AFI Countdown Challenge #40: North By Northwest

The classic Hitchcock formula, if you want to call it that, is to take an ordinary person and somehow put him (it’s almost always a him unless it’s a couple) in a situation he is completely unprepared for.  That person has to deal with killers of all types and eventually prevails, using only common skills that most anyone in the audience might reasonably expect to have.  They aren’t martial arts masters or fighters or ex-spies or ex-military or anything.  They’re just regular folks in an extraordinary situation.

North by Northwest is more or less the prototypical example with one noteworthy difference from the other Hitchcock films I’ve seen showing this standard plot.

That big difference is casting.  The lead here isn’t Hitchcock’s usual leading man (if he could be said to have one) Jimmy Stewart, but rather Cary Grant.  Now, when I covered Rear Window, I pointed out how odd it was that Stewart was continually referred to as a “young” man that was trying to fend off the marital desires of his long-suffering girlfriend.  But at least Stewart wasn’t being treated as a smooth operator that all the ladies fell for.  Granted, I’m not sure Stewart ever was that sort of actor.  Stewart actually quit playing romantic leading men when he figured he was getting far too old to play them opposite young actresses in their twenties.

Cary Grant, on the other hand, was.  Now, Grant was 55 years old when this film came out.  His leading lady, described as being in her mid-twenties, was a 35 year old Eva Marie Saint.   The twenty year age gap between the two isn’t exactly something the film hides.  Grant’s Roger Thornhill is twice-divorced man with gray streaks in his hair, and his one shirtless scene does look like the torso of a 55 year old man albeit one who is in reasonably good shape for his age.  Here he is though, portrayed as a ladies man who romances Saint’s secret agent for an unnamed U.S. government agency, and I’ll be honest:  I can’t see Jimmy Stewart pulling the same routine as effectively.

Heck, at one point, Grant decides to sneak out of the hospital he’s being confined in to rescue Saint, he sneaks off a balcony and into a neighboring room.  A woman patient in her sleepwear sternly tells him to stop, then she put on her glasses, sees it’s Grant, and repeats the word in a more breathy and seductive manner.  Was Grant (remember, he was 55 years old at the time) still considered that handsome?

Well, maybe it doesn’t matter, but it does show Hitchcock changes things up a bit for a different leading man.  I am sure Stewart could have pulled off the romancing of Saint given the chance.  He would have been less dashing, perhaps, but the changes could have been made to work.  I don’t think we would have gotten the nameless nearsighted woman in the hospital.

So, let’s look at the film itself.  I commented before how sudden Hitchcock’s endings sometimes feel.  This one isn’t any different in that regard, but this one also begins just as suddenly.  Grant’s Roger Thornhill goes to a business lunch and two thugs mistake him on the spot for some operative they are on the look out for.  They kidnap Thornhill and take to see master villain Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) within the first ten minutes.  Thornhill insists that he isn’t the man they think he is, and they refuse to believe him, finally setting him up to die in a simulated drunk driving accident.  Thornhill survives, but rather than go back to his regular life, he decides to look into the life of the man he was mistaken for.

You know, I love The Manchurian Candidateand part of the reason I love that film is the overall sense of paranoia it creates.  The weird conversation that film’s protagonist has when he meets his love interest doesn’t sound like normal human speech and could easily be tied into the brainwashing plot, but it isn’t.  Here it’s different.  Thornhill meets Saint’s Eve Kendall and she actually is a spy watching him, and she isn’t even particularly stealthy about it since she openly says she bribed the porter on their train to sit them together.  Thornhill must be used to this sort of thing, so he doesn’t question it too much despite his being framed for murder.  Plus, he puts on his best game since it’s a Hitchcock film so of course there’s an attractive blonde involved.

But really, the only real skill Thornhill has that sets him apart from most men is his ability to make women swoon.  When he has to deal with other things, like not going off the road while superdrunk or famously avoid a murderous cropduster, he really doesn’t have much to keep himself alive that most people wouldn’t possess.  What saves his life from the cropduster?  Dumb luck.  What saves him and Eve on the equally famous chase over Mount Rushmore at the end of the film?  More dumb luck when the other agents show up to shoot the last remaining assassin after the other one slipped and fell off a giant president’s head.

Now, if there is one thing to add, it’s that Thornhill was at least a little active in his destiny.  He could have decided to let the weirdness pass and not look further into the life of a man who, it turned out, didn’t even exist.   He could have just as easily let the authorities look into what happened to Eve after they faked his death for Vandamm’s benefit.  Instead, he does the sort of thing his ex-wives would have never thought he was capable of doing:  he gets involved and becomes an active agent in his own destiny.  He doesn’t even do it out of a sense of patriotic duty.  He seems perfectly content to let the United States lose the Cold War if it means keeping Eve alive and well.

Seeing as how the film ends with Thornhill, now apparently married to Eve, pulling her into a train car’s berth and then said train going into a tunnel, well, I think we can guess why.

NEXT UP:  It’s time to skip to 1965 and see the epic romance involving Russians and snow, a film running over three hours long, Doctor Zhivago.


Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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