North by Northwest (1959)

Sixty-three years ago today the film North by Northwest premiered at the United Artists Theatre in Chicago. Exactly how you are not supposed to have a favorite child, you are also not supposed to have a favorite Hitchcock film, but if we are sitting next to each other in a dark theater and no one could hear me and I will swear on Thelma Ritter’s grave I never said it, I might just whisper “this is my favorite.” Then again, the same could be said if we were watching Rear Window, or The Trouble With Harry, or Lifeboat, or, or, or…

Title: North by Northwest
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Ernest Lehman
Starring: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, and Jessie Royce Landis
Music by: Bernard Herrmann
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Edited by: George Tomasini
Color process: Technicolor
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Distributed by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date: July 1, 1959 (Chicago)
Running time: 136 minutes
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: $4.3 million
Box office: $9.8 million

In 1958, two thugs in a New York City hotel bar hear a waiter paging George Kaplan, whom they are looking for. When advertising executive Roger Thornhill summons the same waiter, he is mistaken for Kaplan, kidnapped, brought to the Long Island estate of Lester Townsend, and interrogated by spy Phillip Vandamm. Vandamm disregards Thornhill’s protestations and arranges his death in a staged drunken driving accident. Thornhill survives only to be arrested for driving under the influence. Thornhill fails to convince his mother and the police of what happened. Police take him back to Townsend’s home, where a woman says he showed up drunk at her dinner party. She also says that Townsend is a United Nations diplomat.

Thornhill and his mother go to Kaplan’s hotel room. He is not there, so they sneak inside. Thornhill answers the room phone: the thugs are calling from the lobby. He escapes them and visits the U.N. General Assembly building to meet Townsend—who is not the man he met on Long Island. One of the thugs throws a knife and Townsend falls dead. Thornhill is photographed as he grabs the knife, giving the appearance that he was the murderer; Thornhill flees and attempts to find the real Kaplan. A government intelligence agency realizes that Thornhill has been mistaken for Kaplan, but they decide against rescuing him for fear of compromising their operation: Kaplan is a non-existent agent they created for a plan to thwart Vandamm.

Thornhill sneaks onto a train, the 20th Century Limited to Chicago. On board, he meets Eve Kendall, who hides him from the police, and the two establish a relationship—on her part because she is secretly working with Vandamm. Later she tells Thornhill she has arranged a meeting with Kaplan at an isolated rural bus stop. Thornhill waits there, but is attacked by men in a crop duster plane. After trying to hide in a cornfield, he steps in front of a speeding tank truck; it brakes and the airplane crashes into it, allowing him to escape.

Thornhill reaches Kaplan’s hotel in Chicago. Kaplan had already checked out before the time when Kendall claimed she talked to him. Thornhill goes to her room and confronts her; she leaves. He tracks her to an art auction, where he finds Vandamm purchasing a Mexican Purépecha statue. Vandamm leaves his thugs to deal with Thornhill; in order to escape, Thornhill disrupts the auction until police are called to remove him. He says he is the fugitive murderer, but they release him to the government agency’s chief, “The Professor”, who reveals that Kaplan was invented to distract Vandamm from the real government agent: Eve Kendall. Thornhill agrees to help maintain her cover.

At the Mount Rushmore visitor center, Thornhill—now willingly playing the role of Kaplan—negotiates Vandamm’s turnover of Kendall to be arrested. Kendall then shoots him, seemingly fatally, and flees. In fact her gun was loaded with blanks. Afterwards, the Professor arranges for Thornhill and Kendall to meet. Thornhill learns Kendall must depart on a plane with Vandamm and Leonard. He tries to dissuade her from going, but is knocked unconscious and locked in a hospital room. Thornhill escapes the Professor’s custody and goes to Vandamm’s house to rescue Kendall.

At the house, Thornhill overhears that the sculpture holds microfilm and that Leonard has discovered the blanks remaining in Kendall’s gun. Vandamm indicates that he will kill Kendall by throwing her from the plane. Thornhill manages to warn her with a surreptitious note. Vandamm, Leonard, and Kendall head for the plane. As Vandamm boards, Kendall takes the sculpture and runs to the pursuing Thornhill. They flee to the top of Mount Rushmore. As they climb down the mountain they are pursued by Vandamm’s thugs, including Leonard, who is fatally shot by a park ranger. Vandamm is taken into custody by the Professor.

Kendall meanwhile is hanging on by her fingertips on the mountain. Thornhill reaches down to pull her up, at which point the scene cuts to him pulling her—now the new Mrs. Thornhill—into an upper berth on a train. The train then enters a tunnel.

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