North by Northwest

North by Northwest - Cary Grant - plane - 1959By Judy Berman

Mistaken identify, darkness, light and double cross play significant roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s (1959) movie, “North by Northwest.”

In diabolical plot twists that even Cary Grant found difficult to follow, he is confused by the rapid-fire events that happen to his character.

He plays advertising executive, Roger O. Thornhill. Yet he winds up in a labyrinth of mystery and murder when an enemy espionage group mistakes him for George Kaplan, an undercover agent who really doesn’t exist. Or, does he?

“Cary Grant came up to me and said, ‘It’s a terrible script. We’ve already done a third of the picture, and I still can’t make head or tail of it,’ ” Hitchcock confides in Francois Truffaut’s book, “Hitchcock.”

Without realizing it, Hitchcock said Grant was using a line of his own dialogue from the movie.

It’s not the only deception going on in the film.

The spies believe that Thornhill is Kaplan. They kidnap him and take him to a Long Island country estate owned by Lester Townsend. He meets who he believes is Townsend, Philip Vandamm (James Mason), and his personal secretary, Leonard (Martin Landau).

His captors keep peppering “Kaplan” with questions. When they fail to get any information from him, Vandamm’s goons force whiskey down Thornhill’s throat.

They put an extremely intoxicated Thornhill in a car. Their scheme is to have the ride and Thornhill’s life end after the car goes over a cliff. But, as drunk as Thornhill is, he manages to escape. A police car pulls up, and the bad guys quickly drive off.

No one, not even his mother, believes his story.

North by Northwest - Eva Marie Saint shooting Cary Grant

Thornhill attempts to unravel the lies. He learns that Townsend is at the United Nations. At the U.N., Thornhill discovers that Townsend is not the man who held him captive. Enemy spies kill Townsend and frame Thornhill for his murder.

On the run again, Thornhill hops aboard the 20th Century Limited bound for Chicago. There, he meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who helps him hide from the authorities.

When they arrive in Chicago, Eve tells Thornhill she’ll call Kaplan for him. Then, she gives Thornhill instructions to meet Kaplan at Prairie Stop, which turns out to be in the middle of nowhere. He waits in the harsh, hot daylight. Another man waiting for a bus at the same stop notes that a crop-duster plane is dusting where there aren’t any crops.

After the man boards his bus, Thornhill realizes that the crop-duster is flying his way and zeroing in on him. Again, the bad guys fail to eliminate him.

Thornhill returns to the hotel. He finds out that Eve works with the spies and is Vandamm’s mistress.  When he discovers later that Eve is an undercover agent, he realizes his actions have put her life in jeopardy.

He warns Eve and helps her escape certain death. The spies are hot on their trail as Thornhill and Eve scale the shadowy heights of the Mount Rushmore monument in an effort to elude them.

As the pair scramble back down the face of the stone carvings, Thornhill tells Eve that if they get out of this alive they should get back on the train together. He’s talking marriage.

North by Northwest - movie trailer screenshot - climbing Mt. Rushmore

As they hang from Mount Rushmore, Eve asks why his two previous wives divorced him. “I think they said I led too dull a life,” (Grant) Thornhill says.

“The genius of Hitchcock lies in how he gets the audience as well as Thornhill (Grant) to believe in the existence of George Kaplan, until by the end of the film, it is Kaplan who survives, while Roger Thornhill simply ceases to exist …,” says Marc Eliot, author of “Cary Grant.”

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Judy Berman and earthrider, 2011-15. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to (Judy Berman) and (earthrider,, or earthriderdotcom) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Movie (trailer): North by Northwest (1959) with Alfred Hitchcock  

Main Photo: North by Northwest – Cary Grant – plane (1959)

Photo: North by Northwest – Eva Marie Saint shooting Carl Grant  – movie trailer screenshot

Photo: North by Northwest – movie trailer screenshot – Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint climbing Mount Rushmore

      1. Oh, you were a bit of a spoiler, Judy, but a classic like this is out there already!

        comment from earthrider to Mark Bialczak:
        True. I just realized – after posting – that this film is 55 years old this year. It still holds up very well.

  1. A couple of fun things (to me) about this movie, which I have on DVD:

    Jessie Royce Landis, who played Cary’s mom, was only eight years older than Cary.

    In the restaurant scene late in the film (a scene in which a gunshot is fired), look closely before the shot is fired and you’ll see that at one of the tables there’s a little kid who is holding his ears because he knows the shot is coming.

