North by Northwest

North by Northwest ★★★★½

North by Northwest is the third entry in a quadrilogy of great films made by Alfred Hitchcock from 1954-1960 (the others being Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho). Though he made other films during this time period, these four films are generally considered to be his best four films, and despite the fact that all four films operate in different genres, they each have a similar suspense tinge at their heart involving illusion and mistaken identity.

This film is the one that deals with the idea of mistaken identity in a more obvious fashion than its brethren, making it a crucial plot point in the early going of the film. The film operates more as an action thriller than just straight up suspense, and with this in mind, Hitchcock was wise to cast Cary Grant in the lead role. Though one could argue that he was slightly past his prime, Hitchcock frames the story so that his age is an asset to the film rather than a detriment. Grant gives one of his best performances in the work, both as the unwilling subject of mistaken identity and as an active participant in events as the plot begins to thicken around him. Eva Marie Saint and James Mason are equally good in their respective roles, making this one of the best Hitchcock ensembles out of the four main films.

Stylistically, the film has several iconic moments (the crop duster sequence among the rest), but it seems to lack some of the power that the other three films I mentioned have in droves. The film doesn't have the abject terror of Psycho, the thematic strength of Rear Window nor the dizzying camerawork of Vertigo. In that respect, North by Northwest does at times feel like a lesser film than those other three, though still accomplished in its own way.

Despite this, however, I can argue that North by Northwest is probably the most influential of all those films. While no one can deny the impact that Psycho had on the horror genre, other films also contributed mightily to the genre in the coming decades (from Rosemary's Baby through The Exorcist to the slasher films later in the eighties). Meanwhile both Rear Window and Vertigo are more notable for their own individual achievements than there lasting influence on other works.

North by Northwest, on the other hand, almost single handedly redefined the spy thriller genre into one of Hollywood's favorites in the coming years. It's not hard to draw a direct line from the James Bond films of the 1960s back to this film, not to mention films like Charade or Point Blank that also take some symbolic cues here. In terms of its impact on a single genre, North by Northwest has a high lasting impact.

And on top of everything else, it's still a taut and smart thriller that's expertly acted and directed. I'd rate it just slightly below its bretheren, but it's certainly among the essential Hitchcock films.