Fathom events, March – On the evening of Sunday, April 2nd, thousands of delighted moviegoers were treated in hundreds of movie theaters to the classic thriller North by Northwest, directed by the incomparable Alfred Hitchcock. A hapless advertising executive named Roger Thornhill, played by Cary Grant, is mistaken for a fictional government agent by a gang of spies head by Vandamm, their ruthless ringleader played by James Mason. Thornhill is kidnapped and then framed for the murder of a United Nations diplomat. He escapes his sinister captors and goes on a run across America in his attempt to clear his name. Eva Marie Saint plays Vandamm’s mistress Eve, but with a twist. Martin Landau has his film debut as Vandamm’s creepy right-hand man.
Thornhill has two memorable and iconic encounters that have become part of our rich film lore. The first is the encounter he has with a sinister crop-duster, a scene filmed in the San Joaquin Valley nears Bakersfield, California, about two hours north (by northwest?!) of L.A. (For devoted fans, it took place on Garces Highway). Originally, Hitchcock envisioned a tornado threatening him, but for tech reasons, settled on the bi-plane and an exploding oil tanker. It works beautifully, a fact to which film history attests.
The next harrowing scene in which the bad guys pursue Thornhill takes place in the Black Hills of South Dakota on the massive sculpture of four presidents carved into Mount Rushmore which depicts Washington, Jefferson, T. Roosevelt, and Lincoln. Thornhill along with Eva, find themselves clawing across the face of Lincoln, and in fact, Hitchcock had even thought of naming the film “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose” after a short story he had read by that name which inspired the scene.
Some actors who had aspired to roles in the film included James Stewart and Gregory Peck for the role of Thornhill and Grace Kelly and elizabeth Taylor as Eve.
The Production Code Administration had difficulties with the sexual content of the film, but Hitchcock prevailed. Martin Landau’s character was scripted as a homosexual jealous of Vandamm’s mistress, but Hitchcock agreed to have him be more subtle than the script demanded.
And incidentally, if you think you heard hints of the music from Psycho or Vertigo, you’re right. The music North by Northwest was composed by Bernard Herrmann who wrote the score for all Hitchcock films and is considered to be one of Hollywood’s greatest composers of all time.
North by Northwest is a classy thriller and an iconic American treasure, and it’s Hitchcock at his very best which is pretty good, indeed.
by Lidia Paulinska and Hugh McMahon