Ticket Seller : “Something wrong with your eyes?”
Roger Thornhill : “Yes, they’re sensitive to questions.”
One of my favorite moments in the ever buoyant “North by Northwest” (1959) directed by the master himself, Alfred Hitchcock, takes place at one hour, forty-five minutes and twenty-one seconds into the film. The character of Eve (who turns out to be a double spy) is going to shoot the leading protagonist Roger Thornhill, a Madison Avenue advertising executive who has been confused for secret agent George Kaplan, who, it turns out, actually doesn’t exist. It happens that her pulling the trigger is part of a make-believe charade being played out to confuse the villain. So when you look over the shoulder of Eve as she brings out and points the gun, notice there’s a boy who has covered his ears with his fingers in anticipation of the loud “bang” of the bullets. For many years people have thought of this as a goof. The kid must have been so exhausted from listening to the actors rehearsing and the cacophony that he just wanted to spare his eardrums from further punishment. How could Hitchhock, known as one of the most precise and observant filmmakers in cinema, not notice that glaring mistake… Unless, it isn’t a mistake? The whole situation is a deceit, and watching the boy give away that what we’re watching is fake is phenomenally meta, and perfection. Here’s winking back at you, Hitch.
The title is emblematic of the implausibility of the plot. Indulge me for a second, and let’s brush up on our Shakespeare. In “Hamlet,” Act 2 Scene 2, in a scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the title character says, “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” As a cinephile taking theatre courses at Syracuse University, I asked Professor Geri Clark in 1980 to explain what the Ham meant by that, since it sounded so much like the title of Hitch’s film. Hamlet is saying that he chooses to be mad when he pleases, and that he’s able to distinguish whether there’s deceit or truth in front of him. Hitchcock noted, in an interview with director Peter Bogdanovich in 1963, “It’s a fantasy. The whole film is epitomized in the title — there is no such thing as north-by-northwest on the compass.” The airline that Roger Thornhill uses to travel to South Dakota is the now defunct Northwest Airlines.
There’s a car chase where Roger (gloriously played by Cary Grant) is behind the wheels after having been forced to drink a whole bottle of bourbon and placed in a car–to drive himself, it is intended, to his ultimate death. He is super blotto, but is able to take control of the steering and careen off through a winding street, incoming traffic coming towards him and the bad guys at his tail. Critics have complained about how dated it all looks. I strongly object! It’s a stunning sleight of hand, a fun and edgy moment. Yes you can see the projections behind, but that’s part of the trickery. Hitchcock reminding you about the suspension of disbelief. Enjoy the elegant editing of it all. He adds irises around the action to emphasize the alcohol content, and flashing lights coming at you. You know what it reminds me of? Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. You knew it was fake. You had all those near crashes, doors that suddenly would open, strobe lights and fast turns. It beats any action moment from any “Mission Impossible.” I don’t use that example casually. All the James Bond movies, Bourne flicks and spy movies are inspired by this original. “I’ve grown accustomed to my bourbon” sings Roger.
I recall reading in an article in the Santa Barbara Independent written by Tyler Haden, Eva Marie Saint’s nephew, in which the venerable actress recalls being on the set and told by Hitch to forego making kitchen sink dramas like “On the Waterfront” (which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar). “Women go to the movies, and they’ve just left the sink at home,” he told her. I think he was referring to the illusion of film. How audiences embrace whatever they’re presented with, and this film is all about that. Hitch cropped Saint’s hair to make her more alluring. He asked her to speak in a lower tone. I have always loved this choice. In the seduction scene on the train’s dinner car, listen to her intonations. It’s heightened. I remember seeing it the first time and asking myself if she was putting me on. Well, indeed she is. The audience is thrown off-balance about who she is. Is she good? Is she a femme fatale? Should Roger Thornhill trust her? Should this Roger trust her?
