Overall: A case of mistaken identity sparks one of the first and greatest supercharged action movies. MGM/Warner Home Video; 1959; 136 Minutes.
An Early Indication: The opening credits of North by Northwest display cutting edge graphic design relative to their time. With the letters and graphics sliding quickly in a grid-like pattern on and off the screen, they are among the first kinetic graphics utilized in a film sequence. I’m sure that surprising movement helped prepare early viewers for a high speed spy film unlike anything that had been seen.
A Star Burning Brightest: At the plot‘s most twisted instant, we are introduced to Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint. This a breathtaking blonde who subverts the expectation of the era. She does as much saving as being saved. She’s ready to one-up with one-liners in each loaded flirtatious exchange. She’s sharp and in control, not just of the propulsion of the plot, but of our perception of the movie. Eve Kendall is Saint’s most layered character. She is an exercise in the mysterious, hiding key pieces of information within her pockets, jingling it like change to tease the audience.
Kaplan/Thornhill/Grant: Our hero, Roger Thornhill is a family-friendly and Golden Age Don Draper, a sharp witted ad exec with a knack for innuendo, stealing quick second glances from beautiful women, and playing it cool in the face of danger. Cary Grant is as charming and heartbreaking a lead man as Hollywood has ever offered so it is no surprise that he surrenders not a single ounce of either quality when the stakes grow higher and higher. At times, it seems that Kaplan is amused by the mortal danger he is in.
A Flashy Performance: On that note… One of the reasons I love watching this film is that Grant’s unaffected, smarmy demeanor feels, to me, like Hitchcock flexing his film-making superiority. Each sharp witted quip is Hitchcock’s announcement to us that he knows he has our nerves in his fists, but he’s still in control, so don’t mind him if he tells a few jokes.
A Relative Measurement: But if there is issue to be taken with North by Northwest, it is that the film is so realized and assured that it loses the constant and desperate sense of searing and unbearable tension that defines Hitchcock’s greatest work (Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Psycho). Think of an athletic achievement that was built at low stakes wherein the athlete went all-in for numbers with nothing of their legacy or season at stake (Chamberlain’s 100 point night against an easy-target Philadelphia Warriors team comes to mind), and that’s what’s happening here: a champion, the greatest of his or perhaps any time, showing off the gap that exists between himself and the field.
But Evenso: The lucky drunken car escape, the crop-duster dipdown, and the dangling over Mt. Rushmore– the action in this film is of unimaginable scale. If you could do a DNA test on just about any action movie since, you’ll find traces of North by Northwest’s genetic influence. In most cases, the resemblance alone is too strong to deny ancestry: from the bad (Eagle Eye) to the good (Enemy of the State) to the classic (Die Hard, all the James Bond movies). North by Northwest stands as further proof of what we already know: Alfred Hitchcock was a pioneer, a professor, and a treasure. There isn’t a genre of film today untouched by his influence.