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Really Retro Review: North by Northwest (1959)

"North by Northwest" is not only one of Alfred Hitchcock's best films, but it's a movie that I'd consider to be one of the greatest of all time.  This movie strikes my wanderlust fancy and provides a thrilling, suspenseful mystery.  It also doesn't hurt that most of the film is set in my favorite place on the entire planet: the Black Hills of South Dakota.  Surrounded by the majesty of Mount Rushmore and garnished with the glamour of old-school train travel, Hitchcock paints a masterpiece that could captivate anyone.  With his mastery of suspense, thrills, a little romance, and of course, the signature Hitchcock camera angles, this movie is easily a certifiable classic.  

North by Northwest first came into my world after discovering another Hitchcock masterpiece, Rear Window.  My Dad had shown my brother and I Psycho and The Birds when I was young, around 7 or 8 years old.  The Birds scared me so much I was afraid to go open the basement door where the garbage can was located for days just in case birds were about to fly out and attack me. 

Around that time, Dad either found the VHS of Rear Window or recorded it off the TV for me.  Rear Window quickly became my favorite movie of all time, and I began searching out more Hitchcock films as I grew up.  Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, and many others soon occupied my free time.  Then, I found North by Northwest.

The cast is filled with Hollywood icons and several well-known character actors.  

Here are some casting highlights:

Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill
Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendell
James Mason as Phillip Van Damm
Leo Carrol as "The Professor"
Martin Landau as Leonard
and Jessie Royce Landis as Mrs. Thornhill

Along with many more... 

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North by Northwest is a 1959 spy thriller produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Writer Ernest Lehman penned the screenplay and has said he put everything into it, desiring to write "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures."

Movie buffs often refer to North by Northwest as the original James Bond movie due to the similarities of a handsome and elegant yet daring leading man opposite the sinister but charming villain.  Along with colorful settings, secret agents, and beautiful women, North by Northwest really could have been a James Bond flick. This movie's famed crop duster scene is credited as the inspiration for the helicopter chase scene in the 1963 Bond movie "From Russia, With Love." 

Warning, 62-year-old spoilers below...

Set in 1958 New York City, the movie opens as a hotel bar pages for a George Kaplan.  In a case of bad timing, advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) summons for a waiter at the same time.  He is mistaken by two gangster thugs for Kaplan, setting off a deadly chain of events.  Thornhill is kidnapped and taken to the Long Island estate of someone called Lester Townsend.  There, he's interrogated by a foreign spy and enemy of the United States, Phillip Van Damm (James Mason), posing as Townsend.  Thornhill tries to prove he isn't George Kaplan to no avail, and Van Damm arranges for his death to be staged as a drunk driving accident. 

Thornhill, forced to drink bourbon, survives the planned car accident and is arrested for driving under the influence.  In court, he fails to convince the police and his mother of what really happened, and some detectives take Thornhill back to Townsend's home to investigate.  A woman claiming to be Townsend's wife says Roger got a little drunk at her dinner party.  She questions whether he "borrowed Lara's Mercedes," and he responds, in Cary Grant's natural transatlantic accent, "NO, I DIDN'T BORROW LARA'S MERCEDES!"  Don't ask why I love that line. I just do.

Discovering that Townsend is a United Nations diplomat, Thornhill and his mother head back to New York City but first head to Kaplan's hotel room.  They sneak inside and look for clues, but the phone rings, and Thornhill answers, only to find Van Damm on the other end of the line.  The operator informs him that the call came from the hotel lobby, and Thornhill is forced to quickly escape.

Thornhill leaves his mother behind when he hops into a taxi to escape from Van Damm's thugs and directs the driver to the United Nations.  Roger finds the real Lester Townsend there and is confused because this is not the same man from the Long Island estate.  One of Van Damm's thugs appears and throws a knife, killing Townsend.  Thornhill grabs at the blade, is photographed with it, and flees before the police catch him.  His photo makes the evening news as the "UN Diplomat Killer."  

