North by Northwest ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

“What’s wrong with men like me?” “They don’t believe in marriage.” “I’ve been married twice.” “See what I mean?”

I always start off my reviews with a quote. Often it’s a quote that sums up my feelings about the movie or is most representative of its themes. But sometimes it’s just the quote that, for whatever reason, sticks most distinctly in my mind. I’ve been fortunate enough to see North by Northwest many, many times since my childhood (I loved this movie as a kid, which is no surprise, given how engaging it is). Of all the quotable lines in this endlessly witty movie, the above exchange between Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) and Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) always jumps out at me. It’s sophisticated but not impenetrable; it’s ambivalent toward romance but not opposed to it; it’s flirtatious but not crass; it’s about the false identities people adopt and the way they use those identities to deflect more probing insight; and it has something of a dark edge to it. In other words, much like North by Northwest itself, it is a perfect encapsulation of all things Hitchcock.

How perfect? Well...
- For starters, it’s got Hitchcock’s classic “wrong man” scenario, with Thornhill being mistaken for government agent George Kaplan.
- It’s got two great MacGuffins: (a) the fact that Kaplan doesn’t exist, but is simply a decoy agent created by the government to throw Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and his men off the scent of the real agent, Kendall; and (b) the fact that what all these spies are chasing, what animates every bit of the plot, is dismissed by the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) as “government secrets, perhaps.” (Has there ever been a better distillation of Hitch’s puckish wit and audience button-pushing?!)
- It’s got the icy Hitchcock blonde, who is, as usual, punished for her active participation in the plot (though Kendall does end up spared a watery death and married to Thornhill, so relative to, say, Kim Novak or Janet Leigh, she comes out of it fairly well).
- It’s got the appealing villain, with a pitch-perfect performance by Mason as Vandamm, seductive as the serpent from the Garden of Eden (not to mention Martin Landau as Leonard, his cat-like henchman).
- It’s got the negative depiction of the mother figure, here Thornhill’s mother (Jessie Royce Landis), who is hilariously ambivalent about her son’s kidnapping and near death. (“These two men, they poured a whole bottle of bourbon into me. No, they didn’t give me a chaser.”)
- It’s got the equally negative depiction of the police, who dismiss Thornhill after his attempted murder, can’t manage to catch him at the train station, and don’t appreciate who they’ve caught when he summons them to the art auction.
- And, of course, it’s got Cary Grant. No one ever has been, or ever will be, more suave, more urbane, better looking, wittier, or all-around more perfect than Cary Grant in this movie (unless it’s Cary Grant in Charade, or The Philadelphia Story, or His Girl Friday, or…well, you get the idea).

For a movie that famously began as an excuse to film some setpieces of which Hitchcock was enamored, it’s amazing how well-oiled the plot is, moving like clockwork (all credit to Ernest Lehman, one of Hollywood’s best screenwriters). From the large memorable scenes (like the broad-daylight attack in the cornfield and the chase atop (and down) Mount Rushmore) to the little moments (like the stunning overhead shot of Thornhill fleeing the United Nations Building and the memorable double entendre of a final shot), North by Northwest is the Master of Suspense at his cheekiest, most entertaining best.

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