Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

North by Northwest

WARNING: This article contains spoilers.

North By Northwest is a 1959 MGM film about a businessman who is mistaken for a government agent and is being pursued by spies he is unfamiliar with and who want to kill him. The businessman, played by Cary Grant, is framed for murder and is forced to elude the police as well as spies. The film has several plot twists and a sly sense of humor, as well as the famous scenes in which a character is chased by a crop duster and, later, two characters are climbing over the faces on Mount Rushmore to try to escape their enemies.

Grant on the run, trying to travel incognito

The film stars Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Leo G. Carroll, and Martin Landau and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock directed this movie shortly after his dark and enigmatic Vertigo, and in an interview with Francois Truffaut ("Hitchcock / Truffaut"), he said that he wanted to do something fun, light hearted, and free of the symbolism permeating his other movies. Despite its light appearance, the movie carries a number of underlying themes, the most important being the theme of theater and play-acting in which everyone is playing a part, no one is who they seem, and identity is in flux. This is reflected by Cary Grant's line "The only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead."

Cary Grant was distressed with the way the plot seems to meander from place to place; Grant actually approached Hitchcock to complain about the script. "I can't make heads or tails of it," he said -- without realizing he was quoting the very words he would speak when playing the role of Thornhill.

There are similarities between this movie and Hitchcock's earlier Saboteur (1942), with the final scene on top of the Statue of Liberty an apparent precursor of the Mount Rushmore scene in the later film. In fact, North By Northwest can be seen as the last and best in a long line of "wrong man" films that Hitchcock made according to the pattern he established in The 39 Steps (1935).

North By Northwest is one of several Hitchcock-directed movies with a film score by Bernard Hermann (the others include Psycho and Vertigo). The movie also features a famous title sequence by the graphic designer Saul Bass.

North by Northwest is #40 on American Film Institute's 100 Years, 100 Movies, #4 on its 100 Years, 100 Thrills, and is consistently in the top 25 on the Internet Movie Database's Top 250. The film has been deemed "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.