Study Guide

North by Northwest Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    Yeah, this is a guy who needs no introduction.

    But because we're Shmoop, we'll introduce him anyway.

    Alfred Hitchcock is arguably the most influential American director of all time. Certainly he's one of the biggest names in classical Hollywood cinema. Four of his films are on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Best American Films of all time, and his influence can be seen in just about every suspense film ever made. Directors all over the globe idolized him.

    Oh, but Alfed Hitchcock never won the Oscar for Best Directing.

    That's right—the man who would come to be called the "Master of Suspense" was nominated five times for Best Director…but never won. AFI Lifetime Achievement Award? Sure. Irving G. Thalberg Award from the Academy? Yep. Knighted by the Queen? Uh-huh. But even the Directors' Guild of America nominated him and passed him by six times for Best Director, settling for giving him another Lifetime Achievement Award in 1968.

    Maybe suspense movies were seen as too low-brow? Who knows?

    The Beginnings

    Anyway, Hitchcock got his start in the biz in his native England. Directing a series of silent movies—this was before the sound era—Hitchcock built his reputation on the thrills, chills, and even the occasional shrieks that he elicited from audiences. His films—with highly appropriate titles like Murder! (1930)—were about, well, murder and other kinds of mayhem, but they always made room for intrigue and romance. These were slasher movies before there were slasher movies, and from the beginning they were meticulously made. These films and Hitch's first talkies, made in England, did so well at the box office so well that they earned him an invitation to cross the Atlantic.

    Hitchcock brought with him a new film sensibility and visual style. His very first American film, Rebecca (1940), won the Oscar for Best Picture. In the 1940s, he brought a new, suspense-filled cinematic experience to bigger and bigger audiences stateside and beyond. In films like Saboteur (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), and Rope (1948), Hitch honed his technique.

    But it was during the next decade that Hitch's career really took off. The films that he made in the 1950s, including North by Northwest, are still worshipped the world over by film snobs and popcorn-consuming entertainment-lovers alike. Film buffs love these movies, which include classics like Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960), not only for the stories they tell but also for the innovative film techniques they deploy.

    Alfred Hitchcock's John Hancock

    Hitchcock had a signature look to his films: the dramatic shadows and unexpected camera angles; close-up reaction shots to draw the audience into the characters' emotions; filming strange events in familiar locations. (Head over to our "Production Design" section for more info about some of NXNW's more memorable camera work.)

    He had his favorite themes, too: the person wrongly accused; the mysterious blonde; guilt, obsession, quirky characters, dark humor, mistaken identity, and of course, murder. In all his films, strange things happened to ordinary people. The idea was that the ordinary world can be turned upside down in the blink of an eye, and that we live under a constant threat of danger that we don't really recognize. In Hitch's universe, the world isn't as rational or as safe as it might seem to be.

    It's all deliciously unsettling.

    The Suspense Is Killing Us

    But it wasn't just camera angles, elaborate and suspenseful set pieces and plot twists that made his films masterpieces. Hitchcock knew how to use these elements to manipulate the emotions of the audience. Every camera angle, choice of lighting, sound, or wardrobe was his way of speaking to the audience to create a specific feeling (source). Or, as he put it, "I enjoy playing the audience like a piano" (source).

    Hitchcock once famously described the difference between shock and suspense. To truly engage the audience, he believed, you had to provide them with information.

    Here's the example:

    Imagine some people sitting around a table discussing baseball. Five minutes into the conversation, a bomb under the table goes off and blows everyone up.

    …Okay, you've given the audience a few moments of shock.

    What Hitch would do is show the audience the bomb under the table that's set to go off in 5 minutes; place a clock in the room so the audience can see the time ticking away. The audience is involved.They're thinking, "Don't talk about baseball—there's a bomb under the table!" Instead of a few seconds of shock, they've had five minutes of nail-biting suspense.

    …That's what Hitch was after.

    If you're interested in learning more about Master of Suspense, you're in luck. A 2003 survey counted eighty-seven books and hundreds of articles of Hitchcock scholarship. Colleges have entire courses devoted to his films (source).

