Looking Back: North By Northwest (1959)

north by northwest

A recent trip to Mt. Rushmore in the U.S. state of South Dakota brought to mind an old classic film I hadn’t seen in ages. NORTH BY NORTHWEST has been called by some as master suspense director Alfred Hitchcock’s romantic comedy. The film stars Cary Grant as Madison Avenue advertising exec Roger O. Thornhill (think Don Draper with a sense of humour), who finds himself mixed up in a Spy vs. Spy case of mistaken identity. Eva Marie Saint co-stars as Eve Kendall, a sultry industrial designer who isn’t all she appears to be. James Mason plays the mysterious Phillip Vandamm, who abducts Thornhill to find out what he knows about him, and Martin Landau plays Vandamm’s effeminate henchman, Leonard. The plot climaxes at Mt. Rushmore in a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase on the rock’s presidential faces.

Released in 1959, the film still holds plenty of suspense today – the crop dusting scene is classic – but it really is a product of its time. The Cold War was in full swing then, and suspicion was flying in the U.S. about who might be spying for the Russians. In today’s world of mobile phones, global news and heightened security, the story’s premise seems rather absurd but spying was the hot topic back in the day.

James Stewart, a Hitchcock regular, wanted to play Roger Thornhill but the director considered the actor, at age 51, to be too old for the part. When Grant was announced as the film’s star, many in Hollywood believed that Hitchcock and Stewart must have had a falling out as Grant was 55. Stewart was already committed to do another film and couldn’t have done both. glen plaid suitWhether that was intentional on Hitchcock’s part or not, no one knows for sure. But Cary Grant certainly had a style that James Stewart never had, and the grey-blue glen plaid suit that the actor wore through most of the film has now achieved iconic status. (There were apparently six such suits that Grant wore during the filming – and kept, as per the terms of his contract.)

Even today, it is a matter of debate as to who actually made the suit. Many sources point to Kilgour, French & Stanbury, with Arthur Lyons, the Duke of Windsor’s suitmaker, doing the tailoring. However, eagle-eyed film buffs have noticed a label bearing the name “Quintino” inside the jacket. It may be that the Saville Row tailor made the original and the Beverly Hills tailor the copies. In an interview given many years later, Martin Landau said that Hitchcock wanted him to be better dressed than Grant so he took the actor to Grant’s tailor – Quintino – to get him kitted out. Grant didn’t know this and, when he saw how nice Landau looked in his new suit, Grant sent his personal assistant over to Landau to find out where he got it. According to Landau, the PA told him that only two people in the world make a suit like that – one in Beverly Hills and the other in Hong Kong.

By today’s standards, NORTH BY NORTHWEST is sloppy filmmaking with its numerous continuity and factual errors (such as which side of the train Lake Michigan should be on), and wobbly sets. The U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Park Service had barred Hitchcock from filming the chase scene at Mt. Rushmore so a replica was built in California. Today we can see that it was a fake but back then many respected film critics were praising both Hitchcock and MGM for their apparent cinematic coup. Government officials fought back though, and they insisted that the acknowledgement their agency received at the end of the film be removed from all prints, lest audiences think they approved of their perceived desecration of the national monument.

Even though NORTH BY NORTHWEST is a relic of days gone by, it still makes for enjoyable viewing today. It currently sits at number 67 on the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 films of all time. The film is available on DVD and by digital download.

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