North by Northwest (1959) was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason. The screenplay was written by Ernest Lehman. Running time: 136 minutes.
I must have seen North by Northwest 20 times or more. What is there not to love about this magnificent 1959 thriller? Written by the great Ernest Lehman, it is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest forays into “wrong man” territory, as Cary Grant’s glossy but feckless advertising exec Roger O Thornhill gets mistaken for a spy who does not even exist.
The film’s most famous scene remains Grant being pursued acrosss parched fields by a murderous crop-duster, and the closing set-piece on the face of Mount Rushmore still packs a similar punch. But what you might have forgotten about this film is how very funny it is.
There’s a superabundance of sparkling, often marvellously terse one-liners (when asked what the “O” stands for, Thornhill’s resigned and emotionally relevant answer is, “Nothing”) – and, my, how wittily Grant delivers them.
Cary Grant in North by Northwest ALAMY
And that’s the thing. For all Lehman’s razor-sharp writing, Hitchcock’s expert pacing, Bernard Herrmann’s superb fandango-inspired score, and James Mason and Martin Landau’s silky villains (Landau possibly in love with Mason, and certainly jealous of his affection for Eva Marie Saint’s luxuriant mystery-woman), the film belongs above all to Grant.
Besides the constant wit of his delivery, the Bristol-born former circus-tumbler is simply fabulous in his lusty encounters with Saint, convincingly hunted elsewhere, and yet never less than droll even when the chips are down. He also expertly, subtly reveals how his hollow ad-man (remember that telling middle initial, and for that matter his whole monogram) is gaining in substance as his ordeal continues.
And then, there are those two lovely glitches to look out for. A prudishly dubbed Saint telling Grant, “I never discuss love on an empty stomach”, but her mouth saying not “discuss”, but “make”. And that young extra in the Rushmore café, plunging his fingers into his ears in anticipation of a gunshot that no one in the crowd knows is coming.
As Telegraph Film Critic Tim Robey says: "Pure pleasure is what Hitchcock came close to achieving with this peerless wrong-man-running chase thriller, one of his most effortlessly entertaining films from any period."
Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, who had won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in On the Waterfront (1954) REX FEATURES