Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

North by Northwest (1959) * * *

Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), a middle-aged suave Madison Avenue advertising executive, is mistaken for a CIA agent named George Kaplan by a gang of spies. He is kidnapped by Valerian (Adam Williams) and Licht (Robert Ellenstein) and taken to the house of Lester Townsend (Philip Ober). There he is interrogated by a man he assumes to be Townsend, but who is really Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). When Thornhill repeatedly denies he is Kaplan, Vandamm becomes annoyed and orders his right-hand man Leonard (Martin Landau) to get rid of him.

Roger Thornhill: Now you listen to me, I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself "slightly" killed. And what the devil is all this about? Why was I brought here?
Phillip Vandamm: Games, must we?
Roger Thornhill: Not that I mind a slight case of abduction now and then, but I have tickets for the theater this evening, to a show I was looking forward to and I get, well, kind of unreasonable about things like that.
Phillip Vandamm: With such expert playacting, you make this very room a theater. Has anyone ever told you that you overplay your various roles rather severely, Mr. Kaplan?

Valerian and Licht try to stage a fatal car accident, but Thornhill, after a chase on a perilous road, is apprehended and charged with drunk driving. He is unable to get the police, the judge, or his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) to believe what happened to him, especially when a woman posing as Townsend's wife informs them that Townsend is a United Nations diplomat.

Thornhill and his mother go to Kaplan’s hotel room. Narrowly avoiding recapture by Valerian and Licht, Thornhill catches a taxi to the General Assembly building of the United Nations, where Townsend is due to deliver a speech. When he meets Townsend, Thornhill is surprised to find that he is not the man who interrogated him. When Thornhill questions him, Townsend states that his wife is dead. At that moment, Valerian throws a knife that strikes Townsend in the back. He falls forward, dead, into Thornhill's arms. Unthinkingly, Thornhill removes the knife, making it appear that he is the killer. A passing photographer captures the scene, forcing him to flee. Thornhill (Grant) is on the run, traveling incognito.

From Kaplan's itinerary, Thornhill knows he has a reservation at a Chicago hotel the next day. Thornhill goes to Grand Central Terminal and sneaks onto the 20th Century Limited train. On board, he meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who helps Thornhill evade policemen searching the train for him by hiding him twice: once in the overhead, fold-up bunk in her compartment. She asks about his personalized matchbooks with the initials "ROT". He says the O stands for nothing. Unbeknownst to Thornhill, Eve notifies Vandamm and Leonard, who are in another compartment.

Eve Kendall: What happened with your first two marriages?
Roger Thornhill: My wives divorced me.
Eve Kendall: Why?
Roger Thornhill: They said I led a dull life.
Eve Kendall: I tipped the steward five dollars to seat you here if you should come in.
Roger Thornhill: Is that a proposition?
Eve Kendall: I never discuss love on an empty stomach.
Roger Thornhill: You've already eaten!
Eve Kendall: But you haven't.

Arriving at Chicago's LaSalle Street Station, Thornhill borrows the uniform of one of the porters and carries Eve's luggage through the crowd. Although the police are alerted to his disguise, the sheer number of porters saves Thornhill. Meanwhile, Eve (who is Vandamm's lover) lies to Thornhill, telling him she has arranged a meeting with Kaplan. In an iconic sequence, Thornhill travels by bus to meet Kaplan at an isolated crossroads in the middle of a perfectly flat, open Indiana countryside. The only other person in sight is a man who is dropped off and waits at the opposite bus stop. Before boarding the next bus, he notes that a plane is "dusting crops where there ain't no crops." Without warning, the plane flies towards Thornhill and starts shooting at him. He is chased through a cornfield and dusted with pesticide. Finally, Thornhill steps in front of an oncoming gasoline tank truck, which stops barely in time. The plane crashes into it and explodes. When passing drivers stop to see what is going on, Thornhill steals a pickup truck.

Thornhill goes to Kaplan's hotel, but is surprised to learn that Kaplan had already checked out when Eve claimed to have spoken to him. Thornhill spots Eve in the lobby. He goes to her room, but she tells him to stay away from her. She allows him to stay and use the shower as she leaves. Using a pencil to reveal the indentations of a message on a notepad, Thornhill learns her destination: an art auction. There, he comes face to face once more with Vandamm, who purchases a pre-Columbian Tarascan statue. Thornhill tries to leave, only to find all exits covered by Vandamm's men. Thinking quickly, he starts placing nonsensical bids, so the police have to be called to remove him. Thornhill identifies himself as a wanted fugitive, but the officers are ordered to take him to Midway Airport where a gate for Northwest Airlines is seen--playing on the film's title.

Thornhill meets the Professor (Leo G. Carroll), a spymaster who is trying to stop Vandamm from smuggling microfilmed secrets out of the country. The Professor reveals that George Kaplan is a fiction created to distract Vandamm from the real government agent--Eve, whose life is now in danger because of Thornhill. In order to protect her, Thornhill agrees to help the Professor and his agency fool Vandamm.

