Friday, January 14, 2011

NORTH BY NORTHWEST: Mad Men and Englishmen

It all began when composer Bernard Herrmann introduced his friend, screenwriter Ernest Lehman, to director Alfred Hitchcock. “I sat in my office,” Lehman explained in Destination: Hitchcock, one of the special features in the North By Northwest 2-disc DVD set, “trying to construct a story which began at
the United Nations…I said, ‘I want to make the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures. Something that has wit, sophistication, glamour, action, and lots of changes in locale.’ And that’s when I started writing….” Well, Lehman did all that and then some! In the 1950s, Hitchcock was at the peak of his powers with Strangers on a Train; Dial M for Murder; Rear Window; The Trouble with Harry; the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much; To Catch a Thief;  and Vertigo (even if the latter wasn’t fully appreciated until years later). But North By Northwest (NxNW) was truly the jewel in Hitchcock’s crown at that time. Originally, MGM wanted Hitchcock to film Hammond Innes’s The Wreck of the Mary Deare from a Lehman script, but both men soon realized they were way more interested in making NxNW. Slyboots that he was, Hitchcock devised a way to slip out of  …Mary Deare by colorfully describing the high points of NxNW to the MGM brass, leaving them thinking they’d get two Hitchcock pictures! ….Mary Deare was eventually filmed by Michael Anderson, and everyone got what they wanted—except James Stewart. According to the IMDb, while Stewart and Hitchcock filmed Vertigo, Hitch gave Stewart a taste of what he had in mind for NxNW. Stewart was hooked—but much as Hitchcock liked Stewart, he felt (rightly) that Cary Grant was the ideal choice for the lead. Rather than outright turn down his friend and frequent leading man, Hitchcock delayed production on NxNW until Stewart was committed to shooting Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder—and then he offered the role to Stewart, who of course had to turn down the offer. Oh, that Hitchcock—such a finagler, bless him!

Poor Hitchcock, a victim of NYC rush hour traffic!
The opening credits alone sweep us viewers into the action before the bad guys even show up. Saul Bass’s sleek opening credit sequence works beautifully with Bernard Herrmann’s fandango-like opening theme music swirling tempestuously as Manhattan’s bustling citizens rush into subways and taxis—except for that distinguished, imposing gent who just missed the Fifth Avenue bus. Yep, it’s Hitchcock himself, literally trying to catch up with the credits. Just as well his cameo came early, because our hero gets few opportunities to relax and enjoy the scenery with the wringer he’ll be put through! Talk about Mad Men—as Madison Avenue ad man turned-red-herring Roger O. Thornhill, Cary Grant’s romantic panache and flair for comedy perfectly suit our literally dashing hero. The “O” stands for nothing, much like Roger himself at first. He’s a charming, slick executive used to having his own way in business and the boudoir, judging from the fact that he’s been married twice and is currently wooing a new gal with “candy from Blum’s, each piece wrapped in gold paper. She’ll like that; she’ll think she’s eating money.” Indeed, those aforementioned opening credits move at a rapid-fire pace, almost like one of the screwball comedies Grant made with Howard Hawks in the 1930s and ‘40s. We see that Roger is a man of smooth confidence, always in charge—until that fateful day at The Plaza Hotel’s Oak Bar when the name “George Kaplan” is called out at the wrong time, turning our hero’s life upside down! Roger has barely had time to knock back his cocktail before he’s kidnapped by the coolly sinister henchmen of a suave gent calling himself Townsend (Suave Hall of Famer James Mason). Seems these jaspers are convinced that Roger is really Kaplan, a government agent, and they’re not playing on Kaplan’s team. The outraged, bewildered Roger’s insistence that “I’m not Kaplan!” falls on deaf ears. He gets bourbon forced down his throat in Townsend’s gorgeous Glen Cove home, thanks to reptilian henchman Leonard (Martin Landau before TV’s Mission: Impossible made him a star and his performance as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood made him an Oscar-winner), and is nearly killed in a funny/scary drunk-driving frame-up.

Roger, didn't Mother tell you
never to pick up strange knives?
From there, things go from bad to worse as Roger’s visit to the U.N. to confront Townsend results in more mistaken identity and our hero being framed for murder. And so the chase begins, monitored by spymaster The Professor (Leo G. Carroll, looking remarkably like one or both of the Dulles brothers)! Considering that NxNW is considered Hitchcock's greatest American film, it's ironic that its director and several of its stars happen to be British. Well, America is a melting pot, after all!

Yikes! Well, at least our heroes can't get sneezed on!
NxNW is truly the Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films, with all his pet themes covered with maximum wit, panache, and suspense: a wrongly-accused hero on the run, mistaken identity, a romance between Roger and soignée spy Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint in a sexy-cool change of pace from her Oscar-winning role in On The Waterfront) that's tender, sensuous, and full of surprises, on a chase that takes our hero from New York to Chicago to Mount Rushmore. But as engaging and dashing as Grant is, the smoothly villainous James Mason nearly out-suaves him. My husband Vinnie and I have joked that if Mason had played Roger, the film would have been over in minutes. With all due respect to Grant, if the imperious, unshakably confident Mason asked the Glen Cove police, "Do you honestly believe that this happened the way you think it did?" they would immediately reply, "Er, no, sir, you must be right, you're free to go, sorry we bothered you." NxNW was nominated for Oscars for George Tomasini’s film editing, the art direction and set decoration of Robert F. Boyle (who you may remember from last year’s sterling documentary Something’s Gonna Live), Merrill Pye, William Horning, Henry Grace, and Frank McKelvy (but not Best Director or Best Score, alas). Best of all, NxNW was nominated for Lehman's screenplay; in fact, he borrowed from it liberally for his suspenseful, rollicking script for the film version of Irving Wallace’s The Prize, starring Paul Newman! 

