Sunday, 16 January 2011

CMBA Hitchcock Blogathon: North By Northwest (1959)

I have recently been accepted by the Classic Movie Blog Association, and this will be the first event I have taken part in! Here it is, an in depth post dedicated to the legendary Hitchcock classic, North By Northwest. This is a serious review, you may be glad to hear - not as much rambling. Hopefully more thought (?!?!)...
North By Northwest

Lots of people remember Alfred Hitchcock for the classic scene in North By Northwest where Cary Grant's character is being chased by a crop duster sent to kill him, in the middle of a desolate field.
Hitchcock made many classics in his time, and is generally known as the man who captured and mastered the thriller. He thrilled us all with his earlier films such as Rebecca (1940) and Notorious (1946), and scared the daylights out of us with his gruesome later films like The Birds (1963), Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954). And Psycho (1960) - so I am told. Because of the film's age limit and my fear of gruesome horror films, I will be avoiding this film for as long as possible. These films were all made at similar times and seem to be part of the same genre. North By Northwest seems to have gotten accidentally caught up in this period with a load of films that seem to be of a different theme. Is this why this films sticks in our mind when thinking of Hitchcock?

North By Northwest is about an advertising man named Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) who is mistakenly identified as George Kaplan when a coincidence in a hotel luncheon room leads Kaplan's kidnappers to believe that he is Kaplan. They take him back to a Mr. Townsend's house and forcibly make him drink a large bottle of Bourbon. This "Mr. Townsend" is actually Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Drunk and confused Thornhill (Cary Grant) is put in a car to drive home on a rocky cliff road. He manages to control the car and survive far enough to be seen by a police car. After he is bailed out of jail by his mother, a group of detectives take a look at the house and into the men who supposedly kidnapped him. They find nothing. When Roger stupidly takes a look in Kaplan's hotel room he is mistaken for him again, and he finds out that no one ever seems to have seen this man. We see the CIA talking about the situation after the murder of the real Mr. Townsend is framed on Roger Thornhill, who they know is now known as George Kaplan. They discuss how George Kaplan is a fictional character created to trap criminal, Phillip Vandamm - the now exhausted audience finally finding out who Kaplan is. Thornhill sneaks onto a train to Chicago and meets beautiful lady, Eve Kendall (Eve Marie Saint). 
They fall in love and she agrees to hide him in her compartment on the train as he hasn't got a ticket. When they get to Chicago, she dresses him as a bellboy and tells him where to go. Subsequently he arrives at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere and is pursued by a crop duster (hence the legendary scene). He finds out that Eve is a spy for Vandamm who has been lying to him and reporting back to Phillip. When a CIA agent tells him the truth, that she is a double agent working for them, he realises that he has to go and save her from a fate worse that death. Said saving includes climbing down Mount Rushmore in an attempt to escape from Vandamm and his henchmen. 
The final scene shows Roger pulling her up onto a bunk on a train, and the final shot is the view of the tunnel the train goes into.

One of the first things that strikes you when you watch this film (other than the genius directing, which I am saving till last), is the exquisite way that the colours have been coordinated. The main five colours in the film are red, grey, dark green, yellow and navy blue. All colours that are not part of this scheme are either shown discretely, or worn or used in a way so that it bonds with the main five colours. I have had the amazing experience to see North By Northwest on a large projector screen, making me appreciate the effort that evidently went into the art direction of this picture even more.

You can't review North By Northwest without a mention of Bernard Herman who composed the amazing score with the legendary theme making it's debut in the opening credits - which is said to be the first opening credits to use kinetic typography - and is used throughout the film as the main piece of music. When Eve and Roger are on the train Herman uses echos of music more from the romantic period (so my Dad tells me) to convey the mood.
I also really love the shot that looks like a painting, used for the scene outside The United Nations. It is so lovely, another great touch to the look of the picture.

Eve Marie Saint is really lovely as Eve Kendall. I have only seen her in one other film, The Sandpiper which I thought she was also lovely in. Her clothes! I need them. The beautiful dark blue suit she wears on the train and then later (not pictured) the stunning red dress! First I would also need her hair, but that can be arranged... My darling Cary Grant is gorgeous as always (how could one expect anything else?) and he is playing his forte, the mistaken guy who always gets blamed for things he didn't do. He apparently quarreled with Hitchcock about the wandering plot of the script, but was convinced by Hitchcock's air of wisdom.

What can I say about Hitchcock?! He is just amazing. Every tiny thing has been covered with him. The way he shoots the films is so unique to him, that my family have ended up playing a "Spot the Hitch shot" game whenever we watch one of his films. He even thought to make the house at the end look like a Frank Lloyd Wright house, as he was the most popular architect in America at the time. Without a doubt one of the best directors who ever lived. That is after all, the reason for this blogathon!
Read the 17 other great Hitchcock posts at

I leave you with one of my favourite moments in the movie.
If you can't read the subtitles that small, it says:
Ticket Guy: "Something wrong with your eyes?"
Roger Thornhill: "Yes, they're sensitive to questions."


Anonymous said...

Great review, Bette! I liked when you talked about the art direction and use of color in the film, that was an interesting point and not something everybody would notice, so thank you for pointing it out. I will be sure to pay attention to it the next time I watch this movie. Your blog is really fantastic!


Page said...

