Second thoughts on the film will produce the feeling that there are loose ends and stray threads that are never quite bound up or followed through. But the form of the spy melodrama, especially when it is being none too gently spoofed, with counter-espionage and double-agenting rampant, is a loose one and license is permissible. Ernest Lehman has contributed a blithe and funny script.
“North By Northwest” creates for this country the glamorous background achieved so often and so well in Europe. Hitchcock uses actual locations, the Plaza in New York, the Ambassador East in Chicago, Grand Central Station, the 20th Century, Limited, United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, Mount Rushmore (S.D.) National Monument, the plains of Indiana. One scene, where the hero is ambushed by an airplane on the flat, sun-baked prairie, is a brilliant use of location. The scene would not have one-tenth its effect if done in a studio, no matter how skillfully contrived.
Cary Grant brings technique and charm to the central character. He is a Madison Avenue man-about-Manhattan, sleekly handsome, carelessly twice-divorced, debonair as a cigaret ad. The story gets underway when he’s mistaken for a US intelligence agent by a pack of foreign agents headed by James Mason. Actually the man he is mistaken for does not exist. The character has been created by U.S. Central Intelligence as a diversion so the foreign spies (never identified as to origin, but presumably Communist) will not spot the true U.S. agent in their midst. The complications are staggering but they play like an Olympic version of a three-legged race.
Grant’s problem is to avoid getting knocked off by Mason’s gang without tipping them that he is a classic case of the innocent bystander. The case is serious, but Hitchcock’s macabre sense of humor and instinct for romantic byplay, for which Lehman’s screenplay gives plenty of opportunity, never allows it to stay grim for too long. Suspense is deliberately broken for relief and then skillfully re-established. At times it seems Hitchcock is kidding his own penchant for the bizarre, but this sardonic attitude is so deftly handled it only enhances the thrills.
Hitchcock also displays again his ability to see qualities in an actress not hitherto shown. Eva Marie Saint has been effectively drab and convincingly sweet in previous roles, but she dives headfirst into Mata Hari in “North By Northwest” and shows she can be unexpectedly and thoroughly glamorous. She also manages the difficult impression of seeming basically innocent while explaining how she becomes Mason’s mistress. Mason, in a rather stock role, is properly forbidding.
Jessie Royce Landis has a fluttery comedy role from which she extracts all possible laughter, and Leo C. Carroll is delightful as the head of a U.S. Intelligence unit. Others in key roles are Philip Ober, Josephine Hutchinson, Martin Landau, Adam Williams and Edward Platt. Each creates individuality and excitement.
Sure to be widely-commented upon among other scenes and lines in “North By Northwest” is a love scene between Miss Saint and Grant, as memorable as Hitchcock’s famous scene between Grant and Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious.” The current scene takes place in a train compartment, as the pair are en route to Chicago, and Grant’s comment as he comes up for air–“beats flying”–may well enter the language.
Robert Burks’ VistaVision-Technicolor photography, whether in the hot yellows of the prairie plain, or the soft green of South Dakota forests, is lucid and imaginatively composed. It is the first Metro release in VistaVision, a process Hitchcock prefers. Robert Boyle’s production design, abetted by art direction by William A. Horning and Merrill Pye, is fine in every detail. Set decoration by Henry Grace and Frank McKelvey is equally an asset.
Bernard Herrmann’s score is a tingling one, particularly in the Mount Rushmore sequences, but light where mood requires. Editing by George Tomasini is slick and enhances the process work. Sound by Franklin Milton, who is especially adept at exterior realism, is first-rate. Herbert Coleman was associate producer.
1959: Nominations: Best Original Story & Screenplay, Color Art Direction, Editing