My copy of Ernest Lehman's great North by Northwest screenplay from the Rutgers collection
Roger wanted to catch a plane, but now the plane's
trying to catch him!

Why, no, porter, I don't have any fugitive-from-justice stowaways
here in my top bunk...not me, nope!

Feel free to share your favorite North by Northwest lore and/or anecdotes! 

"She's the kind of blonde that gets into a man's blood -- even if she has to shoot her way in!"
"Oh, shoot, darling, I can't stay mad at you!"


  1. Please join me in wishing a warm welcome to our newest TotED Follower, Thomas Burchfield! Thom's blog, A CURIOUS MAN, is a great read, and no doubt the same will be true of Thom's upcoming contemporary Dracula novel, DRAGON'S ARK! It's coming out from Ambler House Publishing on March 15, 2011. Congratulations, Thom!

  2. By the way, The Plaza Hotel in NORTH BY NORTHWEST is mentioned in this excellent GLOBE & MAIL article about hotels in movies: via @globeandmail

  3. Along with NOTORIOUS, NORTH BY NORTHWEST illustrates the talent Hitchcock had for economizing his plot. The famed "McGuffin". Other films would've bothered more with the nature of the organization chasing James Mason's gang, or the details of what was being smuggled. But Hitchcock reminds us that the point of the film is not the espionage plot, but the pursuit of Cary Grant across the landscape (as well as his developing relationship with Eva Marie Saint (take THAT, Princess Grace). If the audience was stopping to wonder more about the smuggling operation . . . or who Leo G. Carroll was working for (although everybody should've known it was UNCLE) . . . then they might've wasted time wondering about other things: such as why would anyone go to the trouble to use a crop dusting plane to try and kill someone? One could almost hear Scott Evil going: "I have a gun, in my room, you give me five seconds, I'll get it, I'll come back down here, BOOM, I'll blow his brains out!" Scott Evil would've bored Hitchcock.

    Two final things. First: no matter how many times I've checked via Google Earth or Google Maps, I keep hoping that there really is a cool, futuristic house located somewhere behind Mount Rushmore.

    Second: am I the only person who automatically wants to make a color correction on the screen whenever that opening electric green MGM logo appears?

  4. Michael, thanks for weighing in with your excellent points about Hitchcock's skill at economizing the workings of his plots. Your crack about Scott Evil was spot-on! I too have always wondered why MGM found it necessary to have that electric green logo, other than that it segues smoothly into Saul Bass's animated skyscraper. :-)

    On a related note, I remember when our niece Jennifer watched NxNW with us back when she was a preschooler. On the train, when it became clear to Jen that Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint were going to sleep together, she chirped, "It's OK, they'll both have their pajamas on!" :-)

  5. Dorian, you commented: "On a related note, I remember when our niece Jennifer watched NxNW with us back when she was a preschooler. On the train, when it became clear to Jen that Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint were going to sleep together, she chirped, 'It's OK, they'll both have their pajamas on!'"

    What wouldn't you give to have been able to see Cary Grant or Eva Marie Saint's facial responses to that remark?

  6. Michael, seeing their expressions in that situation would have been priceless! In fact, that scene inspired me to use Jen's line in SUBURBAN OUTLAWS during the dinner scene in Chapter 15! :-)

  7. Today, January 18th, 2011, would have been NORTH BY NORTHWEST star Cary Grant's 107th birthday. This calls for a round of celebratory drinks! Bourbon, anyone? :-)

  8. Hello Dorian!

    My name is Nathanael Hood, member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. I, too, have a passionate love of Hitchcock. I have written about several of his films at my blog "Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear." I would love to know what you think about them. The link to my blog is:

    By the way, you definitely have my vote.

  9. I'm delighted to welcome Nathaniel Hood and Cliff Aliperti to our little TotED cinematic sewing circle! Cliff's Web site, IMMORTAL EPHEMERA, is a must for all who love films and collectibles, and while today is my first time reading Nathaniel's intelligent, entertaining blog site, I'm enjoying it immensely. Glad to have you gents among us!

  10. Nathaniel, you said "By the way, you definitely have my vote." Aren't you nice! Thank you kindly!

  11. Why thank you!

    And me Nate.

    I hope that you leave comments on my articles (especially the Hitchcock ones) so that I can know what you think about them.

  12. Nate it is! :-) I've just posted responses to your delightful reviews of HIGH ANXIETY and THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY on your excellent blog FORGOTTEN CLASSICS OF YESTERYEAR. Keep those smart, thoughtful reviews coming!

  13. Will do! Hope you keep the comments coming, too!