In a weird way, this film was almost like Hitchcock’s clap back against the initial response to Vertigo. His 1958 film struggled at the box office; audiences found it to be slow-paced and a little confusing, with a depressing ending and a mystery that got solved with nearly a third of the movie left to go. With this film, you can almost hear Hitchcock grumbling: “Fine, then, we’ll give y’all lots of action, lots of plot twists, a last-minute save and a honeymoon at the end. So there.” He even terminated his working relationship with Jimmy Stewart over fears that audiences hadn’t bought Stewart as a leading man any more. I can’t say for certain whether Hitchcock was right about why Vertigo didn’t seem to work at the time….but, I have to say, I did like North by Northwest better.
It’s still kind of silly, but in a fun way. Cary Grant is “Roger Thornhill”, an advertising executive caught up in an espionage caper through a sheer case of mistaken identity. One minute he’s meeting some clients for after-work cocktails at the Plaza, and the next minute, two thugs are hauling him off to Westchester at gunpoint and dragging him to a mansion where an oily British man is calling him “George Kaplan” and asking for his cooperation. When Thornhill – understandably – protests that he’s the wrong guy, the two thugs attempt to kill him. He survives, and escapes – but “Philip Vandamm” (James Mason) and his crew have him in their sights, framing him for murder and then staging their own manhunt alongside the police as Thornhill flees across the country, dodging policemen, assassins with switchblades, tanker trucks, and crop duster airplanes. Along the way, he is sometimes helped – and sometimes hindered – by the pretty Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who may be in league with Vandamm – but also may not be. And the action stays at a fever pitch until the very end, as Kendall, Thornhill and Vandamm are chasing each other across the tops of the Mount Rushmore heads.
There’s also some business about an Aztec statue with microfilm hidden inside it, and some FBI espionage undercover stuff, but that barely registered with me – because it didn’t really need to. It’s the very definition of a Hitchcock MacGuffin – the thing that is the excuse for the whole rest of the story to happen. We don’t even learn about the microfilm until well into the plot, but by that time we’ve been following Thornhill on his race to Figure Stuff Out for long enough that we’re hooked. The charismatic Cary Grant is part of why; he’s not in screwball comedy mode, but he’s got enough of a whiff of it that I was drawn in and wanted to follow along to find out what the heck was happening. I also got a kick out of how forward Eve Kendall was during her first meeting with Thornhill – for the 1950s she is pretty darn racy. She also turns out to be a good deal more than just the pretty damsel who gets swept up into things – she’s got skin and a brain in the game, and ultimately I ended up liking her a lot more than other Hitchcock heroines.
So – yeah, I guess I’m one of the unwashed philistines Hitchcock was trying to placate after Vertigo. I’m comfortable with that.