Old Time Movies For Our Time People: North By Northwest

17 Sep

For the first edition of Old Time Movies For Our Time People I will be reviewing North by Northwest.  A 1959 thriller by Alfred Hitchcock starring Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, North by Northwest is two hours and sixteen minutes of anxiety in its most beautiful form.  In terms of thrillers, this movie is timeless.  I was LITERALLY sitting on the edge of my seat, leaning forwards toward the TV, chewing through my fingernails, and crying through most of the movie.  If I’m being honest, that doesn’t happen very often.  Why?


Well, I have a few theories. For one, I believe that advances in special effects have come at the price of quality in the story.  Granted, this is not always the case, but it seems like movies don’t have to rely on plot as much any more.  They can distract the viewer with modern “special effects magic.”  Hitchcock never did that.  There are effects in this movie.  An airplane explodes and people climb down the faces of Mount Rushmore.  But these moments add to the plot instead diverting your attention from its deficiencies and discrepancies.  A compelling story can only be created when every part of a movie is intentionally driving the plot forward, and Hitchcock was a master plot driver.

Twists and turns, surprises, realizations.  Screenplays don’t get much better than North by Northwest, written by Ernest Lehman, the first screenwriter to receive an honorary Oscar for his work.  Just like his director, Lehman was a master of his trade.  His writing had been nominated six times before he received his award.  This is the man responsible for giving us Sabrina, The Sound of Music, The King and I, West Side Story, Hello, Dolly!, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and many more.  He labored with the script to North by Northwest for over a year and finally had to take a trip to Mount Rushmore before he could finish it.  All of that talent and determination finally came together, however, to give us one of the best cases of mistaken identity committed to film.

For those of you who have not seen this movie I’ll give you a quick plot synopsis:  Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, a Manhattan advertising executive, who is mistaken for a secret agent by a mysterious organization.  This organization wants him to provide information, or die.  Since he has no idea what they’re talking about, he is forced to choose the latter.  The thugs assigned to end Mr. Thornhill’s life botch the job, and from there the real adventure (and the love story) begins.

Ernest Lehman’s plot combined with Alfred Hitchcock’s direction would have made for an impressive film, but when you throw in Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint you have a masterpiece.  Now, I don’t want to be one of those people who always talks about the good old days of movies.  We have incredible actors, writers, and directors working today.  But I think it’s difficult to find an actor that can match Cary Grant.  The man was amazing.  Everything he did, every movie he made, was excellent.  And this is one of his more spectacular films in my opinion.  He makes you believe in the character.  You feel nauseous that Roger Thornhill is going to be caught.  You desperately want the girl to fall in love with him.  You feel for this character as a real man.  Back Cary Grant up with Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, and Martin Landau and you have a film that’s going to hold an audience’s attention.


North by Northwest is a classic of the thriller/spy/action/whatever genres.  You can see its influence today in films such as The Bourne Identity.  The iconic scene where Cary Grant is being chased by a low flying airplane is one of the most well known scenes in movie history, spoofed and imitated countless times.  If those spoofs and imitations are all you have seen, do yourself a favor and get a copy of North by Northwest.  Go rent it, and then when November 3rd gets here you can buy yourself a copy of the 50th Anniversary Edition.  Feel free to pick up an extra copy for me.  Please.

still whimpering slightly,



One Response to “Old Time Movies For Our Time People: North By Northwest”

  1. whatthestitch September 18, 2009 at 1:20 am #

    Now I just really, really want to see North by Northwest.

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