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NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)
What if everyone you knew suddenly thought you were a spy? Master storyteller Alfred Hitchcock starts with this provocative notion and weaves a tale of intrigue and mistaken identity with Cary Grant as the unlucky innocent ad executive, Eva Marie Saint as a passenger on a train he meets by chance, and lead bad-guy James Mason, convinced Grant is in possession of military secrets. Hitchcock's superbly-crafted tale has Grant harassed by the most famous crop duster plane in cinema and fighting memorably for his life on Mount Rushmore.
#40 on the AFI Top 100. Two Oscar nominations; no wins.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Promotional Lines: "The Master of Suspense presents a 3000-mile chase across America!"
Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a twice divorced advertising executive, caring for his mother, who has the misfortune of not only being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but resembling a Federal Intelligence agent. One day, as he goes about his business, he suddenly finds a gun in his face, and is ordered into a car with some other rough looking men. The audience then meets the evil Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) at his grand estate, who thinks that Rodger is really a Federal agent who can send them all to jail. After a spirited conversation, two of Vandamm's goons, tie up Rodger and force feed him a bottle of bourbon, stick a dead body in his car, start the engine and force him to drive down a steep hill, on a winding road, in a plastered state of mind. Before he knows it, his rather dull, normal life turns into a fight for his life as he tries to stay two steps ahead of the ring of spies trying to kill him, the police who think he is a dangerous killer, while he tries to find out what is going on, and find a way to clear his name.
Soon, along the way, he "bumps" into yet another interested party in this deadly game he finds himself, represented by a pretty, smart blonde, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who seems to be at that moment the only person he can trust. She turns out to also be a spy, with perhaps ulterior motives in helping Thornhill. Hitchcock keeps us guessing on what side she is playing on, whether she is really his ally or working for the deadly killers wanting to nail him, or perhaps another government agency which doesn't particularly have Thornhill's welfare in mind, but their own mission, in which he happened to be swept into by the confused villains.
Thus begins "this exciting, tongue in cheek thriller," which is one of Alfred Hitchcock's best films, and a favorite of many people. It is described as "the high-gear, roller coaster ride that has breathtaking adventure, brilliant comedy, icy villainy, and a luscious romance, with rapid swerves into suspense produced as only Alfred Hitchcock can do. It is considered to be a briskly paced "modern" action adventure film with a perfect blend of comedy and action, one of the first of its kind of entertainment.
There are some favorite action sequences which make this film unique. A favorite one with this reviewer and many other people has to do with an attack in the middle of the countryside. One of Thornhill's leads is to take a bus out to the middle of the country farmland, and get off at a side road stop to meet someone who can help him. The audience feels the tension developed by Hitchcock's direction as our hero waits and waits and no one shows up to meet him. Suddenly, he finds himself being chased by a man in a crop duster plane shooting at him, which gets the audience breathlessly sitting at the edge of their seats, as he must control his panic and use his survival skills and hope his luck doesn't run out as he once again escapes by the skin of his teeth.
Another favorite action scene takes place on the huge presidential faces of Mount Rushmore, as Thorndike and Kendall duke it out with the dastardly villains in the true Hitchcock fashion, providing an entertaining action sequence which is suspenseful and leaves the audience breathless.
Because Hitchcock had high standards, he picked this thrilling, clever screenplay by the well-known, talented screenwriter, Ernest Lehman, who earned the reputation as "a champion of the well-crafted, what-happens-next screenplay." His other screenplays include THE INSIDE STORY, EXECUTIVE STORY, SABRINA, WEST SIDE STORY, WHO IS AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLF?, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, HELLO DOLLY and FAMILY PLOT.
The cast did a wonderful job bringing their characters to life.
Cary Grant, who usually plays characters who are always on top of things, actually becomes like a normal person who would find himself in such a situation, yet has the courage to fight for his life and search for answers to his precarious situation, showing us a range of emotions as he portrays Roger O. Thornhill, yet keeps his character's sense of humor intact.
Eva Marie Saint does a very convincing job in portraying Eve Kendall, a spy on an assignment who must do some tap-dancing around the case she is working on, because of the unexpected arrival of Rodger Thornhill and her feelings for him, which threatens her undercover assignment.
Leo G. Carroll was perfectly cast as the Federal Intelligence Chief, with "double-edged tactics," some of which Rodger doesn't appreciate much.
The dastardly villains, with no redeeming qualities, are well portrayed by James Mason (Phillip Vandamm) and Martin Landau (Leonard), who both had a lot of fun using their fine acting abilities playing state secret traders with bad attitudes.
The wonderful musical score was done by the talented musical genius, Bernard Herrmann, with the reputation of being one of the most original and distinctive composers ever to work in film. Some of the film musical scores he composed include CITIZEN KANE, JANE EYRE, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, THE WRONG MAN, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, PERRY MASON (TV Series), THE TWILIGHT ZONE (TV Series), PSYCHO, CAPE FEAR, HATFUL OF RAIN and his last film, TAXI DRIVER, 1975. He died a few hours after recording the final musical score. His music lives on in other films, which is a testimony to his musical contributions.
NORTH BY NORTHWEST is unrated, but by today's rating system, it would probably get a PG, though the action and suspense may be too scary for some children. Should be ok for older children and up. Parents should watch it first to see if it is too scary for their children.
Original casting... Jimmy Stewart wanted the Cary Grant part and MGM wanted Cyd Charisse as the leading lady.