Retrospective: North By Northwest (1959)


A few weeks ago I claimed that Rear Window was one of the most perfect movies ever made due to a number of factors such as its structure, shooting style, plot, performances and all the usual methods that justify such great claims. For this retrospective I would like to use another movie from Hitchcock’s great filmography as an example of how to make a perfect thriller due to a similarly sublime structure with amazing distinct music and a neat, twisting plot and beautiful outfits.

North by Northwest is a contemporary to Rear Window, coming out a few years later in 1959. This was during Hitchcock’s peak with Vertigo and Psycho coming out a year before and after respectively. Carry Grant stars as arguably the most well known actor of the period, playing the central character Rodger Thornhill, a Madison Avenue Advertising Executive who is brought into something much bigger than himself in a case of mistaken identity with someone who doesn’t exist. He provides a very distinctive look wearing a very handsome grey suit which has become an icon of its age as you see it pop up in Mad Men (the credit sequence also owes a lot to this movie), Paycheck, Collateral and countless others. It also contains a very typical version of the character known as the ‘Hitchcock Blonde’ in Eve Marie Saint (who confusingly plays a character called Eve Kendall). She’s a beautiful, icy and dangerous woman who gets the protagonist into huge, deadly events and he remains in love with her despite all of these issues but she ends up being warm and caring once her ice shell has been broken (my sort of girl).

This movie is shot fantastically with various different angles showing the action from a variety of perspectives and heights to emphasize the characterization of the various figures. A really good example of this is during one of the opening scenes when Thornhill has been kidnapped and he meets the boss of the kidnappers. They circle each other with the height of the camera changing constantly and switching between the characters while chatting amiably, with the music of Bernard Herman telling a different story. This is a movie where the soundtrack tells a story different to the dialogue as it creates the most menacing conversations with the tense, sharp  jangling of the Herman score making for a classic. This movie is the expression of what a Hitchcock movie is meant to be. It’s how a thriller should be structured by dealing with an ‘Everyman’ dropped into a situation far outside his understanding with the audience knowing more than the characters but without knowing everything. Hitchcock paces the film masterfully.

The use of architecture in the movie is extremely interesting. Most of the buildings used are largely modernist from the skyscraper where Thornhill works to the UN building and also the amazing house inhabited by the enemy spy above Mount Rushmore. Brutalist structures are often very difficult to look pretty but Hitchcock achieves this by making the architecture part of the cast with long shots emphasizing the littleness of the characters in the buildings which are shown as much bigger than any character.

The other surprising thing is it’s rather funny with a dark streak of humour. In many ways it feels like a Bond movie with danger, quips, pretty women, and a big budget ending on something climatic but as it’s a late 50s movie there is a lot of innuendo. For example, on the train when Eve and Thornhill are kissing the film implies sex, especially as there are oblique references afterwards. So it’s not as violent or explicit as Bond and therefore a very good family movie for any parent to introduce the great wide world of classic movies to their children. Thinking about it, I’m pretty sure this is my first Hitchcock or classic movie which I saw about a decade ago.

North By Northwest is considered one of Hitchcock’s classics as it’s so iconic with various parts borrowed or stolen by everything from Virgin Trains, to various movies and shows. Mad Men owes its wardrobe and its sense of style to this movie. Even if you haven’t seen it then it’s likely you might have seen what it influenced. Despite everything looking successful there is an undercurrent of fear and a lack of control in this Cold War world which makes the role of Thornhill who stumbles into this spying plot so interesting, while the whole thing is so compelling and innovative you’ll struggle to takes your eyes off it.

Retrospective By Harry Riedl

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