HITCHCOCK TO THE NTH BY NTH DEGREE: North by Northwest

The many varied stories about the inception of North by Northwest are as entertaining as the film itself. Here are the bare facts: Alfred Hitchcock agreed to a first-time two-picture deal with MGM, and for the first film he wanted to adapt Hammond Innes’ best-seller, The Wreck of the Mary Deare. This would give Hitchcock the chance to finally work with Gary Cooper (after Cooper had turned down the starring role in Foreign Correspondent in 1940.) This would be the fifth of seven collaborations with Bernard Herrmann, and the composer suggested Hitchcock hire his friend Ernest Lehman to write the screenplay. After collaborating for a couple of weeks, Lehman wanted to quit because he could find no way to craft a compelling script out of the novel. Hitchcock agreed that what they were coming up with was a boring trial drama. (Ultimately the novel was made into a film, starring Cooper and directed by Michael Anderson; based on critical and audience opinion, that final product seemed to prove Hitchcock and Lehman’s point.)

Now things get apocryphal: according to Lehman, Hitchcock asked him what he would like to write instead, and he replied, “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” At that point, the director supposedly replied that he had always wanted to stage a final chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore, and he and Lehman began to craft the story that would ultimately become North by Northwest. This, however, does not account for the fact that a journalist named Otis Guernsey had drafted a treatment based on an operation he encountered during World War II called “Operation Mincemeat,” where a dead soldier was transformed into a fictitious spy-courier to trick the Germans. Guernsey had sold the treatment to Hitchcock nearly nine years earlier. In addition, one of the tall tales that Hitchcock liked to hand to journalists was his dream of making a movie where Cary Grant would be hiding out in President Lincoln’s nose on Mount Rushmore, only to be discovered by the enemy when he sneezed. 

Saul Bass’ brilliant title sequence opens the show

North by Northwest is thus the cobbling together of this idea and that vision by the director in collaboration with one of his most talented fans, and the two of them thoroughly enjoyed picking through Hitchcock’s bag of tricks and trying to create the ultimate example of each theme and iconic image, starting with Roger Thornhill, the ultimate typical Hitchcock hero – much married yet averse to real marital commitment, childishly devoted to his mother, vaguely bored with life (“Do I seem heavyish to you?”), who through a simple act of mistaken identity finds himself racing across the country, pursued by the police and enemy spies as he tries to clear his name, stumbling upon his better self along the way. 

James Stewart really wanted to play Roger – Hitchcock’s favorite man of reaction becoming a man of action. But Hitchcock envisioned Grant as the right man for this job. Fortunately, Stewart was signed to Bell, Book and Candle (with Vertigo co-star Kim Novak), and no feelings were hurt. The character of Roger, originally conceived as a travelling salesman (suitable for Stewart, the Everyman), was changed to a Madison Avenue advertising executive to suit the more patrician Grant.

The plot, too is quintessential Hitchcock. The idea of a wrongly accused man assisted by a beautiful blonde hearkens as far back as The Lodger (1927). The episodic cross-country journey was first seen in The 39 Steps (1935) and made its American debut in Saboteur (1942). More trains, more public monuments, more Leo G. Carroll and Doreen Lang. We are definitely in familiar territory. What Lehman wanted to do was make every element shine as the biggest and the best version of what Hitchcock loved to do, and that is certainly the case here. The film is linked by three glorious set pieces: a wonderful introduction to Roger’s entrapment, a bravura centerpiece involving the most harrowing death trap in the canon, and a gloriously far-fetched finale right near Lincoln’s nose. At 136 minutes, this is Hitchcock’s longest film, and sometimes you feel it a little, but after thirty-two years of making thrillers, the director had a lot of tricks in that bag to put on full display. 