Meanwhile, a secret government intelligence agency realized that Thornhill was mistaken for Kaplan but decided against rescuing him for fear of compromising their ongoing operation.  For the viewer's sake, they mention that Kaplan is a nonexistent agent created for their plan to thwart Van Damm.  The intelligence agency moves the fictional Kaplan's belongings between hotels around the country to throw Van Damm off the track.

Sneaking onto a train bound for Chicago, Thornhill bumps into Eve Kendall.  Eve hides him from the police, and the two quickly establish a romantic relationship.  Secretly, though, Kendall is working for Van Damm and is trying to lure Thornhill in, believing him to be Kaplan.  When they arrive in Chicago the following day, Thornhill hides in the bathroom while Kendall makes a phone call.  When Thornhill emerges, Kendall tells him she's arranged for Roger to meet Kaplan at an isolated bus stop out in the rural countryside.  

In one of cinema's most iconic scenes, Thornhill waits at the bus station and is attacked by men in a crop duster airplane.  After dodging bullets while hiding in a cornfield, Roger tries to flag down a truck for help.  The speeding fuel truck slams on its brakes to avoid Thornhill, but the airplane crashes into it.  Roger steals a car from a Good Samaritan who stopped to help and drives back to Chicago.

Reaching Kaplan's hotel, Roger learns that he had already checked out with a forwarding address of Rapid City, South Dakota.  As Thornhill turns to leave, Eve Kendall walks through the lobby.  Roger follows her to her room and confronts her.  She lets him into the room and agrees to go to dinner but insists he shower first.  Smartly, Roger had eavesdropped on her phone call while pretending to shower and follows her to an art auction.  He is shocked to see her seated next to none other than Phillip Van Damm!

Roger approaches Van Damm and informs him that he and Kendall had spent the night together and that he was just in her hotel room.  Van Damm begins to wonder about Kendall before purchasing an antique statue.  As he leaves, he instructs his thugs to dispose of Thornhill.  Quick on his feet, Roger disrupts the auction causing the auctioneer to call the police.  As the police drive him to the station, they are instructed by the dispatcher to drop him off at the airport.  "The Professor," the lead agent for the government agency, takes Thornhill to a waiting plane where he admits that Kaplan was invented only to distract Phillip Van Damm from the real government secret agent... Eve Kendall!  Thornhill is devastated he may have put Eve in danger and quickly agrees to help the government.  

At the Mount Rushmore Visitor's Center, Thornhill, playing the role of Kaplan, negotiates Vandamm's turnover of Kendall.  Kendall shoots Thornhill using blanks and runs as Thornhill plays dead.  Afterward, The Professor arranges for a brief moment for Thornhill and Kendall to meet.  Thornhill learns Eve must depart on a plane with Van Damm and is restrained when he tries to stop her.  Hours later, Roger finally escapes the Professor's custody and heads to Van Damm's house to rescue Miss Kendall.

At the house, Thornhill overhears that the sculpture holds smuggled microfilm and that Van Damm's right-hand man Leonard has discovered the blanks in Eve's gun.  Van Damm indicates he'll dispose of Kendall by throwing her from the airplane later that night.  Roger sneaks into the house and finds a way to warn her before the two escape with the sculpture.  They quickly find themselves on the top of Mount Rushmore as the thugs give chase. 

They are pursued by Van Damm's thugs down the (literal) face of the mountain but are saved by Park Rangers and The Professor at the last minute.  As Eve Kendall hangs from the mountain by her fingertips, Thornhill reaches down to save her.  As he pulls her up, the scene transitions to the now Mrs. Thornhill being pulled into an upper berth of a train.

The movie comes to a close with quite the suggestive scene as a train enters a tunnel.

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I think on our last Really Retro Review for "The Long, Long Trailer" (CLICK HERE IF YOU MISSED IT), the Question and Answers section worked pretty well, so let's try it again!  

