NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 16 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock

Written by: Ernest Lehman

Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, Leo G. Carroll, Josephine Hutchinson, Philip Ober & Martin Landau

NORTH BY NORTHWEST is widely considered to be one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films and one of the best movies of all-time. This thriller to end all thrillers is loaded with twists, turns and intrigue for its entire 136-minute running time. The pacing is fast and the story is sure to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. This is truly one of the best thrillers of all-time and easily stands among the master of suspense’s greatest hits, ranking just behind PSYCHO as my second-favorite movie in Hitchcock’s filmography.

Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is an advertising executive on a business lunch with colleagues. He calls out for a waiter just as two thugs come in looking for a man under the name of “George Kaplan.” Mistaking Thornhill for Kaplan, the goons force this mild-mannered businessman into their car at gunpoint and drive him to a mysterious mansion. There, he meets the sinister Lester Townsend (James Mason) and finds himself being interrogated for information that he doesn’t know. This case of mistaken identity elevates as Thornhill soon finds himself being chased from both sides of the law, whilst falling for a mysterious stranger Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). In order to clear his name, George will have survive all sorts of threatening scenarios and face some very dangerous people head-on.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST’s first key strength comes in leading man Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill. From the first minute we see this hapless businessman, Grant infuses him with a sarcastic demeanor that gradually morphs into a far more courageous and charismatic personality as the film moves forward. Even after being kidnapped and forced into a library at gunpoint by brutish thugs, Grant’s Thornhill still has enough gumption to get in a few smart-aleck remarks and maintain his composure. It’s been said that NORTH BY NORTHWEST served as the template for the early 007 films and one could definitely get that impression from Grant’s performance as Thornhill.

The supporting cast members don’t slouch either because we get James Mason playing the sinister antagonist. Not much is initially known about this foreboding foe in his introduction and we are fed small bits of information about him as he keeps popping back up. Mason sneers and plays this villain with such scene-chewing talent that you’ll revel in viewing this character’s every scene, especially his on-screen banter with Grant’s Thornhill (who he constantly mistaken for Kaplan). Mason’s merry band of henchmen are intimidating too. Each suit-wearing goon gives off a distinctly creepy or threatening vibe from their sheer appearance.

NORTHWEST doesn’t just pit Cary Grant against James Mason. Eva Marie Saint stars as Grant’s gorgeous love-interest and a hard-to-read possible femme fatale. Though her intentions are unclear, what is clear is that Grant and Saint have wonderful on-screen chemistry together. These two performers feed off each other in a natural way and their shared scenes are a joy to watch. The screenplay also slips in lots of sexual innuendos through clever dialogue that are sure to get modern audiences giggling and likely shocked the 1950s Production Code folks. The final shot of the film is also an appropriately suggestive shot to make up for a lack of sex allowed in a 1959 major motion picture.

Ernest Lehman (who was known for musicals and comedies) spent a year penning this screenplay for Hitchcock and wound creating one of the best thrillers to ever grace the silver screen. NORTH BY NORTHWEST constantly keeps a veil of secrecy and mystery hovering over the viewer’s eyes for a majority of the running time, slowly leaking out clues to gain the maximum amount of suspense from each dire situation. Thornhill’s situation keeps going from bad to worse (being kidnapped, being accused of crimes that he hasn’t committed, and being chased by nearly everyone around him) and the viewer’s eyes remain glued to the screen.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST’s screenplay utilizes masterful set-pieces that stick out even more when placed within the plot’s context. I already knew about the famous cropduster scene, but seeing it in action and the uneasy build-up towards it added a new level of thrills to this iconic movie moment. The finale on Mount Rushmore is truly one hell of a way to end this thriller, while the prior breaking-and-entering scenes build an atmosphere of tension that’s so thick you might suffocate. This film also has brilliant smaller bits that aren’t really discussed as much as they probably should be. One of my favorite scenes being Grant’s hilarious way of escaping a seemingly inescapable auction room.

Simply put, NORTH BY NORTHWEST is an ingenious piece of entertainment and filmmaking. This thriller is one of the best thrillers in Hollywood history and one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films. The action-packed, suspense-filled plot moves at a fast pace, but also slows when certain key details need to be revealed and lets the many twists sink in for extra effect. The cast is great across the board with Cary Grant starring as an excellent leading man, whilst James Mason plays a perfect villain and Eva Marie Saint is spot-on as the believable love-interest. Countless twists and turns will keep viewers planted on the edge of their seats. I had a blast watching NORTH BY NORTHWEST! This classic thriller to end all thrillers hasn’t lost a bit of its quality in the decades after its original release!

Grade: A+

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