Movie Reviews

Movie Review: North by Northwest – Mistaken Identity Leads to the Modern Thriller

Written by Ernest Lehman
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Many films considered to be classic thrillers or horror films don’t hold up as well to modern scrutiny.  I can remember the first time I watched The Birds.  All I could think of was “Is that it? Is that this is about?” Don’t get me wrong, I thought it was a great film and in the context of the original time it was released it was quite chilling.  But my trepidation of letting my daughters watch it one wintry day was unfounded and I wondered why I had steered clear of it for so many years.

Through the years, much has also been made of North by Northwest.  I wondered if it would live up to the hype and all that I’d heard about it or if it would leave me disappointed as well.

Cary Grant is advertising executive Roger Thornhill.  One afternoon at a meeting in a New York hotel, he is mistaken for Mr. Kaplan, a spy, and abducted by two men. When he is deemed uncooperative simply because he has no idea what they are talking about, they attempt to kill him and make it look like a drunk driving accident.  Roger escapes but now must convince authorities of what happened to him in addition to dodging the pursuit of those who still believe him to be a spy.

Along the way, he meets Eve Kendall (portrayed by Eva Marie Saint), who seems to be setting him up with those who believe him to be Mr. Kaplan.  It’s never clear throughout the film which side she is really and truly on until the very end.  At times she seems eager to help Roger, while at others it seems she is loyal to someone else.

The story takes many twists and turns before it culminates in a classic battle in the shadow of Mount Rushmore.

I have to say I was impressed with North by Northwest; more impressed than I’d been with other classic Hitchcock films.  Although to some the story of a man mistaken for a spy might not be that original, the style in which the story is told and what’s going on is revealed is done quite well.  The cards are held pretty close to the vest and slowly revealed.  It helps to keep the viewer in the same place as Roger throughout the film, guessing as to what’s going on and who is on his side.

Of the films I’ve seen so far directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock, North by Northwest has to be the best thriller I’ve come across.  Although there were a few moments where the story seemed tailored to a particular scene either he or writer Ernest Lehman envisioned, it flows well for the most part and doesn’t feel forced.  Unlike most modern action-oriented thrillers, there is a good story linking together these moments which keeps the viewer interested in the action.

Cary Grant is superb as Roger Thornhill.  Roger is the type of guy who is used to getting what he wants, and suddenly all that he’s sure of in the world seems to be pulled out from under him when he’s embroiled in this case of mistaken identity.  Rather than have him as a cool, confident man who just runs with it, Roger is sort of the anti-hero as he just wants to extract himself from the mess and get back to his “normal” life as soon as possible.  The problem is, the more he tries to do this the more mired he becomes in the muck of this story that threatens to swallow him.  Grant doesn’t overplay anything.  He doesn’t overplay Roger’s bewilderment at what’s happening nor his moments when his actions can be described as heroic.  It’s nice to see a leading man who can capture the subtleties of a role and parlay that into a more believable character rather than having to be the one who solves every problem, roots out the bad guys, and wins the girl, all while acting like the biggest jerk on the planet.

Eva Marie Saint was excellent as Eve and was a strong female lead at a time when it seemed like more were wilting flowers in need of rescuing.  She is actually more in the know than Roger when they first meet on a train.  Although Roger propositions her, rather than be offended or run from him, Eve manages to put him in his place and handle him.  There is plenty of romance between the two and although Roger is not shy about sending hints her way about wanting to get her into bed, she more than holds her own.  It’s nice to see a woman who doesn’t immediately fall for a leading man’s charms nor has there be a definite conclusion that they will be together in the end.

The heavies in North by Northwest are handled by Martin Landau and James Mason.  Both are excellent in their roles, not looking like the typical baddie of the time.

It’s hard to believe the whole film was written around Hitchcock’s idea for a fight scene on Mount Rushmore, but according to the special features, that’s exactly how North by Northwest came to be.  I have to give a lot of credit to writer Ernest Lehman who did a terrific job crafting an excellent thriller from a few early scenes sketched out by the legendary director.  The dialogue between the characters should be the envy of every modern thriller and the type of film they should aspire to be.

The DVD has plenty of extras including commentary by the writer and a documentary on making the film.  The print looked excellent with no jumps in the picture.  The sound was great and even; there were no points while watching this where I found myself adjusting the volume.

By far North by Northwest has become my favorite Hitchcock film.  The story is great and the suspense of the story holds up well to the passage of time.  Nothing is obvious or a given and it keeps a viewer interested.  It’s rare that the passage of time has so little effect on a film, but this is the case here.  If you haven’t checked out Hitchcock before or found you don’t have an affinity for his work, check out North by Northwest and you might be surprised.


• Commentary with Screenwriter Ernest Lehman
• “Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North by Northwest” hosted by Eva Marie Saint
• Theatrical Trailer
• Hitchcock Trailer
• Cast & Crew Biographies
• Stills Gallery
• Music-Only Track
• TV Commercial

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