By Olivia Popp
This week’s Throwback Thursday review is on the 1959 Hitchcock classic “North by Northwest” — written by Ernest Lehman, this film was his attempt to make the ultimate Hitchcock thriller film that consisted of a white collar action hero traveling around America. Plenty of present-day media pay tribute to this film — think James Bond meets “Mad Men” (the film’s protagonist is in fact an ad executive, or “mad man”). In “Northwest,” Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is a cunning, attractive and witty marketing executive (both adjectives play quite directly into his overall characterization in the film) who gets mistaken as a certain “George Kaplan” and goes on a nationwide chase to clear his name. Along the way, he meets and gets romantically involved with the mysterious Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who assists him in his journey. “North by Northwest” feels like a mini trip around late 1950s America — it’s a UN General Assembly building, crop fields in Indiana, Mount Rushmore and the 20th Century Limited train, all highly recognizable amongst film audiences of the time. (Hitchcock wanted to involve more action that takes place on Mount Rushmore but was informed that he couldn’t out of respect for the monument.)
At this point, this is all I’m going to provide as context. I’ll disregard a certain statute of limitations in terms of spoilers, as all film enthusiasts should invest a couple hours into watching this movie in a dark, comfortable environment. With present-day attention spans, it’s tough to watch a movie this old on simply a laptop screen — you’re never going to get the same enjoyment and appreciation for how advanced and ambitious this film was at the time. If you do this and watch with other people, you’ll probably also laugh quite a bit at some of the in-camera visual effects, which were considered extremely well done at the time, but we now find very cheesy and rather fake. Scenes including Thornhill’s escape drive while drunk and his attempt to evade a crop duster plane feel very unnatural to current viewers. Nevertheless, it’s clearly important to recognize the cinematic and historical significance of such a film.
At the same time, “North by Northwest” is still an exciting film. This sense of adventure comes a lot from the fact that viewers receive knowledge of the situation at the same time that Thornhill does, leading to an air of mystery. Bits of action are fueled mostly by smaller-scale chases in cars, on trains and on foot, which are still sufficient for all intents and purposes of the film. The film may feel slow at parts, but the pacing is strong enough for it to stay interesting for the majority of the narrative. “Northwest” is a simple testament to the fact that big-budget special effects, even today, are not truly necessary to create a visually attractive, engaging film — all you need is a unique premise and enough basic action for it to be “realistic” and intriguing.
Thornhill’s love interest, Eve Kendall, is a fascinating character in and of herself. As an aside, she’s much more fascinating and multi-faceted of a character than initially expected — but that’s somehow even better. She’s not initially portrayed as any more than some woman on a train, interested in a sexual encounter, but she ends up being incredibly complex in both her romantic, social and personal entanglements. This unfolding of Eve’s character becomes increasingly important as the film goes on, even if she is often overshadowed by other less important male characters. At the same time, it’s interesting to see how Grant, a comedic actor, approaches his own role — even some of the action scenes cater to his ability to exaggerate the extremity of situations. Lehman also provides plenty of opportunities for Grant to pull out his comedic delivery on sarcastic one-liners. Still, it’s sometimes hard to find the line between purposeful comedic intention and what we now see as amusing simply because of the circumstances under which Thornhill is working.
One of the peak culminating interactions between these two characters is in the cafeteria at Mount Rushmore, which is notable for a number of reasons. This scene both provides some fresh excitement that doesn’t actually require any special effects and — for dedicated readers, an easter egg! — contains a classic film “mistake.” You might not spot it in the movie if you watch, but if you find this scene on YouTube, pay attention to the little kid in the background. Again, even if you don’t watch the film in its entirety, it’s an amusing look at the fact that many, many takes of a scene are done, resulting in some unsurprising reactions from extras.
Even if you’re not typically a fan of older films, “North by Northwest” will still satisfy today’s audiences if in the correct setting. The Hitchcock classic provides plenty of action, gun-wielding thugs and romantic awkwardness for this film to be enjoyable for viewers from a multitude of genres — check it out when you get a chance.
Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.