North By Northwest - The First James Bond Film?

North By Northwest Bond

'From the killer plane in the cornfield to the cliff-hanger on George Washington's nose, it's  suspense in every direction!'

North By Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock's classic comedy thriller, was first released in 1959 and written by Ernest Lehman. A 'man on the run' adventure in the vein of 'The 39 Steps' with plenty of suspenseful twists and turns, North By Northwest revolves around mild New York advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant). After stopping off for drinks at the Plaza Hotel after work, Thornhill attracts the attention of a bellboy in order to send a telegram. Unfortunately for Thornhill this coincides with the bellboy asking for a certain George Kaplan. Two shady looking characters who have been observing the scene conclude that Thornhill is George Kaplan and promptly kidnap the bewildered executive at gunpoint, taking him to the country residence of the mysterious Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Vandamm refuses to believe Thornhill is not Kaplan and is soon plotting to murder him and make it look like an accident. As far as trouble is concerned this is just the tip of the iceberg for Thornhill in this strange case of mistaken identity and he's soon on the run in an epic journey to clear his name and solve the mystery of George Kaplan...

One of Alfred Hitchcock's most enjoyable films, North By Northwest is a stylish and colourful adventure with some unforgettable set-pieces. An amusing and classy romantic thriller with a great cast. The film has a very flimsy MacGuffin (or two) but it doesn't really matter as fun is the order of the day here in an audacious film crammed with edge-of-your-seat action and tense situations. It's very enjoyable to see the rug constantly pulled from under the impossibly suave Thornhill (and the audience) and the lead actor is given many wonderful moments and scenes. From Saul Bass's striking title sequence to Mount Rushmore, North By Northwest is unbeatable entertainment.

Cary Grant's marvelous ability to do light comedy is highlighted early on in the film when the baddies pour a bottle of bourbon down him and send him down a dangerous clifftop road in a car. Although the back projection is somewhat dated, Grant's drunken antics are good fun and the actor is generally given numerous memorable scenes whether disguising himself as a porter at Grand Central Station or deliberately causing a disturbance at a swanky auction in order to escape from some goons into police custody. "Not that I mind a slight case of abduction now and then, but I have tickets for the theater this evening," deadpans the urbane Thornhill at one point. I love these sophisticated little throwaway lines and jokes and Grant has some nice ones in the film. For some reason Cary Grant even makes me laugh when he's shaving in a mirror!

One of the most famous scenes in North By Northwest occurs at 'Prairie Stop Highway 41' when Thornhill is lured to an isolated location surrounded by huge cornfields with a long lonely road for company. We (and Thornhill) notice a crop-dusting plane gradually coming too close for comfort until it becomes apparent that the plane is after Thornhill himself. "That's funny," says a bystander. "That plane's dusting crops where there ain't no crops." This is a superbly tense scene with a nice build-up. In a clever move, there is no music during this sequence with the silence stressing the loneliness of Roger's situation and location. The strange nature of Roger's predicament is also highlighted in the film by high angled shots as his reality begins to fall apart. The brilliant thing about the crop-dusting sequence though is that the urbane, dapper Thornhill/Grant is taken completely out of his (city) comfort zone and fighting for his life in the middle of a dusty nowhere.

This famous set-piece was clearly a big inspiration for a similar scene in the James Bond film From Russia With Love and Roger Thornhill's adventures must surely have been an influence on the early Bond pictures of a few years later. Both North By Northwest and the James Bond films feature some interesting parallels in that both are glamorous travelogues with high-living sophisticated characters matching wits and feature enigmatic, beautiful women who may or may not be trustworthy. Plus, of course, explosions and stunts and set-pieces at famous locations and landmarks, suggestive dialogue banter, dry quips from an urbane, witty villain, and double-dealing and spying in general with a 'vital' object (MacGuffin) thrown out there to supply plot and character motivation.

You can also see the false identity themes of North By Northwest in modern films as diverse as Jason Bourne and The Game. In North By Northwest characters are frequently forced to become actors and pretend to be something they are not. Ernest Lehman's meticulously twisty script uses these devices to inject as much incident and fun into the film as possible. Parts of the film are rather contrived - Thornhill summons the bellboy just as the bellboy is seeking George Kaplan -  and there is perhaps a lot of exposition in North By Northwest at times but it doesn't really matter and never detracts from the pure enjoyment and spectacle the film offers too much in my opinion.

One thing I really like about North By Northwest is the use of locations which is very inventive and gives the film a real sense of scope at times. From Prairie Stop Highway 41 to Grand Central Station to the United Nations and, of course, Mount Rushmore, location for the film's iconic climax. Obviously, Hitchcock was not allowed to actually film in some of these hallowed locations but the production design, especially the Mount Rushmore sets, are all very well done. The final 'fade' of the film is wonderful too and a big part of the film is of course Bernard Herrmann's exciting score which underpins key moments and helps to drive the film along.

Cary Grant is perhaps the greatest filmstar of all time. In North By Northwest, the effortless, debonair actor still makes a dashing leading man in his fifties and performs many of his own stunts. Despite his age it's not that surprising really that the 007 producers at least inquired as to his availability when they launched James Bond a couple of years later. Grant is very funny and likable in the film as Thornhill's problems become ever more elaborate. It's quite interesting too how Thornhill begins the film as a frivolous Tabula rasa who writes advertising copy ("In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggeration") and learns over the course of the film that some things are actually worth fighting for. I like the fact that Thornhill is an everyday man who must turn detective and we experience the predicaments and surprises through his eyes so to speak.

Eva Marie Saint makes an elegant enough female lead as Eve Kendall and has a simmering chemistry with Cary Grant (although their suggestive banter does slip into Talbot Rothwell territory once or twice). She's suitably enigmatic and outwardly chilly but also vulnerable and intelligent.
James Mason is perfectly cast as Phillip Vandamm and gives a masterclass in how to be quietly sinister beneath a veneer of charm. A young Martin Landau is also great as 'Leonard', a rather camp henchman and, elsewhere, Leo G Carroll is solidly dependable while Jessie Royce Landis has an amusing bit as Thornhill's mother (and a very famous line).

North By Northwest is a classic and irresistible mix of romance, suspense, action and comedy all delightfully brought to the screen with panache and invention.

- Jake

c 2009 Alternative 007