NORTH BY NORTHWEST feels like the closing of a chapter in the career of its director, Alfred Hitchcock. His favourite plot, the innocent man on the run, is given the most expansive treatment possible, as advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for a government agent in James Mason’s spy ring and is forced to go on the run across the United States. It’s as if Hitch needed to scratch that itch one last time and decided to throw everything at it.
So, for two and a quarter hours, Grant hides out in glamorous cities like New York and Chicago, avoids arrest on luxury trains, flees though the wide open spaces of Midwest farmland and even scrambles down Mount Rushmore itself. It is THE 39 STEPS on steroids; it is Hitchcock trying to out-Hitchcock himself. The set-pieces are his most extravagant yet, and make the trip to see it on the big screen all the more worthwhile. The centrepiece is the attempted assassination of Grant by a crop duster, an outrageous example of using a hammer to crack a nut, but so superbly orchestrated it’s impossible not to be energised by it. Indeed, it has become one of the most iconic of all Hollywood images.
It is THE 39 STEPS on steroids; it is Hitchcock trying to out-Hitchcock himself.
And through it all strides the unflappable Grant, never more suave or sophisticated than here, verbally sparring with Mason’s purring villain Vandamm while dodging repeated attempts to bump him off. Together with James Stewart, Grant was the perfect Hitchcock hero, a sympathetic onscreen persona matched by good looks and charm. In this he is ably supported by Ernest Lehman’s splendid dialogue; “I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me”, bemoans Grant as he tries unsuccessfully to extricate himself from the plot.
After this there was nowhere else to go. Released in 1959 as Hollywood’s Golden Age was coming to a close, Hitchcock had proven himself as the leader in his field and he was now in the mood to try something new. The Sixties were just around the corner and Hitch was about to reinvent himself once again with a low-budget thriller set in a grubby, rundown motel.