I love that your review reflects your personal experience and what stood out to you whether an image or a sound. A very nice review.

VP81955 said...

Nice job, and I see you're apparently the first in with a review. Hope you check out my review of "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," Hitchcock's lone foray into romantic comedy, at "Carole & Co." (P.S. Welcome to CMBA!)

Allen Hefner said...

Thanks for a great review. You have a good insight on things I never looked for in this movie. I saw it first on the greatest of big screens, at Radio City Music Hall in New York. THAT was an experience.

On a lighter note, please read my review of The Trouble with Harry on CMBA. A Hitchcock comedy that you will enjoy, because of Hitch's British background.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Bette, the last bit in your review ("Yes, they're sensitive to questions") is also one of my favorite lines in the film...but to approach it from a big picture angle, North by Northwest is my favorite Hitchcock film hands down so I enjoy all of the material (and have seen the movie so many times I can pretty much quote it by heart). I enjoyed reading your exuberant take on this film favorite.

Kevin Deany said...

Bette: Very nice review of my all time favorite Hitchcock movie (if I had to choose one). Very interesting observation of the use of color, which never occurred to me.

Classicfilmboy said...

Nice job, Bette. A favorite film of mine, with that wonderful blend of excitement and humor -- and Cary Grant. Kevin -- here's James Mason, nearly a decade after he should have been in "Rope"!

Anonymous said...

Love, love, love this film. No one could have played Roger Thornhill like Cary Grant (I adore him, too!). I enjoyed reading your take on the movie!

True Classics

Josie said...

Great review! I've seen this movie many, many times, and I never get tired of it. Who could get tired of the fabulous Cary Grant?

John said...

One of my highest ranking Hitchcock films. Visually stunning, a verbal gem and a masterpiece.

Rick29 said...

Bette, your review has inspired me to pop in my DVD of NORTH BY NORTHWEST and watch it again, especially in regard to the color scheme (Hitch used a lot of red and yellow in MARNIE). N by NW shares a lot of thematic similarities with NOTORIOUS, so those two films would make a fabulous double-feature. I'm jealous that you got to see it on a big screen! Lastly, thanks for including a graphic from the awesome title sequence designed by Saul one did more memorables title designs for movies.

The Lady Eve said...

Bette - this is a delightful review filled with interesting insights. I recently had the chance to see "North by Northwest" in a theater - what a visual experience! Really incredible. I wanted to mention that I've read Hitchcock selected that red dress of Eva Marie's off the rack - possibly at Bergdorf Goodman in NY. In any case, what an eye he had (on so many levels)...

Clara said...

Obviously, I LOVE this film. I mean, it has Cary Grant, a plane, humor, SUSPENSE, love, Eva Marie Saint being cool, Mount Rushmore, great ending, etc. I hadn't noticed that fact about the colors, you're right, great review, Bette. Oh, and thanks for your kind comment over my blog :)

ClassicBecky said...

Bette, are you SURE you are 12 years old?! You have a command of the language and an insight into the movie and its making that many older adults don't have! I love North by Northwest. If you like Eva Marie Saint, you just must see her in On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando. She is marvelous.

I adore Hitchcock, and I picked Rebecca because it is a favorite, and because I was named after the book.

P.S. I love the picture from The Letter that you have at the top. It's hard to pick, but I think that is my favorite Bette Davis.

Great article, Bette! Can't wait to continue keeping up with your blog.

R. D. Finch said...

Bette, a lovely review. This was the first Hitchcock film I ever saw during a re-release over the Christmas holiday when I was in junior high, and it is still not only my favorite Hitchcock film, but my favorite movie of all time. I have seen it twice on the big screen, and to see it that way is unlike seeing it at home. Having said that, I was disappointed in the colors of the recent remastering. When I saw it in theaters, the colors were admittedly of artificial intensity but also incredibly vivid. I lament the trend in remastering Technicolor movies so that the colors look more natural--they're supposed to look more intense than in real life!

Have you ever seen the documentary "Dial H for Hitchcock" narrated by Eva Marie Saint? She has lots of anecdotes about the movie, including the fact that Hitchcock didn't like the costumes that had been designed for her, so he took her on a shopping spree to Bergdorf Goodman in New York, where they bought her costumes together, including that red dress that made such an impression on you.

I have my own anecdote about the movie. My father worked in construction in California, and his company was the contractor for the Naval Air Station at Lemoore in Central California, where he would drive regularly. One day in the late 1950s when he got home, he told us how he had stopped to watch a movie company filming a crop duster crash near Lost Hills. I'm convinced it was the location work for "North by Northwest." Anyway, a great post that brought back memories of a movie I practically know by heart.

Anonymous said...

What a great review. The opening credits of the film were designed by Saul Bass, a noted designer who was a friend of Hitchcock. The opening sequence quite literally sets the tone for the entire movie. Bass had done several films for Hitchcock as well as some direction. He directed the memorable scene in which actor Martin Balsam is pushed down the stairs in "Pscho"

Java Bean Rush said...

Welcome to CMBA and what a wonderfully detailed review.

I'm with you- I prefer watching Hitchcock's non-horror films. What happens in North By Northwest, for instance, is horrifying enough without, say, birds pecking at people.

I love the colors in this film too. Her red dress is my favorite.

- Java

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