Study Guide

North by Northwest

North by Northwest Introduction


Release Year: 1959

Genre: Biography, Drama, History

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writer: Ernest Lehman

Stars: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint


Picture a Mad Man: a suave, witty advertising exec with a couple divorces under his belt—impeccably dressed, irresistible to the ladies and a little too fond of the drink. He's good at manipulating the public, but he's not really who everyone thinks he is.

Thinking of something like this guy?

Move over Don Draper—Roger Thornhill is in the building.

In fact, Alfred Hitchcock's comic spy thriller North by Northwest is Mad Men on steroids: Madder Men, you might say.

Why's that? Well, for one thing, the film was made in 1959, just before Season One of the AMC series begins. Plus, NXNW stars the great Cary Grant who's an even hotter and wittier Jon Hamm.

That's right. We went there.

Of course, we're not the first to make the comparison. Even Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, acknowledges the influence of NXNW on the show (source).

So our Mad Man is Roger Thornhill, and Hitch's film gets off to a glam start in his world of multi-martini business meetings, ritzy hotel bars, and killer tailored suits. But Thornhill doesn't get to stay home for long. A case of mistaken identity has people chasing him all over the map, and the film follows him as he travels by train, plane, and, unforgettably, old-fashioned foot to escape them.

Thornhill's been taken for an undercover agent named George Kaplan. Cold War spies think they've found him out, and when he won't fess up—that is, when Thornhill won't admit he's Kaplan—they try to kill him. When that doesn't work, they frame him for the murder of a high-powered delegate at the United Nations.

Thornhill flees aboard the 20th Century Limited in search of answers. He wants to know who set him up and assumes that the real George Kaplan will clue him in. In the process, he crosses paths with the lovely and mysterious Eve Kendall, this film's Hitchcock blonde and unmistakable femme fatale who's more involved than Thornhill realizes.

This film about international intrigue broke records in Hollywood for high-paced action, offering up one high-speed and high-altitude chase after another. Just when you think there's no room left on the edge of your seat—after the crop-duster sequence, say, which made movie history—the next chase proves you wrong.

Generally considered Hitch's best caper film, NXNW scored a perfect 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, scooped up 3 Oscar noms (what, no wins?), and is ranked 55th on AFI's Greatest American Films of all time. Film legend Cary Grant is at his suave, comic best, and Hitch crashed the U.N. and Mount Rushmore to give us a rollicking tour of the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Witty dialogue, steamy seduction scenes, dizzying action, ahead-of-its-time camera work. It's all proof, according to the UK's Daily Mail critic Cristopher Toomey, that "great action movies don't have to be meaningless and moronic" (source).

Don't let all the "witty" and "sophisticated" turn you off, though: this movie's full of action from start to finish. So check out the original Mad Man and decide for yourself—Team Draper or Team Thornhill?

What is North by Northwest About and Why Should I Care?

Hitchcock is known as the Master of Suspense and he's so true to his nickname here that you basically get schooled in the technique of suspense just by watching.

But that's just Hitchcock. What about North By Northwest? We couldn't decide, so we narrowed it down to two reasons to care:

(1) NXNW was hugely influential for later filmmakers. And we don't just mean the fancy French film-school types who worshipped Hitch as the ultimate cinematic stylist, the alpha and omega of auteurs. We're talking about down-and-dirty, all-American directors, the guys who brought you action flick franchises like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. You can see NXNW's traces in almost every action movie since 1959. And you can impress your friends with pointing out how NXNW practically created the James Bond franchise.

(2) The movie is a beautiful distillation of the Mad Men period aesthetic. It shows New York and every other city and site it visits at their glamorous best. But that's just the beginning, literally, since every last visual detail, from clothes to architecture, is on point. It's the ultimate retro-cool experience.

Still not convinced? You're one tough customer. Maybe this will help to convince you: a fellow film buff's list of lots more reasons why North by Northwest still rules.

Trivia

One scene that Hitchcock wanted in the movie was to be filmed at an auto assembly plant in Detroit. We'd see the assembly of a car from start to finish, and when it rolled off the line and the door was opened, a body would fall out. (Source)

Even after filming half the movie, Cary Grant still didn't understand the plot. Hitchcock kept it that way, since he thought it would give the actor the perpetual state of confusion that his character found himself in. (Source)

In 2006, Todd McEwen wrote an article in Granta titled "Cary Grant's Suit," which tells the story of NXNW from the perspective of the suit. We liked that suit, too, but seriously? (Source)

An epic movie, North by Northwest is also the subject of an epic study by Raymond Bellour, who set a new standard for close analysis of the film. (Source)

North by Northwest Resources

Websites

IMDb Explains It All
It's all here: plot, analysis, trivia, and much more.

