North by Northwest is the first of its kind. Released in 1959, it is the story of advertising executive Robert Thornhill (Grant) being mistaken for one George Kaplin by a powerful crime lord. Within the first 15 minutes Thornhill is kidnapped, questioned, blackmailed, forced to drink an entire bottle of bourbon, and placed drunk in a car to drive it off a cliff. The mistaken-identity genre is debuted in this piece from Hitchcock, who rips from Thornhill any possibility of being properly understood.
In a snowball of events he finds himself running from the police, suspected of murdering a United Nations diplomat, and looking frantically for the stranger he was mistaken for. It is while running, nearly halfway through the film, that Thornhill crosses paths with the lovely Eve Kendall (Eva-Marie Saint) who hides him and then quickly seduces him. The plot thickens and Thornhill finds himself attached to this woman while running for his life from a criminal he knows nothing about.
It would be easy to watch North by Northwest and come away unimpressed. The spy thriller genre is filled with films that tout fantastic scores and phenomenal locations, all backing 21st century effects. The men are bigger now, the ladies lovelier, and the cars faster. Classics are great and all, but we got over pleats and exceptionally hairy chests, right? Perhaps not. But it would also be easy to become nonsensically enchanted by something embossed with the Hitchcock name. Cary Grant can cover a multitude of sins with his fame and face. Even the placement of the movie in 1959, the very association with the idea of “classic films”, seems to quiet questions unfairly.
In an interview, Hitchcock spoke of this movie as a sort of boyhood dream of his. In between films, he collaborated with writer Ernest Lehman to build a film around an idea he had bought from an American journalist: spies creating a fictitious person to distract their enemies. Hitchcock also described a chase sequence across the face of Mt. Rushmore, a scene he had always wanted to film. Piece by piece he and Lehman would construct North by Northwest, or The Man On Lincoln’s Nose as it was originally titled.
Realizing that the film is a hodge-podge of Hitchcockian fantasy actually makes the 136 minute run time far more intriguing. But even more so, it throws a light onto the creation and existence of the genre Hitchcock unwittingly created. The character of Cary Grant, the boldfaced sexuality of Eve Marie Saint, and the sly but strangely attractive villain of James Mason gave form to the style made explosively famous by Sean Connery in James Bond. GQ declared Cary Grant’s suit to be the best suit in history on film and the most influential. Eve Marie Saint pioneered a character that was both strong willed and glamorously independent, while being a touching heroine and romantically attached.
Equally interesting is the way Hitchcock toys with conservative American morality the entire film, while also paying his respects to a frightened country at the height of the Cold War. The early 50s had marked the Korean War and only a few years after the Cuban Revolt led by Fidel Castro had brought the spread of Communism screaming into Americans back yards. Hitchcock voiced the patriotism that held a frightened country together even in his boyhood fantasy film. It is scattered across the film, hiding in quick lines and mumbles. In the woods, Thornhill speaks of the traumatized state every American finds himself in; later an FBI agent references the stretched and fragile country itself.
The fact that Hitchcock understood it as a necessity to incorporate is more than notable. It is descriptive of a need Americans had and a responsibility that popular culture undertook. Hitchcock was not asked to pay credit to the threat of Communism. There was no necessity for Thornhill to pay homage to a battered America. Hitchcock recognized the need for a point of connection between his audience and his actors. And that style isn’t a thing forgotten. The 2002 spy thriller The Sum Of All Fears told the story of a country shaken to its roots by a terrorist attack in Baltimore. Nothing could be more understandable or relatable to Americans with the attacks of 9/11 still replaying on their televisions.
North by Northwest is not nearly as classic as we think. Not because it’s poorly done, or because it was Hitchcock and Lehman making a movie with far shallower meanings and a simple story. It is the creation of a genre, a clear speech to a nation that was frightened by the thought of the enemy being present “among us”. The film touched on that fear and even Cary Grant’s perpetual insistence at complete and absolute obliviousness struck a chord. Americans were just as confused and dazed as this hero was. There was no time to contemplate the morality of unchastity. Far bigger problems were at hand. Hitchcock’s brilliance comes to light in this film, but not for the usual reasons. North by Northwest shows Hitchcock’s ability to identify the climate of American politics and society itself and weave those issues into his own films with remarkable skill.