Cary Grant is the screen’s supreme man-on-the-run in his fourth and final teaming Suspense Alfred Hitchcock. He plays a Manhattan adman plunged into a realm of spy (James Mason) and counterspy (Eva Marie Saint) and variously abducted, framed for murder, chased, and in a signature set-piece, crop-dusted.
Coming as it does fairly late in Alfred Hitchcock’s career, and his most successful period, it seems fitting that North By Northwest works as a greatest hits, aided by regular contributors, including composer Bernard Herrmann. Ernest Lehman’s screenplay is most closely related to Saboteur, itself a development of several earlier plots, with its wrong man on the run chased by gentlemen villains belonging to a sort of Fifth Columnist group, but there are many motifs from Hitch’s other films. The whole thing is faster and bigger than ever before, with Hitch revelling in the absurdity. Even the title doesn’t make sense and yet the plot manages to follow it!
It is probably the film that really started set-piece cinema, with the hero moving from one danger spot to the next. Certainly if Hitchcock can be credited with a hand in creating the Bond franchise, this is the final and most obvious piece of the puzzle; a cross-country thriller with a smart-arse hero and a suave villain. And I’d say fundamentally better than any Bond from that early period. Incidentally he was offered the first Bond script, Thunderball, but passed to make Psycho.
With the wisecracks and insistence on a freshly pressed suit for every occasion, Cary Grant is the closest to an American Bond too, though he is better as the permanently perplexed everyman, who can never quite grasp just how this ridiculous situation arose. He adds another level throughout, especially to the fantastic crop-duster sequence (recently voted the number one movie moment by Empire) and the wonderful banter at the auction. Grant was one of cinema’s greatest movie stars and he uses the persona brilliantly. He even convinces when he turns hero-proper for the final act, normally the point the modern descendants of North By Northwest falter (except those with Harrison Ford, another classic everyman) and keeps the story grounded throughout.
Usually the romance sub-plot turns out to be the real story in Hitchcock films. That may be the case here, but it is left much later to give the films drive and conclusion in the final act and Eva Marie-Saint is as important to the plot as she is to the hero. She makes a great Femme Fatale and the early seduction is a highlight of the movie. The very final shot is pretty cheeky too! Rounding out the cast, James Mason is the smoothest of criminal masterminds and Martin Landau impresses as his sly right-hand man.
As with the best of this sort of movie, the main plot points are dealt with efficiently leaving a huge margin to play with. Some may see it as extravagant, but I say not at all. So it is Hitchcock’s slickest and most fun work, but no less ambitious, with some incredible compositions, thanks in part to regulars Robert Burks’ photography and George Tomasini’s editing. The crop duster opening and the escape from the UN (following a very theatrical murder!) stand out in particular.
It pounds along at a fast pace and has dated very little, except the writing; it just isn’t the modern way to slow down action movies with all that pesky character stuff, is it? Except Bond…