Roger Thornhill: I don't like the games you play, Professor.
The Professor: War is hell, Mr. Thornhill. Even when it's a cold war.
Roger Thornhill: If you fellows can't whip the VanDamm's of this world without asking girls like her to bed down with them and probably never come back, perhaps you should lose a few cold wars.
The Professor: I'm afraid we're already doing that.

At the cafeteria at the base of Mount Rushmore, Thornhill (pretending to be George Kaplan) meets with Eve and Vandamm. He offers to allow Vandamm to leave the country unhindered in exchange for Eve. The deal is refused. In a staged struggle, Eve shoots Thornhill and flees. Vandamm and Leonard hastily depart, as the apparently critically wounded Thornhill is taken away by stretcher in a station wagon, accompanied by the Professor. When the makeshift ambulance reaches a secluded spot, Thornhill emerges unharmed to speak with Eve privately. He becomes highly agitated when he learns that she is using the "shooting" to get Vandamm to take her with him, so that she can gather further intelligence. Thornhill is knocked out. He wakes up in a locked hospital room, but escapes through a window.

Thornhill arrives at Vandamm’s mountainside home, scales the outside of the building, and slips inside undetected. He learns that the microfilm is in the Tarascan statue, then watches as Leonard convinces Vandamm that Eve is a government agent and the shooting was faked by firing the gun Eve used (filled with blanks) at him. Vandamm decides to throw Eve out of the plane once they are airborne. Thornhill manages to warn her by writing a note inside one of his distinctive matchbooks and dropping it where she will see it.

Just before she boards the plane, Eve escapes with the statue and joins Thornhill. Leonard and Valerian chase them across Mount Rushmore. In a struggle, Thornhill throws Valerian off Mount Rushmore to his death. When Eve slips and clings desperately to the mountainside, Thornhill grabs one of her hands, while precariously steadying himself with his other hand. He holds on for dear life to the facial features of the Presidents on Mount Rushmore (backlot sets were used). Leonard arrives and begins grinding his shoe on Thornhill's hand. They are saved by the timely arrival of the Professor and a police marksman, who kills Leonard. Vandamm is taken into custody.

The film cuts smoothly from Thornhill pulling Eve to safety on Mount Rushmore to him pulling her into an overhead train bunk, where they are spending their honeymoon. The final shot shows their train speeding into a tunnel--a famous bit of self-conscious Freudian symbolism reflecting Hitchcock's mischievous sense of humor. Alfred Hitchcock's cameo is a signature occurrence in most of his films. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST he can be seen missing a bus, two minutes into the film.

Cary Grant teams with director Alfred Hitchcock for the 4th and final time in this classic espionage caper. The master of suspense presents a 3000 mile chase across America. A strong candidate for the most entertaining and enjoyable movie ever made by a Hollywood studio, the film is positioned between the much heavier and more disturbing VERTIGO (1958) and the horror of PSYCHO (1960). NORTH BY NORTHWEST is Alfred Hitchcock at his most effervescent in a romantic comedy-thriller that also features one of Cary Grant's best performances. It's a classic Hitchcock "wrong man" scenario: Grant is Roger O. Thornhill (initials ROT), an advertising executive who is mistaken by enemy spies for a U.S. undercover agent named George Kaplan. There are the famous set pieces: the stabbing at the United Nations, the crop-duster plane attack in the cornfield, and the cliffhanger finale atop the stone faces of Mount Rushmore.

The cast also includes: Josephine Hutchinson (Mrs. Townsend), Adam Williams (Valerian), Edward Platt (Victor Larrabee), Robert Ellenstein (Licht), Les Tremayne (Auctioneer), Philip Coolidge (Dr. Cross), Patrick McVey (Sergeant Flamm), Ed Binns (Captain Junket), Ken Lynch (Charley), Stanley Adams (Lieutenant Harding), Paul Genge (Lieutenant), Madge Kennedy (Mrs. Finlay), Maggie (Roger's Secretary), Alexander Lockwood (Judge Anson B. Flynn), Nora Marlowe (Anna), Maudie Prickett (Elsie), Harry Seymour (Victor), Robert Shayne (Larry Wade), Frank Wilcox (Herman Weitner), Robert Williams (Patrolman Waggoner), Carleton Young (Fanning Nelson), and many others. Bernard Herrmann composed the original music. Ernest Lehman wrote the screenplay and Alfred Hitchcock directed.

The DVD extras includes a documentary presented by Eva Marie Saint, an audio commentary by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, two theatrical trailers , a TV Spot, and an isolated music audio track. The film itself is spruced up with a new digital transfer and remastered in Dolby 5.1 Audio and 1.66:1 widescreen anamorphic format. The only problem is it comes in a snap case like all Warners DVDs, not allowing a booklet with production notes. Many customers have complained about their DVD purchase being defective, especially the last half.

Author and journalist Nick Clooney praised Lehman's original story and sophisticated dialogue, calling the film "certainly Alfred Hitchcock's most stylish thriller, if not his best". The film is one of several Hitchcock movies with a film score by Bernard Herrmann and features a memorable opening title sequence by graphic designer Saul Bass. This film is generally cited as the first to feature extended use of kinetic typography in its opening credits. NORTH BY NORTHWEST was nominated for three Oscars and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Blog Archive