Rotten Tomatoes
See why every critic on the site loved the film. What's not to like?

Hitchcock Emojis!
Our personal favorite site. This one wins the prize for cleverness: Hitchcock film plots told through emojis. Be sure to scroll down for North by Northwest.

Articles and Interviews

Kissing Cary
Leading lady Eva Marie Saint dished some dirt not too long ago. For the salacious best of this interview, check out her comments on kissing Cary Grant.

Grant's GQ-worthy Style
GQ magazine pronounced Grant's classic—and classy—grey suit in North by Northwest "the best suit in film history."

Hitchcock S'explique
This interview's only partly in French, so bear with the first few seconds. Hitch has illuminating things to say about how the crop-dusting sequence is "like a nightmare."

Classic
In this classic set of interviews—a foundational text in Hitchcock studies—the director shares thoughts about his whole career, including his work on North by Northwest.

Northern Legacies
Believe it or not, not everyone's thrilled about the influence that North by Northwest had on more recent action films. Here's why.

Hitch vs. South Dakota
PBS has the total scoop on what happened when the director planned the climactic scene on Mount Rushmore.

The Gray Lady Speaks
Here's some of those "witty" and "sophisticated" comments again in the New York Times original review of the film in 1959.

Book or TV Adaptations

North by North Quahog
An episode of Family Guy spoofs the film, including a plane chase sequence.

Farther North
We're not aware of any books based on North by Northwest's original screenplay, but a book version of the screenplay is available, according to the always-helpful Hitchcock Wiki.

"Alfred Hitchcock TV"
There's a whole lot on offer on this all-Hitchcock, all-the-time YouTube channel, including lots of trailers and teasers for all kinds of Hitch films.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Hitch had his own popular TV show beginning in 1955. Episodes don't feel much like North by Northwest, but it's interesting to know what else the Master of Suspense was up to when he was at work on his masterpiece of a spy film.

Video

Trailer Time
Someone at MGM came up with a great idea for North by Northwest's trailer: Hitchcock's a travel agent advertising a vacation package, and he leads the viewer on a tour of the destinations throughout the United States that Thornhill visits during the course of his adventures. In addition to being truly clever, the trailer's a reminder of the crucial importance of setting in this particular Hitchcock experience.

A Bird, A Plane
Here's a clip from North by Northwest's breathtaking and game-changing crop-duster scene. We can't get enough of it.

Then There's the Lego Version
The iconic crop-duster scene re-imagined.

Hitchcock on Hitchcock
The master enjoyed talking about his work in interviews. Here's one of them.

Truffaut Loves Hitchcock
In a new film, famous modern-day directors discuss how the 1967 book about the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews affected their work.

Audio

"Soundtrack Suite"
Listen to a sampling of some of the film's most memorable musical themes here.

Sound Edit Yourself
To us, this seems like a really tough assignment: re-editing the sound effects in NXNW's crop dusting sequence, with the original sounds removed. Would you be up to it?

Hitchcock/Truffaut
The iconic French director idolized Hitchcock and sat down with him for a week in 1962 for a series of interviews that became a best-selling book. These are the tapes of the interviews, covering a wide range of topics in filmmaking.

Images

Lefties
Never underestimate what a little good old-fashioned visual analysis can do. This shot reveals the amazing fact that both stars in North by Northwest were lefties. Gotta love 'em.

Love Birds
Here's another still, this one used to advertise North by Northwest. The shot doesn't appear in the film itself, but entices viewers to pay the price of admission. And this particular shot is especially evocative, because it projects an image of the happiness—the marital bliss—that the film's famous last shot promises, but doesn't quite show.

Lobby Cards
Check out this link for a full set of lobby cards. As their name suggests, these publicity stills, smaller-scale posters, showed coming attractions in the lobbies of movie theaters way back when. Compared to today's film posters, they look hand-painted, and they're exquisite.

My, What a Big Nose You Have
Roger and Eve on the monument.

Everyone Loves a Chase
Even Big Bird gets into the act in Follow That Bird.

Missing the Bus
Did you miss Hitchcock's cameo at the beginning of the film?

MGM ♥ Hitchcock
The director and the logo at dinner.

Did We Mention the Suit?
It has roped sleeveheads. What are roped sleeveheads??