Roger O. Thornhill (the O stands for nothing, except to make Roger's initials "ROT") is a successful and rather cavalier Madison Avenue executive. Twice married and divorced, Roger has a jaundiced view of the world. There is in advertising, he says "no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggeration." But it is a precept he adheres to in life, as he lies constantly to his mother and his latest girlfriend. Out for a business drink at the Plaza Hotel, he signals a bellboy to assist him in sending a telegram to his mother. But when he follows the bellboy to the counter, he is accosted by two men Valerian (Adam Williams) and Licht (Robert Ellenstein), who had requested that the hotel (and that bellboy) page George Kaplan. Assuming that Roger is answering that page (and is therefore Kaplan), they escort him from the hotel at gunpoint, and bring him to a home on Glen Cove, Long Island, where he is briefly questioned by a Mr. Townsend (James Mason). When Roger cannot answer their questions, they force-feed him bourbon, and toss him into a car, with the intention of sending him over a cliff. Roger escapes, but the consequences of his attempts to prove what really happened lead him into a series of dangerous adventures.
Even after repeated viewings, North by Northwest is an exhilarating movie. Of course, my repeated viewings were on television screens, and you have not seen the film (shot in VistaVision) until you've seen it on a big screen - the cropduster sequence alone is worth the price of admission! Cary Grant is perfect as a jaundiced, flippant man who is catapulted into a world of violence and misdirection. But the world in which Roger finds himself is, in many ways, not much different than the world he lives in - one in which there is only "expedient exaggeration". For what is George Kaplan but an expedient exaggeration?
Interestingly, Cary Grant was not initially considered for the role of Roger. Having just concluded Vertigo, Hitchcock considered continuing his relationship with James Stewart by casting him in the part. Though Stewart dearly wanted the role, Hitchcock ultimately decided that Grant was a better fit, and delayed his shooting start until Stewart was committed to Bell, Book, and Candle (1958) (See these TCM articles for more information). It's been reported that Grant was a bit reluctant to play the role, because he felt he was too old for the part (he wasn't!)
One story about Hitchcock's direction of Cary Grant is amusing. An individual on the set one day (when the crew was shooting in the Plaza Hotel), noticed that Cary Grant just began filming his scene with no direction from Hitchcock. He approached the director, and asked: "'You haven’t even said 'Good morning' to Cary. How does he know what to do?' Hitch answered casually, 'Oh, he’s been walking across this lobby for years. I don’t need to tell him how.'" (Alfred Hitchcock Geek blog). Mr. Grant, of course, had retained an apartment at the hotel for many years.
There were also issues with casting Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall. Though Ms. Saint had already won an Oscar for On the Waterfront (1954), MGM wanted Cyd Charisse in the role, and Cary Grant was angling to have Sophia Loren cast in the part (he was deeply in love with her at that point). But Ms. Saint brings that cool Hitchcock blonde with the inner raging fires to the part. She said in a interview for Vanity Fair that the intensity of the train kissing scene caused a photographer to fall off his ladder, so engaged was he in action! She also gets to wear my second favorite dress in all of moviedom (see it above. My first, for the record, is Grace Kelly's black and white outfit in Rear Window. Both created by the imaginative Edith Head).
The film features several interesting villains - James Mason is quite good as Phillip VanDamm. But the performance that really stands out is that of Martin Landau as Leonard, VanDamm's "right hand." Landau, with eyes that never seem to close, and a serpentine way of walking is both disturbing and fascinating. This AFI catalog entry notes that the Production Code Administration (PCA) was concerned at Leonard's seeming effeminate. With lines like "Call it my woman's intuition, if you will" and VanDamm's response that "I think you're jealous. No, I mean it. I'm very touched, very," Hitchcock plays up an interesting relationship between the two (and ignores the PCA).
The disappearance of the character Licht (as portrayed by Robert Ellenstein) became much clearer when the film is viewed on a big screen. Licht is one of the men who kidnaps Roger (he's on Mr. Grant's right in the lobby card at the top. He's also notable for his odd way of holding a cigarette). We see him several times; then he disappears. Why? Well, he was on the cropduster flight that attacked Roger! The newspaper announces that two people were killed in the crash (not as easy to see on a TV screen), and someone was firing a gun BACK at Roger (as the plane passed him, so the sniper was leaning from the plane window and firing back at him.). Ergo, Licht was the sniper, and one of the two people killed when the plane collides with the oil tank truck.
Two other performances are really too wonderful to ignore. The first is Jessie Royce Landis as Roger's mother, Clara Thornhill. A bit dotty ("You gentlemen aren't really trying to kill my son, are you?") and mercenary (she takes $50 from her son to con a room key from a hotel clerk), she is also delightful and droll. Famously, it's been said that Ms. Landis was YOUNGER than her onscreen son, however she had claimed herself younger than she actually was (she was in reality 8 years older than Mr. Grant). Regardless, they make a delightful combination.
Leo G. Carroll (The Professor) had already appeared in five Hitchcock movies, including Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941); the latter was Cary Grant's first film with Hitchcock. Born in England in 1886, Mr. Carroll started his career on the London stage, eventually moving to New York, where he appeared in 35 Broadway plays, including the title role in The Late George Apley (1944), a screen part that would go to Ronald Colman and Detective Rough in Angel Street (1941), which would be reworked for Joseph Cotten in Gaslight (1944). Seemingly always cast as an old man (his film career didn't really start until he was nearly 50), Mr. Carroll played a wide variety of supporting roles from Phelps Finnegan in Sadie McKee (1934) to Count Bertil Jacobsson in The Prize (1963). For two years, he dealt with two chatty spirits on TV's Topper (1953-1955), but he became known to a new audience as the enigmatic Alexander Waverly in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968). Mr. Carroll was married to Edith Nancy de Silva from 1926 until his death at the age of 85 in 1972.
When North by Northwest opened at Radio City Music Hall in New York City (and other venues nationwide), it garnered praise, as in this New York Times review, which commented that it was "the year's most scenic, intriguing and merriest chase,"or a review in Variety which said that "the Alfred Hitchcock mixture - suspense, intrigue, comedy, humor. . . Seldom has . . .been served up so delectably." In 1995, it was added to the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. And the American Film Institute put it in 4th position in their 100 Years, 100 Thrills listing.
If you've not yet seen this film, please do yourself a favor and get hold of a copy. In the meantime, I'll leave you with the sexually charged dinner conversation between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.