North by Northwest (1959): Narrative Structure; Cast; Hitchcock Cameo

Hitchcock directed North by Northwest, a thriller revolving around mistaken identity, starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason.

The screenplay was by Ernest Lehman, who wanted to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.”

North by Northwest centers on an innocent man, superbly played by Grant, pursued across the US by agents of a mysterious organization that is trying to prevent him from blocking their plan to smuggle out microfilm with government secrets.

This is one of several Hitchcock films with music score by Bernard Herrmann and an opening title sequence by graphic designer Saul Bass, and it is generally cited as the first to feature extended use of kinetic typography in its opening credits.

Narrative Structure

In 1958, at a New York City hotel bar (Plaza Hotel), two thugs, looking for someone they refer to as “George Kaplan” see a waiter who is calling his name.

Advertising executive Roger Thornhill summons the same waiter and Thornhill is, apparently for that reason, mistaken for Kaplan, kidnapped, brought to the Long Island estate of Lester Townsend and interrogated by spy Phillip Vandamm.

Despite Thornhill’s denials, Vandamm thinks he is lying and has henchman Leonard arrange Thornhill’s death, in a staged drunken driving accident. Thornhill, surviving, is arrested for driving under the influence and taken to the Glen Cove, New York police station.

Thornhill fails to convince his mother and the police of what happened. Journeying to the scene of the crime with police, a woman at Townsend’s home says he showed up drunk at her dinner party. She also claims that Townsend is a United Nations diplomat. While searching a hotel room with his mother that appears to belong to Kaplan, Thornhill answers a phone call from thugs who are in the lobby. He escapes and visits the U.N. General Assembly building to meet Townsend but realizes this person is not the man he met on Long Island. As he questions Townsend, one of the thugs throws a knife, killing Townsend. Thornhill catches Townsend as he falls and grabs the knife, which gives the appearance that he was the murderer. A nearby photographer captures this apparent crime; Thornhill flees and attempts to find the real Kaplan.

A government intelligence agency realizes that Thornhill has been mistaken for Kaplan, an imagined persona created by the agency to thwart Vandamm; they decide against rescuing him for fear of compromising their operation.

Thornhill sneaks onto a train, the 20th Century Limited; there he meets Eve Kendall, who hides him from the police; the two establish a relationship—on her part because she is secretly working with Vandamm. In Chicago, she tells Thornhill she arranged a meeting with Kaplan at an isolated bus stop in a rural area. Thornhill waits there; rather than Kaplan arriving, Thornhill is attacked by a crop duster plane.

After trying to hide in the fields, he steps in front of a speeding tank truck. It brakes for him and the airplane crashes into the truck, allowing him to escape.

Thornhill reaches Kaplan’s hotel in Chicago to discover that Kaplan had already checked out and left before the time when Kendall claimed she talked to him on the phone. When Thornhill goes to her room and confronts her, she leaves; he tracks her to an art auction where he finds Vandamm. Vandamm, who is purchasing a Mexican Purépecha statue, leaves his thugs to deal with Thornhill. Thornhill, in order to escape, disrupts the auction and police are summoned, who take him away.

He explains that he is the fugitive murderer and they release him to the government agency’s chief, “The Professor,” who reveals that Kaplan was invented to distract Vandamm from the real government agent—who is Eve Kendall. Thornhill then agrees to help maintain her cover.

At the Mount Rushmore visitor center Thornhill, now willingly playing the role of Kaplan, negotiates Vandamm’s turnover of Kendall for her prosecution as a spy. When Thornhill appears to confront Kendall, she shoots him, seemingly fatally, with a handgun that is actually loaded with blanks and flees.

The Professor arranges for Thornhill and Kendall to meet. Thornhill discovers Kendall must depart with Vandamm and Leonard on a plane. When Thornhill tries to dissuade her from going, he is knocked unconscious and locked in a hospital room. Thornhill escapes the Professor’s custody and goes to Vandamm’s house to rescue Kendall.

At the house, Thornhill overhears that the sculpture holds microfilm and that Leonard discovered that the gun used by Kendall to kill Thornhill was filled with blanks. Vandamm indicates that he will kill Kendall during the flight. Thornhill warns her with a surreptitious note.

Vandamm, Leonard and Kendall depart the house to board the plane. As Vandamm boards the plane, Kendall takes the sculpture and runs to the pursuing Thornhill.

They flee to the top of Mount Rushmore. As they climb down the mountain they are pursued by Vandamm’s thugs, including Leonard, who is fatally shot by a park ranger. Vandamm is taken into custody by the Professor.

Later, Thornhill invites Kendall—now the new Mrs. Thornhill—into the upper berth of a train.

In the last, phallic image, the train enters forcefully into the tunnel.

Critical Status

North by Northwest is among the canonical Hitchcock films of the 1950s and is often listed among the greatest films of all time.

It was selected in 1995 for preservation in the National Film Registry by the US Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Hitchcock’s Cameo

In North by Northwest, he is seen getting a bus door slammed in his face, just as his credit is appearing on the screen.

MGM wanted Cyd Charisse for the role of Eve Kendall, but Hitchcock stood by his choice of Eva Marie Saint.

This was the only Hitchcock film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Since 1986 it has been owned by Turner Entertainment, as part of the pre-1986 MGM film library that it acquired through ownership of MGM. Production costs on North by Northwest were seriously escalated when a delay in filming put Cary Grant into the penalty phase of his contract, resulting in an additional $5,000 per day in fees for him before shooting even began.

Cast

Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill
Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall
James Mason as Phillip Vandamm
Jessie Royce Landis as Clara Thornhill
Leo G. Carroll as The Professor
Josephine Hutchinson as “Mrs. Townsend”
Philip Ober as Lester Townsend
Martin Landau as Leonard
Adam Williams as Valerian
Edward Platt as Victor Larrabee
Robert Ellenstein as Licht
Les Tremayne as Auctioneer
Philip Coolidge as Dr. Cross
Patrick McVey as Sergeant Flamm
Edward Binns as Captain Junket
Ken Lynch as Charlie

Uncredited Cast
Maudie Prickett as Elsie the Maid
Malcolm Atterbury as Man at the crossroads
Tol Avery as State Police Detective
John Beradino as Sergeant Emile Klinger
Ned Glass as Ticket Seller
Doreen Lang as Maggie, Roger’s Secretary
Nora Marlowe as Anna, the housekeeper
Ralph Reed as Bellboy
Olan Soule as Assistant Auctioneer
Frank Wilcox as Herman Weitner
Robert Shayne as Larry Wade
Sara Berner as Telephone Operator (voice)

 

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