Alfred Hitchcock’s quintessential suspense thriller North by Northwest is regularly cited by fans and scholars as one of the best examples of the genre. On the other hand, there are some who feel that Hitchcock’s 1959 film is nothing special at all. American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is a vocal member of that minority, having famously said: “People discover North by Northwest at 22 and think it’s wonderful when actually it’s a very mediocre movie.” 62 years since its initial release, has Tarantino been proven right or does North by Northwest still retain its status as one of Hitchcock’s finest?
The making of North by Northwest is just as fascinating as the film itself, featuring the trials and tribulations of screenwriter Ernest Lehman who had to find a compromise between Hitchcock’s ambitious visions and the structural integrity of the plot. Initially intended as a film adaptation of Hammond Innes’ The Wreck of the Mary Deare, the North by Northwest project grew out of images that were too irresistible in Hitchcock’s mind like that of a chase sequence across Mount Rushmore or the seminal crop duster sequence which was supposed to be a tornado instead!
While discussing the scope of Hitchcock’s plans, Lehman revealed how he quietly noted the revered filmmaker’s ideas even though they had no connection to the film: “For some reason, Hitch wanted to do the longest dolly shot in cinema history. The idea was that the shot would begin with an assembly line, and then you’d gradually see the parts of the car added and assembled, and, all the while, the camera’s dollying for miles along with the assembly line, and then eventually there’s a completed car, all built, and it’s driven off the assembly line, and there’s a dead body in the backseat.”
As a result, North by Northwest originated from a liminal space that existed somewhere between Hitchcock’s grandiose intentions and Lehman’s undeterred resolve to make “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” Inspired by the real story of a World War II incident where British forces invented the identity of a fictitious officer, North by Northwest is a compelling story that features and elevates the essentials of a great spy thriller: mistaken identities, a charming femme fatale (Eva Marie Saint), vicious criminals and international conspiracies.
Starring Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill – an ad executive in New York City who gets caught up in a Kafkaesque nightmare – North by Northwest takes us on a remarkable trajectory which makes us question every single thing that is framed as a narrative revelation. When Thornhill is mistaken for a spy who never existed, he enters a world that is absolutely foreign to him and to us as well. Hitchcock gained a reputation for his ability to play the audiences like a damn fiddle and North by Northwest is undoubtedly the best example of this phenomenon.
Contextualised within the framework of Cold War paranoia, we question our own sanity as we discover that nobody is who they seem to be and the world that existed yesterday is totally unrecognisable today – a narrative device that not only intensifies the suspense but also serves as an insightful commentary on the effects of modernity. The intense examinations of individual identity can be observed in Hitchcock’s other works like Psycho and Vertigo but they acquire a playful, almost metafictional quality in North by Northwest.
The seriousness of the atmospheric tension is expertly perforated by Hitchcock in some of the most celebrated scenes in cinematic history, including the one where Thornhill’s mother asks the gangsters who are attempting to eliminate her son: “You gentlemen aren’t really trying to kill my son. are you?”. The most iconic demonstration of this comedic chaos is the auction sequence where Thornhill blatantly rejects social conventions in an attempt to escape the criminals who are after his life. The result is virtually unforgettable, crystallising the image of Cary Grant bidding $13 for a priceless antiquity in our minds forever.
Robert Burks’ masterful cinematography follows the visual language of Hitchcock’s characteristic techniques, featuring self-conscious camera angles, kinetic camera movement and the employment of chiaroscuros to act as a subtextual supplement to the film’s dialectics. At times, North by Northwest’s visual narrative reaches the artistic heights of accomplished paintings that remain firmly embedded in our memories. The finest instance of this is Frame 328 – the overhead shot (matte paintings were used for this) of Thornhill leaving the UN building which evokes the loneliness of an Edward Hopper work.
By the end, we no longer care why the characters are continuing to engage in this Cold War of their own. We are told that it’s to prevent a crime lord from fleeing the country with microfilm but that means absolutely nothing. Hitchcock considered it to be his greatest MacGuffin because it signified nothing: “The emptiest, most non-existent… the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all.”
North by Northwest is definitely not a remarkable cinematic achievement because of where it takes us. Instead, it continues to be an indispensable part of Hitchcock’s legacy because of the fantastic journey it takes us on.