Madison Avenue ad exec (Grant) with his secretary (Doreen Lang)

Here, Hitchcock throws in all he has with style and wit, and he has the perfect cast to help him out. At 55 years old, Grant is still stunningly handsome and fit, clad in a gray suit that would go on to inspire fashion designers, authors and other actors and filmmakers for decades to come. Hitchcock delights in literally throwing dirt on that suit and the actor inside it, trying to “flap” the unflappable Grant. Add to the ultimate Hitchcock leading man the perfect Hitchcock blonde, perfectly embodied by Eva Marie Saint. The fact that we are never bothered by Saint being twenty years younger than Grant (as opposed to the gap between Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo) says a lot about both actors. One of my favorite stories concerns Saint’s costumes as Eve Kendall, created by MGM and so despised by the director that, just like Scottie did for Judy at the San Francisco boutique Ransohoff’s in Vertigo, Hitchcock took Saint to Bergdorf Goodman in New York and bought her a whole new wardrobe. (Unlike Judy, Saint did not feel like Hitchcock’s puppet here – she loved the clothes.)

After the darkness of the last two films, it’s nice to return to the deft humor we found in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief. Bernard Herrmann’s sparkling score gets us off to a grand start: the credits roll under pounding drums and a combined sense of menace and wit. We meet Roger on Madison Avenue as he’s heading to a business lunch after tossing a dozen instructions to his harried secretary. When he gets to the Palace Hotel to meet his clients, the orchestra is playing Jimmy McHugh’s “It’s a Most Unusual Day.” The world already knows something that Roger doesn’t, but he’s going to have to catch up fast. 

On this most unusual day, Roger Thornhill makes two new “friends.”

It’s significant that Roger’s childlike relationship with his mother, always a no-no in Hitchcock, is what first gets him into trouble. He has a date with her for the evening and needs to call her to change the original plans he made. He raises his hand for a waiter just as a pageboy calls out the name “George Kaplan,” and for the rest of the film Roger will be mistaken for, or forced to play, Kaplan, a mysterious spy who, it turns out, doesn’t even exist. 

The ultimate hero, the ultimate mistake in identity (ultimate from being so completely arbitrary) – and then the ultimate double in James Mason as Philip Vandamm. One couldn’t imagine another actor of the time who could match Grant in suavity, and their first meeting is as brittle as a scene from Oscar Wilde. Add the pair of goons with spy’s accents and the silky lethality of Martin Landau as Leonard, Vandamm’s . . . . . . “secretary,” and the scene builds in both comedy and suspense until Roger has a bottle of bourbon poured down his throat and is then himself poured into his car. Once again, Cary Grant is careening through a drunk driving spree (the last time was in Notorious, but it was Ingrid Bergman who was sauced), and it’s hilarious. 

A “secretary” is not a toy! Leonard (Martin Landau) and Vandamm (James Mason)

One could argue that with North by Northwest Hitchcock, seriously pissed off by the failure of Vertigo to capture the hearts and minds of spectators and critics, was playing it safe. My theory is that he created a film that was, in many ways, just as dark as the films that had preceded it, but was so perfectly imbued with his sense of humor that nobody at the time recognized just how dark it was. So much of what we find here was shown to us under wholly different circumstances in Notorious. Here are just a few examples: 

Cary Grant plays a man whose life and job have numbed him. In Northwest, he carries a handkerchief with his initials: ROT. The “O,” he explains to Eve, stands for nothing.Like Bergman’s Alicia, Eva Marie Saint’s character is a woman who is being played by both sides. She was in love with Vandamm when the government approached her to play Mata Hari for the sake of national security. Now she is essentially prostituting herself for both sides in order to “do her duty” . . . and stay alive. The bad guy in both movies is charming and harbors true feelings for the good girl, feelings which are dashed when he finds out she is working against him. At that point, Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains) turns for help to his beloved mother, and in Northwest, Vandamm turns to his beloved . . . . . . . “secretary.”the prize at the end of the road – the Maguffin, if you will – is ultimately ridiculous. In fact, the Maguffin in Northwest, a statue full of microfilm, may be the most inconsequential of its kind in any film.