It is the ultimate ‘wrong man who turns into detective to clear his name’ plot which the master had used a few times–including “The 39 Steps”–but now it’s champagne. There’s the propulsive Bernard Hermann score. It also starts with the kinetic typography titles of Saul Bass in green colors using the façade of the 430 Park Avenue Building that reminds me of a giant spiderweb. I get goosebumps every time I see it. Then there’s the bird’s eye shot after the murder at the United Nations, The iconic crop duster at the crossroads which still thrills after so many repeated viewings, and the outrageous “we’re obviously on a set” cliff-hanger on Mount Rushmore. And the final final shot. The cheekily Freudian visuals of a train penetrating a tunnel preceding the two lovers kissing. Gotcha!
Roger Thornhill : “The moment I meet an attractive woman, I have to start pretending I have no desire to make love to her.”
Eve Kendall : “What makes you think you have to conceal it?”
Roger Thornhill : “She might find the idea objectionable.”
Eve Kendall : “Then again, she might not.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, DIRECTV and WatchTCM and to rent on Microsoft, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime, Redbox and FandangoNOW.
Written by Ernest Lehman
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis
Bringing “North by Northwest” to the Screen
“North By Northwest” made its way from script to screen in a rather roundabout way. Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman were under contract to MGM to adapt “The Wreck of the Mary Deare,” based on Hammond Innes’s maritime mystery novel. But Lehman had more than a few issues regarding his involvement in the project, and he approached Hitchcock with a strong suggestion that he quit the project. Unperturbed, Hitchcock said, “Don’t be silly, Ernie. We get along so well together, we’ll simply do something else.” Lehman liked the idea, but still fretted on what to tell the MGM brass. Hitchcock smiled and said, “We won’t tell them anything.” For weeks, Hitchcock and his young screenwriter talked about food, fine wines, the latest scandals and everything but their still-undecided film. Finally, they got around to actually earning the money MGM was paying them every week, but neither one of the filmmakers could agree on a story idea, until Lehman simply said, “I want to do a Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures, Hitch.” The director was receptive to that idea and wistfully added, “I’ve always wanted to do a chase sequence across the faces of Mount Rushmore.” Thus, the seed for “North By Northwest” was planted. So while Hitchcock was filming “Vertigo” (1958) the two would get together and thrash out the script and further plans for a film that was then called In a Northwesterly Direction. (Oddly enough it was also briefly titled “Breathless” which a year later would be the English title of the debut feature from Jean-Luc Godard, a rabid Hitchcock fan.) The resulting screenplay was tight, balanced and intricate; Hitchcock later told Francois Truffaut that, “In this picture nothing was left to chance.” The script also made liberal use of the MacGuffin, Hitchcock’s name for a device that keeps the story in motion even though in itself it’s practically meaningless. The key MacGuffin in “North By Northwest” is the secret information sought by James Mason’s sinister operation even though we never learn why it matters. This was Hitchcock’s personal favorite, one he said had “been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!” By the way, Hitchcock and Lehman never did make “The Wreck of the Mary Deare.” Michael Anderson ended up directing that one with Gary Cooper and Charlton Heston. (.tcm.com)
About Writer Ernest Lehman
Six-time Oscar-nominated and five-time WGA Award-winning writer Ernest Lehman was the only screenwriter in history to receive an honorary Academy Award, in recognition for films such as “Executive Suite” (1954), “Sabrina” (1954), “The King and I” (1956), “North by Northwest” (1959), “West Side Story” (1961), “The Sound of Music” (1965), “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” (1966), and “Hello, Dolly!” (1969). In 1972, Lehman received the WGA’s prestigious Screen Laurel Award for advancing the literature of the motion picture through the years, and for outstanding contributions to the screenwriting profession. He was a WGAw board member throughout his career, sat on many committees, and served on the Writers Guild Foundation board of directors. Lehman was born in New York City on December 8, 1915, and earned a bachelor’s degree at the City University of New York. He held several editorial positions, including publicity copy writing and copy editor before he moved to California to adapt a screenplay for Paramount Studios in 1953. He wrote the story collections “The Comedian and Other Stories,” “Sweet Smell of Success and Other Stories,” and the novels “The French Atlantic Affair” and “Farewell Performance.” He died on July 2, 2005. (www.wga.org)
