As a longtime lover of Hitchcock’s work, I wanted to instill appreciation for the Master when teaching a high school class in film studies back in the late 1990s. The film I selected to introduce Hitchcock was North by Northwest for a variety of reasons:
- Technicolor—many younger viewers are prejudiced against black and white movies. Classics like Psycho, Notorious, and The Lady Vanishes will be more palatable after they are hooked on Hitch’s artistry.
- Entertainment—contains many comic touches and enough plot twists and chase scenes to hold up for modern audiences. It also plays with sexuality and stretches the envelope farther than other directors dared in the 1950s.
- Hitchcockian themes/elements—a cornucopia sampling of Hitch standards including: quintessential “wrong man” and false identity themes; cold, sexy blonde woman; suspense formula; MacGuffin* plot device; subjective camera usage; unique overhead camera point of view shots; tight narrative construction, and the signature Hitchcock cameo early in the narrative.
Besides all that, it’s a fine film with plenty of visual content to discuss. And it never failed to hold my students’ attention.
The idea for the film came from Hitchcock's desires. After once telling writer Ernest Lehman that he’d always wanted to make a movie involving a chase scene across the Presidential faces on Mt. Rushmore and later how he’d always wanted to film a scene at the United Nations where a sleeping Peruvian delegate was found to be dead, the germ for North By Northwest was born. It evolved into a cinematic tour de force, containing such a powerful airplane chase midway through that makes this Cary Grants’ most memorable film.
Iconic romantic comedy hero Grant stars as non-descript Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive twice divorced and still dependent on his mother. In the first few minutes while meeting clients at the Plaza, he is mistaken for someone named George Kaplan and promptly kidnapped at gun point, presented to super suave gentleman villain George Tompson/Van Dam (James Mason), and is pointed down a high winding suicidal route after downing an entire bottle of bourbon.
Miraculously surviving his DUI "roller coaster ride," Thornhill calls his mother for help (note the Liz Taylor reference in her phone number) and humorously bribes her so they can check out Kaplan’s hotel room. This only deepens Thornhill’s descent into mistaken identity and compels him to track down his nemesis at the United Nations building where the plot thickens considerably. Note the Master’s visual ballet here that emphasizes witness reactions to the murder scene before shifting to a magnificent overhead shot of our ant-like protagonist fleeing the inadvertent crime scene.
We’re now transported across the county via another Hitchcock favorite—the confines of a train, where Thornhill hooks up with femme fatale Eve Kendell (Eva Marie Saint), who sets up the suspenseful highlight of the film at a barren Indiana crossroads. This showcases Hitchcock’s classic formula for suspense, as he lets us in on the proverbial “bomb under the table” long before Cary Grant recognizes the danger. Thus, for over eight nearly silent minutes passing cars and an old codger all appear menacing and hold our attention before we are cued that it’s funny that that distant plane is “dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.”
Now available in a special 50th anniversary edition on both regular DVD and Blu-Ray, North By Northwest contains an invaluable making of documentary hosted by Eva Marie Saint that deftly edits a collage of material from Hitchcock and new documentaries “The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style” and a shorter one specifically on the film that both feature screenwriter Lehman, a number of film directors who have been influenced by him (who hasn’t?), and Hitchcock experts Robin Wood and Donald Spoto. Selections comparing elements in Hitchcock’s repertoire reinforce basic film school lessons, but all the examples are from MGM’s canon like The Wrong Man, Strangers on a Train, Stage Fright, and I Confess. Skip the main feature’s banal commentary since Lehman’s best anecdotes are repeated on the documentaries.
But by all means add the new anniversary edition to your DVD personal library. North By Northwest remains the ideal introduction to the Master and all his basic fears and craftsmanship.
* A MacGuffin is nothing more than a simple device that drives the story. Illustrating the concept of “MacGuffin,” following is the anecdote that Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut in his 1966 interview:
"It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?' And the other answers, 'Oh that's a McGuffin.' The first one asks, 'What's a McGuffin?' 'Well,' the other man says, 'It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.' The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,' and the other one answers 'Well, then that's no McGuffin!'