned the showing of any of Kelly’s movies within the principality. Instead Hitchcock decided on Eva Marie Saint, and again he stood firm and got his way. He had Eva cut her hair short, modulate her voice to be lower and more husky, and – disliking MGM’s wardrobe choice for her – insisted on taking her to Bergdort Goodman, the luxury department store on Fifth Avenue, New York, for his own selection of her clothes. Many of his feminist detractors crit this almost Svengali-like control over his blonde leading-ladies, yet Hitchcock the director was able to bring untapped depths out of his actors and actresses that, often, they themselves never knew they possessed. In movies like Rope, Rear Window and Vertigo he showed us a new, darker James Stewart. Likewise, he stretched the emotional repertoire of Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much, perhaps one of her best movies. We have already remarked on Grace Kelly’s potential, apparent even from her first movie with Hitchcock, the darker, more obsessive Dial M for Murder. Hitchcock obviously saw Eva Marie Saint’s talents wasted on what we would call ‘kitchen sink dramas’, like On The Waterfront, and changed her screen persona to a seductive woman of mystery. Critics took note, A.H. Weller in The New York Times remarking, “In casting Eva Marie Saint…Mr Hitchcock has plumbed some talents not shown by the actress heretofore.” Another critic remarked she had hitherto been “drab and convincingly sweet”, but now showed that “she can be unexpectedly and thoroughly glamorous”. Eva was born 1924, and enjoyed a 75 year career: high-profile, off-beat movies in the 1960s, more second-rate roles in the 1970s, returning to stage and television in the 1980s. Married in 1951 to Jeffrey Hayden, she often balanced her acting career with that of wife and mother.
Hitchcock’s own admission to French director Truffaut was he deliberately wanted a change of pace after Vertigo, “Something fun, light-hearted and generally free of symbolism permeating his other movies.” And again he is in a playful mood, with Cary Grant the perfect foil as the middle-aged debonair bachelor, destined to be ensnared by the beautiful blonde in the final reel. Again New York Times critic A.H. Weller, remarked that Grant, “a veteran member of the Hitchcock acting varsity, was never more at home than in the role of the advertising-man-on-the-lam. He handles the grimaces, the surprised look, the quick smile, and all the derring-do with professional aplomb and grace.” The New Yorker review in August 1959 said, “Cary Grant delivers his Hitchcock Grant – tight-lipped, tight-eyed, flippant, amorous…” while “endless chase sequences seem to chase each other…Hitchcock’s love of planting the grotesque in a commonplace setting.” A summary of the movie by Adrian Turner (Movies of the Fifties, 1982) starts by saying how the movie “was greeted with sighs of pleasure and relief by those numerous admirers of Hitchcock who were perplexed by the romantic obsession of Vertigo…” but that Hitchcock was next to make Psycho (in 1960) which again many viewers did not know quite how to take – ”Gothic extravagance, black comedy or an appalling lack of taste.” – How opinions change! Turner continues: “North by Northwest is a divertissement between two emotionally disturbing films, a colourful spy frolic starring the amicable Cary Grant, a chase movie told with a gleeful disregard for plot but with immense professional skill and good humour.” Even so, there are darker elements. We are still in Cold War America, not everyone – or even everything – is what it might seem, and there are background hints of global tensions (within three years the Cold War nearly went ‘hot’), to say nothing of the moral ambiguity even of the American spymasters – the supposed ‘good guys’ – in putting the Cary Grant character’s life at risk. Adrian Turner’s conclusion is not without its own dark humour perhaps: “Grant’s Roger Thornhill is the classic adman: smart and shallow, a believer only in himself, unshakeably complacent, unattached and on the make. His personalized book-matches, inscribed with the initials R.O.T., emphasize the zero of his life. The film charts a moral and spiritual growth by stripping away what identity he has and by forcing him to adopt the identity of someone who does not exist. Thornhill’s commitment at the end is not to the ideal of America, as embodied by the paternalistic head of the CIA (Thornhill already has a dominant mother who keeps a check on his drinking), but to Eve Kendall, another in his long line of women. The survival of this species of American male is a disputing prospect just off the edges of the frame.”
With Hitchcock it is easy just to sit back and enjoy the entertainment of his movie, but what always makes him that little bit more special as a director is his subliminal messages, his fearsome attention to detail in almost every frame, and his mischievous sense of humour. For instance, when asked what the ‘O’ stands for in Roger O. Thornhill, Grant’s reply is nothing, which some suggested was a sly Hitchcockian dig at his former producer, David O. Selznick. And, indeed, throughout it is a movie of such clever little details and risqué dialogue, although Eva Marie Saint’s line during the railway dining-car seduction scene was changed from “I never make love on an empty stomach” to “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.” “Beats flying,” is Grant’s droll comment after a kiss on the train. The clever, double-take ending of Thornhill reaching out his hand to pull Eve to safety from the Mount Rushmore cliff-edge, fading into him helping Mrs Eve Thornhill into the upper bunk of the overnight railroad train, was then trumped by another example of Hitchcock’s mischievous sense of humour (and Freudian symbolism) as we see the train speeding into the tunnel. That was Hitchcock’s idea, scriptwriter Lehman confessed, apparently adding in envy “Dammit!” The MacGuffin – almost incidental to the story – was a sculpture containing a microfilm.
