[Cinema Sunday] PopCultHQ Presents: ‘North by Northwest’ – Mistaken Identity Thriller

North by Northwest
“In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only expedient exaggeration.” – Roger Thornhill

In spite of all the ups and downs with nature, it seems that the chill may finally be over. Spring may at last be here. To celebrate the occasion, this week will be a dive into one of Alfred Hitchcock’s more daring thrillers. By today’s standards it might even be considered a spy thriller. With its protagonists, antagonists, daring plot, mad race, exciting twists and turns, it could certainly play well with modern audiences. Now, without further ado, a look at the 1959 classic North by Northwest.

Cary Grant (left) and Alfred (right) on set

If there was ever a project that took a seemingly long time to come to fruition for Alfred Hitchcock, it was this one. He had been working on the gem of an idea for 9 years before meeting and collaborating with screenwriter Ernest Lehman. Based upon an operation from WWII (Operation Mincemeat), the core concept of the original mission carried over into Alfred and Ernest’s final project. A man is mistaken as a spy, and the rest is built up from there by these two genius minds. That is only part of the equation, the other half was the amazing performance by Cary Grant.

Cary Grant was, and always will be, a classic example of a gentleman actor. Dignified, suave, talented and good looking to boot. The character of Roger Thornhill can in some ways be seen as a cinematic personification of a few of these attributes. For example, Thornhill is a very successful, albeit sad and possibly lonely, ad man in NYC. Being drawn into a tangled web of government secrets and espionage. Throughout this tale, he is chased by enemy spies, shot at and ultimately ending up on top of Mount Rushmore in a fight for his life. And yet in the end, Roger Thornhill survives, like so many other of Cary Grant’s characters, because he is the hero and the hero can many times over, win.

James Mason (left) and Eva Marie Saint (right) on set

While Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill is the protagonist of the film, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason are amazing in their support roles. Eva Marie nails it as the leading lady, seemingly switching sides at the drop of a hat. This makes her character all the more interesting to observe on camera because there is the constant question of her fictional loyalties. Whereas James Mason in his role as villain and master spy, is through and through perfect in his part. One would almost characterize him as the sort of figure that would have been at home in a James Bond movie.

James Mason on set

As with every Hitchcock film, there is a story behind the story. A tale about the filming or the production. With North by Northwest, the greatest story to come from it is how they managed to pull off the whole climax at Mount Rushmore. Initially permission was given to film exterior scenes at the park itself. However, when a local paper broke the news that there was going to be a violent chase on the President’s faces, the government pulled their permission.

Alfred Hitchcock fan site the.hithcock.zone has the full story on this, including a quote summing up the drama that went on to get permission to even film on a studio made set.

Due to the objection of the government, we weren’t allowed to have any of the figures on the faces, even in the interior studio shots … We were told very definitely that we could only have the figures slide down between the heads of the presidents. They said that after all, this is the shrine to democracy.”[33] Alfred Hitchcock

It would be remiss to talk about any film from Alfred Hitchcock’s career and not comment on its reviews and fame.

To this day, North by Northwest remains one of the highest rated movies out in the world. With a whooping 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and still being praised and analyzed by 21st century reviewers and film historians. Upon its release in 1959, Variety gave it a glowing review.

“North by Northwest” is the Alfred Hitchcock mixture – suspense, intrigue, comedy, humor. Seldom has the concoction been served up so delectably. Hitchcock uses actual locations – the Plaza in New York, the Ambassador East in Chicago, Grand Central Station, the 20th Century, Limited, United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, Mount Rushmore National Monument, the plains of Indiana. One scene, where the hero is ambushed by an airplane on the flat, sun-baked prairie, is a brilliant use of location.

Today is a wonderful and glorious spring day. It is the sort of day where one wants to go outside and enjoy nature. Take time out today to be with loved ones and to appreciate the sun and the sky and the new growth coming up. And in the evening, if there is nothing on and one feels bored, seek out another of the great Hitchcock’s films. Be prepared for a thriller unlike any other when one dives into and enjoys North by Northwest.