For our bonus film this week, Elliot gave us Charade which, on the surface, pairs up nicely with North by Northwest. Grant is back in his third from final role. He is 59, and the years definitely show more than they did in the earlier film. And yet, here with Audrey Hepburn, who was 34 at the time, one still doesn’t scoff – not much, at least – at the pairing. I have seen Charade many times and find it fun. This time, however, it paled in comparison to Hitchcock, whose work was clearly the model for Stanley Donen’s direction. Both films contain a great deal of danger, even violent death, yet couched in the veneer of a sophisticated romantic comedy. Even so, every shot in Hitchcock’s film is richer in detail and meaning, and a bunch of us in class scoffed at the prospect of comparing them. 

Lots of appeal, minus the (Hitchcock) pizzazz: Charade

At least Charade gives us a moment where we can ponder what might have been had Hitchcock worked with Hepburn, as he wanted to and nearly did (in an adaptation of Henry Cecil’s No Bail for the Judge that never got made.) Like Grace Kelly or Eva Marie Saint, Audrey Hepburn could be classy, sexy, and vulnerable, all rolled up into one. She was arguably a better actor than Kelly, too, and one wonders if she might have been the archetypal Hitchcock brunette – if such a creature could even exist. 

And yet, despite the excellent casting, Charade lacks something that North by Northwest has in spades: Hitchcock. The careful storyboarding he did allowed the director to inject humor and meaning into the final product. Take that centerpiece of the film, the crop duster scene. It is brilliantly audacious and, I have to say, it made the perfect scene to teach basic filmmaking to a class of students. From the opening bird’s eye angle of a road stop in the heart of the country, to the deliberate pacing of the early moments as a bus drops Roger off for his appointment/deathtrap and he finds himself, literally and figuratively, at a crossroads. He waits and waits . . . and waits, and we wait and wait . . . and WAIT with him as car after car swooshes by, covering Roger with dust to further befuddle him. Then the man gets dropped off, and the shot of the two strangers facing off brings to mind a Western showdown . . . except we know that the stranger Roger is facing down is just that, a stranger. 

And when the man scratches his jaw and says, “That’s funny . . . that plane is dusting crops where there ain’t no crops,” Hitchcock has us screaming, “Get outta there, Roger, before it’s too late!” In typical Hitchcock fashion, we are one step ahead of the protagonist, which puts us in an even greater agony of suspense. And then when the plane finally strikes, we marvel at how danger can be found even in the peace and sunshine of wide-open spaces. In fact, those spaces are now an enemy to Roger, who needs shelter fast! We can barely catch our breaths before the explosive climax, and we marvel at how the inimitable Cary Grant allowed himself to place his sleek, suave body under the chassis of an oil tanker. 

In a lesser film, this would be the climax (although anyone would be lucky to create a climax half as good). But we’ve only hit the halfway point. There’s still the whole back and forth between Roger and Eve to be had, the recruitment of Roger into the government’s plan (and the first sign that he is growing up since he only agrees to help in order to save Eve.) There’s the tensely funny scene at the auction, the shocking face-off in the cafeteria, and the whole final section on Mount Rushmore that sprang from Hitchcock’s imagination so long ago. (Sadly, there is no giveaway sneeze within Lincoln’s nose.) Right up to the final shot where Roger clings to Eve as she dangles over the precipice, then lifts her up . . . to the top bunk of a train compartment, calling her “Mrs. Thornhill” as the train bursts suggestively through a tunnel, giving a lovely finger to the censors before “THE END” hits the screen.” 

It’s no wonder that North by Northwest is many people’s favorite Hitchcock film, and I have to say that I really enjoyed myself this time around, focusing on the repartee between Roger, Eve, Vandamm and Leonard, the genial monsters played by Leo G. Carroll and Jessie Royce Landis . . . in short, the wit. It doesn’t quite cut it (sorry!) the way Rear Window does, but it’s a rollicking good time. 

Leave it to Hitchcock, then, to move from the ultimate experience to a completely new one, a film that would change the course of genre filmmaking from its premiere all the way to our present day. Next week, a double bill so dark and vicious that nurses were hired to tend to fainting filmgoers. See you next week.

Oh, and bring your mother.