Once again we have the perfect ensemble of actors – English actor James Mason (1909-1984) as the suave, sophisticated enemy spymaster, Phillip Vandamm, a “stock role” for him, “properly forbidding”. Mason suffered a heart-attack not long after. Again sources say both Yul Brynner and Curt Jürgens were being considered for the role. In retrospect, Mason was the ideal choice. Martin Landau (1928-2007) played the suitably sinister Leonard, in what was one of his first major film roles. It was at his suggestion he play the character as gay, implying a homosexual relationship with his boss, Vandamm. Mason wasn’t very happy about it, apparently, but Hitchcock and Lehman loved the idea, and even allowed Landau to insert an extra line into the dialogue to subtly reenforce Leonard’s sexual orientation. Afterwards some people believed Landau really was gay, and he had to point out, no, he was an actor. It just added a hidden dimension to the character. Later Landau was also an acting coach, producer and editorial cartoonist, with a filmography from 1955 until 2007, as well as being a one-time good friend of James Dean. He was later better known for playing master of disguise Rollin Hand in the television series Mission Impossible (1966-1969), a really good, clever series before Tom Cruise hijacked it. He followed that by another television series, Space 1999 (1975-1977). Leo G[ratten] Carrol (1886-1972), another English actor with a 58 year acting career starting in 1912, played ‘The Professor’, the devious American spymaster out to trap Vandamm by creating an entirely fictitious CIA agent, George Kaplan, to divert attention away from his real agent Eve, who had been installed as Vandamm’s mistress. Leo Carroll was another of Hitchcock’s ‘regulars’, who had appeared in Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), The Paradine Case (1947), and Strangers on a Train (1951) This, then, was his sixth movie from the Hitchcock stable. He, too, later became better known, almost reappraising his North by Northwest role, as Alexander Waverly, the spy chief in the 1964-1968 television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Jessie Royce Landis, who played the mother of Grace Kelly’s character in To Catch a Thief (so Cary Grant’s character’s future mother-in-law), here plays Roger Thornhill’s mother. In fact she was only 7 years older than Cary Grant, at that time he was age 55.
Hitchcock’s cameo role was as a would-be bus passenger getting the door slammed in his face. Uncredited, but apparently equally famous, was Cary Grant/Roger Thornhill’s suit, voted by GQ magazine in 2006 as “the best in film history.” Again one source says it was from “Grant’s own tailor, Kilgour French & Stabury of Saville Row, London”. But Vanity Fair magazine says Norton & Son, London, while The Independent says Quintino of Beverley Hills. Whoever it was, in the film, Landau was reputed to be dressed by the same tailor.
After the more claustrophobic settings of his earlier movies like Rope, Dial M for Murder or Rear Window, Hitchcock was again out, filming on location – New York, Chicago, Mount Rushmore. The story starts in New York. Roger Thornhill’s office is in the Commercial Investment Trust Building, 650 Madison Avenue, which dated to only a few years previous, built in 1957. Next we see him at the Plaza Hotel 768 Fifth Avenue. The Oak Room was meticulously copied and recreated in the MGM Culver City studio. Hitchcock had been unimpressed with the NYPD for police protection, criticising them both for cost and their efficiency. Apparently, as a consequence of his remarks, when the film crew turned up at the Plaza Hotel, they found police protection had been withdrawn. Next was the United Nations headquarters, located between 42nd and 48th Streets. Having reviewed the script, the U.N. authorities refused him permission to film, so Hitchcock was again forced to film Cary Grant outside and seeming to enter the building by more illicit means, from a hidden camera in a discreet non-descript vehicle. The story then moves to Grand Central Station (89 East 42nd Street) and the 20th Century Limited overnight passenger train en route to LaSalle Street Station, Chicago. This service was operated from 1902 to 1967 by the New York Central Railroad (NYC), who advertised it (perhaps rather optimistically) as “the most famous train in the world”. It would leave New York at 18.00 hours Eastern Standard Time, and arrive at Chicago at 9.00 Central Standard Time, a journey of 958 miles, average speed 60 mph. Return journeys were 15.00 CST from Chicago, arrival 8.00 EST. The Amtrak Lake Shore Limited from Penn Street, New York to Chicago Union Station now follows more or less the same route.
