From the brisk strains of Bernard Herrmann’s opening-title fandango to its concluding gag of a honeymoon train speeding into a tunnel, North by Northwest is the apotheosis of Alfred Hitchcock’s exploration of the wrong-man-pursued comic thriller and functioned in 1959 as a summary of the Master’s career to date. Cary Grant, wearing his gray suit like natural skin, embodies smug New York ad executive Roger O. Thornhill, an aging, gin-swilling playboy whose swiftly established m.o. in romance and work is “expedient exaggeration.” Poetic justice strikes as he’s incredibly abducted from the Plaza Hotel bar by the henchmen of an urbane master spy (James Mason, looking at Grant as if he’s a particularly bothersome housefly) who’ve mistaken him for an undercover agent. Framed for a killing at the United Nations, Thornhill runs a cross-country gauntlet of lawmen and baddies, with time for a sleeping-car tryst with an ambiguously remote blonde (Eva Marie Saint, lacking the mystery-woman aura of Grace Kelly but trumping her in vulnerability) who may doom or save him.
Ending the great director’s most fertile decade with juicy pop entertainment after the semi-realist grimness of The Wrong Man and the dreamlike romantic tragedy of Vertigo, the breezy, “light” North by Northwest is in danger of being pigeonholed as trivial Hitchcock because of screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s double-entendre-laden badinage, Grant’s cool star turn, and the popcorn-friendliness of its celebrated action highlights: Grant’s scramble over a desolate prairie landscape to avoid the murderous attacks of a crop-dusting plane and his climactic flight from the villains with Saint across the presidential faces of the Mount Rushmore monument. Yet along with the screwball staging of a corpse falling into Grant’s arms at the UN and his escape from an auction-room trap through prank bidding, many themes and motifs of Serious Hitch can be found: the fluidity of identity (Thornhill’s embrace of play-acting the role of phantom agent “George Kaplan”), the burden of mother love (in the hilarious poise of Jessie Royce Landis as Grant’s mocking mom), and even coded-as-queer sadism (Martin Landau as Mason’s enforcer, equipped with “woman’s intuition”). Grant’s bitter revulsion at discovering Saint to be Mason’s mistress recalls the darker variation of the spy-who-screwed-me scenario he played with Ingrid Bergman in Notorious. And Leo G. Carroll’s dry head spook reads as an unusually bloodless American puppetmaster for Eisenhower-era Hollywood, one who defends the human sacrifice of his people or innocent Thornhills as the cost of winning wars, “even Cold ones.” In spite of Kaplan’s nonexistence, the intel chief is the story’s true empty suit.
Still, it’s the sleek and triumphantly assured surface of North by Northwest that’s kept it perennial after half a century, despite the passing of its polished élan and semi-sophisticated banter from suspense-thriller style. (Saint, and Lehman, do much better with “I never discuss love on an empty stomach” than her post-clinch complaint to Grant that “You’re undermining my resolve when I need it most.”) Hitchcock sets his playful fantasy of spy chasing—with his most perfunctory MacGuffin gimmick ever (“Government secrets, perhaps”)—at landmarks like the UN, Grand Central Terminal, and Mount Rushmore without pushing the subtext of chaos in the midst of placid national icons or the routine humming of transportation hubs and tourist meccas.
The picture is hugely pleased with itself, but it’s too funny and expertly calibrated to mind in the least. Both Hitchcock and Grant raise relaxed confidence to masterpiece level here, kidding the star’s persona when Thornhill is discovered creeping through a hospital room near the climax. “Stop!” blurts a nearsighted woman from her bed, before adjusting her glasses and sighing, “Stop.”