North by Northwest (1959) Review

Genre : Action, Thriller, Classic

Duration : 136 minutes

Director : Alfred Hitchcock

Stars : Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau, Leo G. Carroll


North by Northwest is a charming suspense movie, a film that is unparalleled even today in terms of producing an optimal mix of plot, humour, action, and intrigue without resorting to clichés.


Directed by Alfred Hitchcock at his very best, the box-office hit film is possibly one of the most entertaining movies ever made and one of Hitchcock’s most famous mystery stories in his entire career. It has all the classic elements of a Hitchcock film, well-timed suspense, catchy lines, excellent conversations, plenty of plot twists that constantly keep the audience guessing, and not to forget a compelling cast. Each of the twists is calculated precisely and at every direction the audience is told only the barest minimum they need to know. Many people consider this film to be Hitchcock’s most accomplished effort. Brilliantly written by Ernest Lehman, the screenplay keeps the audience engaged throughout the film, it keeps the viewer guessing but also provides answers in a timely fashion. For example, when things start going wrong for the protagonist near the beginning, we aren’t forced to wail until the end to uncover the plot against him. Enough clues are provided in the early stages so the intelligent viewer can find out what’s going on and move to the next mystery. This intellectual ingredient, always a Hitchcock trademark, is sadly lacking in today’s so-called “thrillers.”

The quick-paced, glamourous espionage thriller includes a tongue-in-cheek odyssey away from the city, a memorable adventure for a man who is normally covered by his wealth and prestige. A successful yet light-hearted Manhattan advertising executive is suddenly in danger of losing everything, vulnerable, isolated, and caught up in an unexplainable series of events, it’s a case of mistaken identity. After being kidnapped by a group of foreign spies who accuse him as a government undercover Federal agent, the media are also pointing fingers at him as a murder suspect on-the-run after the murder of a United Nations diplomat. He is chased cross-country by a conspiratorial group of spies, the police, and the FBI. He is eventually forced to assume another man’s identity while confronted with murder, mayhem, a world of spies and counterspies, a domineering and unbelieving mother, and an untrustworthy, seemingly mysterious blonde, femme fatale lover. His final redemption takes place on the Presidential faces carved on Mount Rushmore, the most modern American image of all at the time.

One to watch : North by Northwest exceeds expectations

However, even though it’s easy to pick out these familiar features, they never make things predictable, and they all fit naturally into the plot. For it to be a classic, support must come from the actors, the script, and the score. As you might expect, North by Northwest is solid in all three of these parts. There are lead actors, that is, performers who have a bigger part than the others, and then there are lead actors, who seem to command all of the others to dramatic excellence. Cary Grant matches the latter definition in probably and most definitely his career-best performance. Full of sharp lines combined with a glint of fun in his eyes. He’s dangerously charming, full of that Golden Age appeal that is rarely seen these days. He was never more at home than in this role of the advertising-man-on-the-run. He handles the suprised look, the quick smile, and the dialogue with professional aplomb and grace. In casting Eva Marie Saint, Mr. Hitchcock has found another hidden gem. He really brings out the best of her, never shown by the actress before. Although she is seemingly a hard, designing type, she also emerges both the sweet heroine and the glamourous charmer. Eva Marie Saint pulls off her ice-blonde routine to perfection, and looks fantastic in a series of beautifully tailored costumes. Let’s not forget to mention Bernard Herrman who provides another great orchestral score to heighten the mood from start to finish. The man was as brilliant with musical notes as Albert Einstein was with numbers. Here, his work is as good as his usual standard of excellence.

Alfred Hitchcock obviously loves telling the absurd story with confidence. It’s fast-paced, surprising, and highly enjoyable. But like all Hitchcock films, there are lots of things in the plot that aren’t too realistic in real life, but it moves so quickly that you never stop to notice, and you wouldn’t care if you did. This film also contains the best naughty joke Hitchcock ever mentioned. The final sequence is Eva Marie Grant and Cary Grant pulling each other into bed in a train. Seconds later they show us the train entering a tunnel. You figure it out.

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One thought on “North by Northwest (1959) Review

  1. dbmoviesblog says:

    Great review. What a classic. I sat with no high expectations, and the film kept me glued. Marvelous entertainment.

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