From La Salle Station we find Roger Thornhill in the flat rural Indiana farmland and the famous crop-duster plane sequence, actually filmed at Wasco, CA. The aircraft used was a Second World War Naval trainer bi-plane, a N3N-3 Canary. Again Hitchcock used clever editing of the farmland and aircraft, cut to Cary Grant hiding in the roadside ditch and crops, which were filmed in mock-ups at the Culver City studio. In the scene where the plane crushes into the gasoline truck on the highway, large-scale models were used. The company name on the truck, Magnum Oil, was another little secret joke – Hitchcock’s son-in-law worked for the company. The aircraft pilot was Bob Coe, a crop-duster from Wasco.
From the Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago, Thornhill next finds himself at Chicago Midway Airport, flying to Rapid City, South Dakota.
Again the aeroplane is a Douglas DC-7C Seven Seas, used by North West Airlines. The Rapid City Airport building seen here was apparently demolished in 2002. Likewise the Memorial View Building at Mount Rushmore was also demolished in 1994. In 1927 sculptor Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941) set out to carve Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt into the mountainside at Rushmore. His son Lincoln (1912-1986) completed the work in 1941, which eventually only comprised the heads, money having run out. The Department of the Interior, who were responsible for the Mount Rushmore sculptures, refused to allow any shooting on the faces, and invalided their filming permit. Hitchcock yet again had mocks-ups of the heads made at the LA studios, which were so good many people were convinced it was the real thing. In a huff, the Department demanded their name be removed from the credits. Likewise Vandamm’s house, supposedly on the mountain, was also a mock-up, in the style of the then famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, interiors filmed at Culver City, exteriors being matte paintings.
This was the fourth, and last, of Cary Grant’s movies with Hitchcock (in total Grant featured in 76 movies, co-starring with some of the greatest names in the business) – the other Hitchcock movies being Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1946), and To Catch a Thief. Cary Grant was his stage name, which he only legally changed in 1942. He was born Archibald Leach, in 1904, in Horfield, a suburb of Bristol, England. He had an unhappy childhood. His father was an alcoholic, his mother suffered from clinical depression. His father had her locked up in a mental institute and young Archibald (then aged 9) was told she had ran away, and later that she was dead. His father subsequently remarried not long after. Grant only discovering his mother was still alive when he was 31, when his father told him the truth shortly before he died. Grant arranged for her release, and financially supported her, but their relationship was never really restored – one reason he gave for his repeated failure in his love affairs and relationships with women. At 16 he had joined a theatrical vaudeville troupe, and soon after was in America, which thereafter became his adopted homeland. His filmography was from 1932 until his early retirement in 1966, together with radio work from 1935 to 1955. From the lowly working-class boy who had been expelled from school, he reinvented himself into one of the most successful of the great Hollywood Golden Age actors – indeed, the American Film Institute voted him as the second greatest male actor after Humphrey Bogart – and well as being a shrewd businessman. He was married five times, and had a daughter, Jennifer Grant, born 1966 (herself later an actress), quite late in life. When he died in 1986 his estate was valued at between $60-80million, divided between Jennifer (who he obviously adored) and his last wife, Barbara Harris, who he had married in 1981. Despite such fame and fortune, he never really took himself too seriously – unlike so many actors, before or since, whose fame went to their heads and inflated their egos.
In retrospect some critics have seen North by Northwest as the template for the later James Bond/spy movie franchise. While the early – Sean Connery – Bond movies kept pretty much to the basic plot of the original novels (as did also the much-maligned George Lazenby On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), this is probably partially true of the Roger Moore Bond period – “suave and flippant”, and leaving a trail of dead bodies and disruption across some world heritage site. In that much, perhaps Hitchcock was again something of a pioneer. He was to make another seven movies after, two of which were still ground-breaking and innovative in their different ways. Psycho, which we will look at below, was his most successful financially, and probably in its impact on movie trends and directors for decades to come. Then there followed The Birds, released in 1963, from the Daphne du Mourier short story, edging towards a mixture of horror and science fiction. If Psycho inspired its inferior attempts at imitation of slasher/serial killer/misogynist murder movies – most notably in America and Italy – then The Birds ushered in a wave of ecological doom and gloom disaster movies, humankind being punished for their ‘sins’ against nature. But, after that, came the decline. Both the cinematic technique and audiences were changing; new, younger directors were emerging; Hitchcock was no longer leading from the front. North by Northwest was the last of those beloved and memorable post-war Hitchcock movies, which also saw the end of the stable of top-notch actors and actresses, and the talented team of contributors. The last five Hitchcock movies – Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), Topaz (1969), Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1975) – are very much a disappointment.

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