Friday, 14 August 2015

North by Northwest: The Hitchcock Picture to End All Hitchcock Pictures

"Fifty years on, you could say that Hitchcock's sleek, wry, paranoid thriller caught the zeitgeist perfectly:  Cold War shadiness, secret agents of power, urbane modernism, the ant-like bustle of city life, and a hint of dread behind the sharp suits of affluence.  Cary Grant's Roger Thornhill, the film's sharply dressed ad exec who is sucked into a vortex of mistaken identity, certainly wouldn't be out of place in Mad Men.  But there's nothing dated about this perfect storm of talent, from Hitchcock and Grant to writer Ernest Lehman, co-stars James Mason and Eva Marie Saint, composer Bernard Hermann and even designer Saul Bass, whose opening credits sequence still manages to send a shiver down the spine." (Time Out, London edition)

North by Northwest was not the brainchild of Alfred Hitchcock:  he is merely the man who adapted it to the big screen.  The original idea was created by journalist Otis C. Guernsey who, inspired by a fictitious spy created by the British, whom the Germans followed around during World War II (see "Operation Mincemeat") hatched his own fictitious agent.  The story involved an American salesman who travelled to the Middle East, was mistaken for a secret agent and got caught in a web of intrigue.  

Hitchcock bought the story for $10,000 and, along with writer Ernest Lehman, adapted it for the silver screen.  Lehman vowed that he would make "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures".  The famous director changed the salesman to a Madison Ave. executive.  He clothed the character in a gray flannel suit, one that the GQ fashion experts would later call "the best film suit in history".

Hitchcock tossed around plot ideas:  how about a murder at the United Nations or a Detroit car plant or a showdown in Alaska?  And how would the villains attack the main character?  He suggested a tornado.

James Stewart was the original choice for the starring role in North by Northwest.  However, in the end Hitchcock picked the dashing and debonair Cary Grant, who cut quite a figure in the gray flannel suit.  

The director settled on a murder scene at the United Nations building in New York City.  The building was relatively new in 1959, opening soon after the Second World War.

Hitchcock chose a crop dusting scene, rather than a tornado, in Indiana.  The shot, with Cary Grant running down a road, rows of corn on either side, has been compared to the painting "Le Paquebot ou L'Estran" by Leon Spillraerts.  The famous scene was rated number one by Empire magazine, among the 1001 Greatest Movie Moments. 

Hitchcock decided on a showdown in South Dakota at Mount Rushmore.  The portly director suggested that the main character would hide in Lincoln's nose, sneeze and be discovered by the villains.  He even suggested calling the movie "The Man in Lincoln's Nose", but in the end he settled on "North by Northwest" perhaps taken from the Hamlet line "I am but mad north-northwest."

While the Hitchcock changed the title of the movie, the effect remained the same:  the audience was mesmerized.  Journalist Nick Clooney called it "Hitchcock's most stylish thriller, if not his best".  

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