North By Northwest (1959) review

North By Northwest (1959) review

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Well, it's that iconic shot innit.
Well, it’s that iconic shot innit.

From a modern perspective, there’s something a little creepy about watching a 65 year old man get intimate with a woman who is in her 20s. This is one of the many delights of watching North By Northwest, also known to most people as “that film where Cary Grant is chased by a bi-plane”. Yes, this is the film with that infamous sequence sat somewhere in its rather bum-numbing running time. It’s a plot that doesn’t seem to want to end. Just when you think it’s going to move towards a resolution we get another twist in the story. At least it has a rather breathtaking final showdown atop Mount Rushmore going for it alongside that bi-plane sequence.

Despite my reservations about the running time, North By Northwest is a solid thriller. Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, a man mistaken for a spy and ultimately chased across country by the authorities (who want him for murder) and the bad guys who want him dead. The bad guys are led by the oft-imitated James Mason, a man whose name you can never say without doing so in either his accent, or by doing an impression of Eddie Izzard doing an impression of James Mason’s accent. Funnily enough, Grant’s character is merely an advertising expert, yet soon finds himself heavily embroiled in the spy world. Mason meanwhile oozes one part charm with one part sinister intent as the big bad, although as is often the case he doesn’t have anywhere near as much to do as he deserves – on the other hand, giving him more material would have made this a four hour film so we should count ourselves lucky.

"You may be Martin Landau, but try being Jemmzzz Messsonnnn."
“You may be Martin Landau, but try being Jemmzzz Messsonnnn.”

As for the main leads, Cary Grant is affable and likeable as Thornhill in spite of his permanently orange complexion, perfectly balancing bewilderment with a growing understanding of how best to deal with the situation he has found himself in. Eva Marie Saint, meanwhile, looks the part as potential femme fatale Eve Kendall. Is she exactly who she appears to be? You’ll have to watch it to find out.

In Hitchcock we can at least trust there to be a compelling human drama at the core of everything. Designing every shot to within an inch of its life can reap great rewards, and it’s refreshing to know that certain camera angles, plot points or key areas of focus have been specifically chosen by Hitchcock to serve a purpose. In this respect the film is a triumph, a demonstration of a master of his craft at work.

There’s a lot more to it than that iconic bi-plane sequence, obviously, but despite how solid the story, production values and performances are, you might still be wishing it would get a move on and get to the point already. If you have the stamina for it and you’re a fan of Hitchcock’s work then there is a lot to enjoy and admire in North By Northwest. If you’re looking for a much more reined in Hitchcock movie that isn’t going to give you bed sores then you’re better off seeking out Rear Window or even Psycho.

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