About Director of Photography Robert Burks
Hitchcock first worked with Burks in 1950, making the classic “Strangers on a Train,” and the chemistry was instant. The film earned Burks Hitchcock’s respect, as well as an Academy Award nomination. Burks proved to be the perfect cinematographer for Hitchcock. For the next 14 years, Burks photographed 11 more of Hitchcock’s best-known suspense classics, including “I Confess” (1953), “Dial M for Murder” (1954), “Rear Window,” (1954), “To Catch a Thief “(1955), “The Trouble with Harry” (1955), “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956), “The Wrong Man” (1957), “Vertigo” (1958), “North by Northwest” (1959), “The Birds” (1963) and “Marnie” (1964). Burks’ work on “To Catch a Thief” earned him an Academy Award, putting him one up on the great director. In 25 years as a director of photography, Burks made 55 features. Sadly, his collaborations with Hitchcock ended May 13, 1968. That’s when Burks and his wife, Elizabeth, died in a fire at their home in Newport Beach. (latimes.com)
About Composer Bernard Herrmann
Bernard Herrmann was born in New York City on 29 June, 1911, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father Abraham, a practicing optometrist (the profession eventually taken up by Louis, Benny’s younger brother), would encourage the future composer’s interest in the arts, taking both his sons to the opera, the symphony, and giving each a musical instrument to play at a very early age (in Benny’s case, a violin). Herrmann, while a student in the New York Public School system, was a voracious reader who enjoyed the works of individualist, iconoclastic writers like D. H. Lawrence, Eugene O’Neill and James McNeill Whistler, the latter of whose essays The Gentle Art of Making Enemies would provide inspiration for him on a more volatile scale, and insure the foundation for his idiosyncratic personality, which colleague and whit Oscar Levant once described “…as an apprenticeship in insolence.” Herrmann also studied the scores of the great symphonists, played his father’s gramophone recordings and attended Carnegie Hall concerts. By the age of thirteen he discovered Hector Berlioz’s Treatise on Orchestration, the book Herrmann later claimed would decide the course of his future career. Herrmann’s formal music education began in 1927 at DeWitt Clinton High School, where one of his classmates was the composer Jerome Moross. From Gustav Heine, his first composition teacher, Herrmann would learn all the basics of his craft — and, perhaps, inspite of him, acquired a taste for the singular and uncommon in music, discovering the works of America’s most unique composers, Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles, both of whom he would later champion as conductor of the CBS Symphony.
Herrmann’s desire to learn more about the work of other American composers resulted in friendships with Copland, Thomson, Harris, Gershwin, Gould and Piston. He audited composition classes taught: by Ruben Goldmark and Bernard Wagenaar at NYU and Juilliard. By the beginning of the American Depression in 1929 Herrmann had enrolled at NYU, where he studied composition with Philip James and conducting with Albert Stoessel, who when he departed for Julliard in 1930 encouraged Herrmann to continued his studies there. He joined the Young Composers Group, headed by Aaron Copland, and whose members included, among others, Henry Brandt, Wallingford Riegger, Robert Russell Bennett, Arthur Berger, and Vivian Fine. In the autumn of 1932 Herrmann returned briefly to NYU, where he attended lectures on composition and orchestration given by the expatriate Australian composer- musicologist Percy Grainger, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the world’s music, coupled with his eccentric style and unorthodox syllabus, would cement Herrmann’s lifelong interest in unjustly neglected scores by composers long since forgotten. By 1933 Herrmann had conducted the New Chamber Orchestra in performances of his own works as well as those by Bax, Bennett, Milhaud and Ives. He was consequently hired the following year by CBS Radio’s music director Johnny Green as his assistant. There Herrmann, who programmed and conducted music of his choosing, introducing his listeners to new and unusual works, many heard for the first time anywhere. In 1937 he was chosen to compose and conduct for the “Columbia Workshop”, a CBS radio series featuring the talents of several great writers and directors. This followed in 1938 with similar work for their drama series “The Mercury Theatre on the Air”, whose brilliant founder-director was a twenty-three year old Orson Welles and whose Holloween Eve production of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds would for each achieve a notoriety neither had anticipated.
