Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and James Mason feature in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 American spy thriller North by Northwest, which was also produced and directed. Ernest Lehman wrote the screenplay with the intention of creating “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.”
In the misidentification story North by Northwest, an innocent man is pursued across the country by agents of an unknown organization in an effort to stop him from stopping their scheme to export microfilm containing government secrets. One of many Hitchcock movies with a score by Bernard Herrmann and an opening title sequence by graphic artist Saul Bass, this one was the first to incorporate extensive kinetic typography in the credits.
A waiter page “George Kaplan” in 1958 in a hotel bar in New York City after probably being asked to do so by two bullies. When advertising executive Roger Thornhill calls for the same waiter, the goons mistake him for Kaplan, abduct him, and transport him to Lester Townsend’s mansion. Spy Phillip Vandamm, an American Cold War foe, questions him while posing as Townsend to Thornhill.
Thornhill is killed by Vandamm in a staged drunk driving accident. Even after returning to Townsend’s estate, Thornhill is unable to persuade his mother and the police of what actually happened.
Thornhill discovers Townsend is a UN official during the visit. To Kaplan’s empty hotel room, Thornhill and his mother go. The men, who had called from the lobby, start pursuing Thornhill when she answers Kaplan’s phone. Townsend, a separate man from Vandamm, is waiting for Thornhill at the United Nations General Assembly Building. Townsend is struck by a knife from the following thug, dying as he lies dying in Thornhill’s arms.
- Roger Thornhill in Cary Grant
- As Eve Kendall, Eva Marie Saint
- As Phillip Vandamm, James Mason
- As Clara Thornhill, Jessie Royce Landis
- As The Professor, Leo G. Carroll
- As “Mrs. Townsend,” Josephine Hutchinson
- Lester Townsend is played by Philip Ober
- Valerian is portrayed by Martin Landau Leonard by Adam Williams.
- As Victor Larrabee, Edward Platt
- As Licht, Robert Ellenstein
- As an auctioneer, Les Tremayne
North by Northwest Review
Alfred Hitchcock was focused on creating amusement while he was getting over the psychological strain of his film Vertigo. He had attempted, unsuccessfully, to acquire the rights to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, but it is clear that he had in mind to make a film about a fictional character who would represent the Macguffin that connects North By Northwest to its neighbors in the Hitchcock canon, Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960).
Though the script was based on an original plot, it’s simple to see how Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond adventure The Final Count (1926) and John Macnab (1925), written by John Buchan, whose The 39 Steps indirectly gave the “pursued innocent” idea, had an impact on it. Although the filmmaker himself referred to it as “A vision of the absurd,” writer Ernest Lehman dubbed it “The Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.”
In any case, it was a project that Hitch was quite comfortable working on; in fact, he took a break from filming to helm two episodes of his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Poison and Banquo’s Ghost).