    1. Ah, Mark, now you’ve done it. I’ll have to watch the film again just for that scene. 😉

      In Francois Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock, Hitch said a scene after that is one where M-G-M pressured him to eliminate a whole sequence at the end of the picture. The one where Cary Grant is taken to the woods to meet Eva Marie Saint – their first meeting after the shooting. Hitchcock refused, saying it was a key scene. Imagine the film without that meeting.

    1. That crop dusting “scene is completely silent for some seven minutes,” according to Francois Truffaut. He noted, “How can anyone object to gratuity when it’s so clearly deliberate – it’s planned incongruity.” Hitchcock retorted, “The fact is I practice absurdity religiously.”

  2. And the worst loneliness is when NO ONE believes you. Only Hitchcock could pull off the “making you believe” of this film, and he took his time doing it. But the wait was worth it. Cary Grant was the quintessential actor in this part.

    1. His own Mum. Can you believe that? I agree, Marilyn, Hitchcock really is the Master of Suspense. 😉

      I read that Jimmy Stewart wanted to star in this film, but Hitch thought that Cary Grant fitted the part best. Stewart was excellent in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and “Vertigo.”

    1. If they take film courses, they definitely should. That’s where I got a greater appreciation of his work, although I was a fan before. Others have re-done some of his films. The remakes were never impressive. Hitchcock had great techniques for lighting,casting, building suspense.

      1. I agree. Contemporary film makers tend to think it’s all about the plot and fast pace. But then, who could equal Hitchcock’s quirky understanding of how light and shadow create suspense?

  3. These classics keep one riveted to their seat, eyes wide and ears perked up….just can’t afford missing any of the dialogue. Hitchcock was the greatest. Judy, have you watched ‘Marnie’?

  4. Wow, even this explanation is a bit complicated. I’ve never seen this one. In all honesty, I’m not really good about sitting down and watching movies, I should probably give this one a try though.

    1. Amy, if you like a good suspense film with a little comedy and romance thrown in, you’ll love “North by Northwest.” I’d love to know what you think after you’ve seen it. 🙂

  5. Oh I loved it then, and I am sure i will love it even more today. I appreciate your bringing these classics to the fore Judy. Thank you 🙂

  6. This is definitely a great movie and a classic. I had a hard time following along the first time I watched it, but caught on the second time. This movie was not included in the Hitchcock class I took at OCC and that is a shame, I don’t remember all of the movies we watched but I know this was not included.

    1. The plot is a little convoluted, but that was part of the “grand design.” Hitchcock loved to keep his audience guessing. I don’t think Doug Brode showed this movie when I took his film class either. But it’s a must see if you love Hitchcock, suspense, intrigue, comedy and romance.

  7. I saw this movie in a college film course, but as I read your summary, I realized that I must not have really watched it. Either that or my memory is worse than I thought. I wonder if anyone has ever tried to make a movie in which the actors really have no idea what’s going on, and they don’t find out until the whole thing is edited and done.

    1. I admit that it is rather astonishing that the actors might not know what’s going on, but films are often not shot in sequence. Some directors even go so far as to shoot alternate endings so the actors don’t give the plot away before the audiences get to see it. Diabolical marketing scheme. 😉

      If you want a great read on Hitchcock, check out Francois ‘s Truffaut’s book. Excellent behind-the-scenes info. Marc Eliot’s “Cary Grant” also had great background that included Grant working in Hitchcock’s films.

    1. Lisa, I never saw “Nebraska.” Did they also climb up the face of the mountain? I read the synopsis of the film but it didn’t reveal much of the plot. It is a scene worth “liberating,” though. 😉

  8. I need to watch this. You got me excited reading this post. Our local library has lots of timeless classics and I hope they got this one. Thanks. Best wishes to you and your family.

    1. You’re going to love this movie, Island Traveler. If your library does not have it, you can view it on Netflix or other sites on the internet. This is one of my favorite movies. Blessings to you and your family.

  9. One of my favorite Hitchcock films, Judy!! That plane-cornfield sequence is about as eerie as they come– it gives new meaning to the expression “the middle of nowhere”!! A shoot-out on Mt. Rushmore?? Don’t worry, Mr. President, it’s only a nose wound… They don’t make ’em like that anymore– great review!

    1. Hitchcock set the gold standard. Mark, you mentioned some of my favorite scenes in the movie. Cary Grant’s weaving on the roads was funny and scary at the same time. Hitchcock kept me guessing all the way thru. 😉

Comments are closed.