In 1941, Herrmann was invited by Welles to Hollywood to compose and conduct the music for his first film “Citizen Kane” (1941). For each, again, their place in the contemporary art form known as the cinema was assured. Although Herrmann composed the music for Welles’ next film, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” his music was badly chopped by the studio. There the Welles-Herrmann collaboration ended. Herrmann, who had already composed several concert works among them “Aubade” (1933), “Sinfonietta for Strings” (1935), “Moby Dick” (1938), Symphony (1941), The Fantasticks (1942), returned to the CBS Symphony, where he remained until it was disbanded in 1951. Herrmann’s film music career, which overlapped his tenure at CBS Radio, was further established through his work at 20th Century-Fox, where the studio’s music director Alfred Newman hired him to score “Jane Eyre” (1943), “Hangover Square” (1945), “Anna and fire King of Siam” (1946), “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947), and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951). During the 1950′s — the final decade of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” — he would compose some of his finest scores, establish a breathe partnership with Alfred Hitchcock, one which includes such unqualified masterworks as “The Trouble with Harry” (1955), “Vertigo” (1958), “North by Northwest” (1959) and, perhaps, most famous of all, “Psycho” (1960). Following the demise of the studio system Herrmann relocated to England, where his formidable talents were rediscovered by a new generation of directors — François Truffaut, Brian DePalma, Larry Cohen and Martin Scorsese. Herrmann, who died in his sleep on December 24, 1975, one day after the final “Taxi Driver” recording sessions, leaves behind a legacy of major film scores, unique in all the cinema; recordings which he conducted for English Decca, Fifth Continent, Lyrita and Unicorn-Kanchana, concert works which are only now being rediscovered by the public on digital recordings and in the concert hall. His fascinating career — and “one-off” personality — have, likewise, been captured in “Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann,” a first-class TV documentary released in 1992… (bernardherrmann.org)
About Director Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock was born in Leytonstone, England on August 13, 1899. He was the youngest of three children born to William and Emma Jane Hitchcock. After attending a technical school at 15, Hitchcock spent the first years of his career as a draftsman, advertising designer, and writer. An interest in photography led to him working in London’s film industry, first as a title card designer for silent movies and, just five years later, as a director. In 1926, Hitchcock married his assistant director, Alma Reville, and in 1928 they had a daughter, Patricia. Hitchcock quickly gained notoriety as a director who delivered suspense, twist endings, and dark subject matter. His own personality and gallows humor were embedded in popular culture through interviews, film trailers, and cameo appearances in his own films. He was popular with audiences at home and abroad, and in 1939 the Hitchcock family moved to Hollywood. In the three decades that followed he would cement his legacy by directing and producing his most successful and enduring works. His television anthology, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” ran from 1955 to 1965 and made him a household name. During his career, he created over fifty feature films in a career that saw not only the development of Hitchcock’s own distinctive directorial style, but also landmark innovations in cinema. In 1929, Blackmail was his first feature film with sound and in 1948, his first colour film was “Rope.” Hitchcock himself has been credited with pioneering many camera and editing techniques for peers and aspiring directors to emulate. Hitchcock collected many professional accolades including two Golden Globes, eight Laurel Awards, and five lifetime achievement awards. He was a five-time Academy Award nominee for Best Director and in 1940, his film “Rebecca” won the Oscar for Best Picture. In 1980, he received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. A husband, father, director, and the Master of Suspense, Sir Alfred Hitchcock passed away on April 29, 1980. (alfredhitchcock.com)