Feel free to fill in your own answers in the comments section down below!

Who Was the MVP of the Movie?
The obvious answer here is Cary Grant.  Without him as the star, the movie clearly wouldn't have been the same.  His transatlantic accent fits perfectly for an advertising executive from New York City.  He plays the high society clean-cut leading man exceptionally well but shows an athletic side in scenes that require physical activity.  Besides, my wife and I wouldn't be able to shout out, "NO, I DIDN'T BORROW LARA'S MERCEDES!" in his voice like we like to do if it wasn't for his accent!

Who Had the Best Minor Role in This Movie?
While Eva Marie Saint is the perfect "Hitchcock Blonde," I'd say she's not a minor character.  So, I'd give the best minor role to Roger Thornhill's mother, played by Jessie Royce Landis.  Her constant cajoling and snide remarks to her son's explanations are funny and well done.

What is the Best Scene in This Movie?
The train scene.  The idea of traveling by train is romantic in its own way.  Obviously not if you've ridden on the Long Island Rail Road, but the way I picture how cross country trips must have been during the Golden Age of travel is adventurous and romantic.  There's a reason many spy novels are set on trains.  The dining car, the fancy suits or dresses, the little cubicle you'd call a bedroom... it all seems so wonderful.  Thornhill is on the run, evading the police, and spends the night with Eve Kendall after a good meal.  Yeah, that's the best scene in the movie.  

An easy second goes to the Mount Rushmore Visitor's Center cafeteria scene.  When my wife and I visited Mount Rushmore in 2016, I insisted that we have lunch at the cafeteria so we could "relive the movie."  It looks a little different than the set used in the movie, having been renovated in 2013, but close enough that I took tons of photos... and the food was pretty good too!  Check this scene for a bit of a blooper as the kid seated behind Cary Grant knows the gun is about to go off and covers his ears several seconds before the gun actually fires.  

Also, I'd give my left arm for a house in the Black Hills that looks like Van Damm's.  The one in the film was a Hollywood mockup of an Andrew Lloyd Wright-style home that was made to look like it was built atop Mount Rushmore.  I think it's absolutely gorgeous.

Would I Take Anything Out of This Movie?
Not really, no.  If I was forced to choose, I would reduce some of the early scenes before Roger goes on the run as sometimes I feel like the beginning of the movie seems to drag at parts.

What Would I Add to This Movie?
I would have extended the train scene as Thornhill hides from the police.  Perhaps, if not that, then I'd develop the Chicago hotel scene a bit as Eve tries to juggle her role as a secret agent and her romantic interest in Roger.

Would This Movie Work as a Cable or Streaming Series?
This could easily be adapted to ten or twelve hour-long episodes for a one-season run or perhaps even longer if you're willing to let the premise of traveling only North and Northwest go.  A longer, multi-season run would allow for more character development with more twists and turns along the way, rather than the one shocking reveal of Eve being a secret double agent.    This sort of idea would work well as an adult drama and suspense thriller.  I'd imagine it would be Yellowstone meets The Bourne Trilogy.  Plus, with the constant travel of planes, trains, and cars, you could have new surroundings and scenarios for each episode! 

Does This Movie Hold Up Today?
This movie is timeless. Yes, it's kind of tame in terms of a modern-day thriller.  People today might find the orchestral musical score to be old-fashioned, too.  I still wouldn't hesitate to show it to anyone for the first time in 2021.  If you look past the dated cars and clothes, it still holds up today as a good suspense film and definitely one of Hitchcock's greatest.  

What Do I Rate This Movie?
"North by Northwest" is a Hollywood classic and all-time great film.  Yes, it's pretty basic and bare-bones in terms of today's special effects and the like, but this movie doesn't need any of that.  

I'd gladly give it 4.5 stars.  

It's still watchable in 2021 and is another example of Film Making 101 by Alfred Hitchcock.