North By Northwest: Review
Some of the greatest pairings in cinematic history are not between two actors, but between an actor and a director. Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock are a prime example of such a remarkable collaboration and North by Northwest is undoubtedly their absolute best of four very impressive films (Suspicion, Notorious and To Catch a Thief were the others). And with the added bonus of an imaginative storyline and spectacular supporting cast, North by Northwest is arguably the best thriller ever made. Now, with a brand new remastered edition recently released, intrigue has never looked better.
Grant plays an everyman (albeit a sophisticated one) who, within minutes of the opening credits, finds himself caught up in a fantastical case of mistaken identity. This simple mistake leads to his abduction, an attempt on his life, and a frame-up for murder. His only chance to evade incarceration, or even death, is to find the man he has been mistaken for. Yet his search leads to more intrigue when he meets a beautiful and mysterious blonde (Eva Marie Saint) on a train. Little does he know that the woman helping him is the mistress of the very man who wants him dead - a delightfully sinister James Mason. Although a government official (Leo G. Carrol, a Hitchcock staple) comes to Grant’s aid, it may be too late to protect him from Mason’s henchman, played oh-so chillingly cool by a young and ominous-looking Martin Landau, who chases Grant and Saint across the face of Mount Rushmore in a climax only Hitchcock could imagine.
Ultimately, it is plot that carries a suspense film, but style sure helps a whole hell of a lot. Ernest Lehman’s Oscar-nominated script has both. And in the hands of Hitchcock, well, it just doesn’t get any better than this. Between the two men, the film bristles with a constant sense of urgency from the get-go, with the ingenious set up of Grant as a savvy Madison Avenue adman who constantly thinks on his feet in order to outmaneuver the wilds of Manhattan. Not only does this poise Grant as a man capable of outthinking his opponent, but demonstrates the character has the skills required to survive on the field of battle (even if it’s a cornfield).
Of course the crop dusting scene is one of the most recognized in the history of film. With a combination of super-wide crane shots (before there were such things) and close ups so personal you can count every handsome crease in Grant’s face, the unique chase sequence remains unequalled in style and execution. And it is Grant with whom Hitchcock held the greatest faith of pulling off that challenging portrayal. Although many a Hollywood star has been caught up in some far-fetched situation, it takes someone as poised and grounded as Grant to believably convey a sense of terror as he improvises a fortuitous escape.
North by Northwest has style, wit, charm, and sophistication mixed with espionage and subterfuge, all guided by one of the most gifted directorial hands ever to grace the silver screen. With a pedigree like that, remastered or not, North by Northwest remains one of the most satisfying films ever made.