    When Hitchcock won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the AFI in 1979, he jokingly said that it must mean he was going to die soon (source). And he died the next year at the age of 80, leaving behind an unparalleled body of work and many sleepless nights for his audiences.

    No one will ever again take a shower in a motel again without a twinge of anxiety.

  • Screenwriter

    Hitch's collaboration with his screenwriter for North by Northwest was much less fraught than the experience he'd just had making Vertigo. For the earlier film, he'd had to use multiple writers over the course of developing the script, but for NXNW, Ernest Lehman remained his main man from beginning to end. The screenplay earned him an Oscar nomination and an Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1960.

    A native New Yorker, Lehman was already an accomplished screenwriter when he worked with Hitchcock on NXNW. He'd written screenplays for smash-hit films including Sabrina (1954) and The King and I (1956). After North by Northwest, he'd go on to work with Hitch on one other picture, Family Plot (1976). But he'd also adapted a whole bunch of other stories for the silver screen, from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) to West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). Lehman won more screenwriting awards from the Writer's Guild than anyone in the Guild's history. (Source)

    Not too shabby.

  • Production Studio

    North by Northwest was Hitch's fiftieth flick, but his first and only with MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) Studios, one of the original major Hollywood studios. The film was made toward the end of the studio's golden era, during which MGM scooped up a Best Picture nomination for twenty straight years. In its heyday, the studio was unrivaled for its wildly successful hits and its ability to attract movie stars—"More stars than there are in the heavens," they boasted.

    And Alfred Hitchcock was a star.

    North by Northwest's production was smooth sailing. But there were still a few hitches, if you'll pardon the pun.

    Or, uh, even if you won't.

    Eva Marie, Anyone?

    First, Hitchcock had to insist on his choice of leading lady. He was sure he wanted the relative newcomer Eva Marie Saint to play Eve—so sure that he held out against the studio's demands that North by Northwest's heroine be played by Cyd Charisse. Charisse was under contract with MGM but "left Hitchcock cold" (source). Hitch had a thing for "icy blondes" and was sure that Saint could have that combination of cool glamour and charm that he knew the role required.

    He won that argument with MGM.

    Epically Long

    Hitch still had to clear one more hurdle before the film's release, and this had to do with its length. Clocking in at two hours and sixteen minutes, the fast-paced North by Northwest is, we'll admit, slow to end. Too slow, the studio execs thought, and they pressured Hitchcock to shorten a key scene in the film before its release. But here again he didn't budge, even when the studio begged and "pleaded" (source).

    According to NXNW screenwriter Ernest Lehman, the Master of Suspense knew that his contract guaranteed him the final say, and so he prevailed again. The movie remained epic, released at a full 136 minutes.

  • Production Design

    Principal photography began in August 1957, filmed in Technicolor and Vista Vision, Hitchcock's preferred widescreen format. But let's dig a little deeper here.

    From the first moments, NXNW is innovative and sophisticated. It was the first film to use those kinetic title credits that you came to see in so many James Bond films. A series of angled, intersecting lines appear; the credits move across the screen; and the graphic grid dissolves into the windows of Thornhill's office building, reflecting the traffic and people whizzing by on the street below (source).

    Parks and Rec

    Hitchcock was known for his bold and creative work with the camera, but he had to get really creative for some of the scenes in NXNW. He knew he wanted to start the film with a murder at the U.N., and he'd always wanted to film a chase scene across Mount Rushmore.

    But how?

    Even Hitchcock didn't have enough clout to get permission to film at the U.N., so he had a couple of cameramen pose as tourists to get some still shots that allowed him to recreate the interiors on the MGM soundstages. He used a hidden camera with a long-focus lens to secretly film Grant approaching the U.N. building and managed get a camera high atop a neighboring building to get an aerial shot of him fleeing the U.N. after Townsend's murder (source).

    It's an awesome shot, BTW.

    How about Mount Rushmore? Hitchcock had always dreamed about setting a chase scene there. In 1958, MGM and National Park Service officials reached a tentative agreement that they could shoot the scene on Mount Rushmore as long as no violence was filmed on or near the faces and area below or on any mock-up of the monument. But when Hitch let slip to a reporter what his actual plans were for the chase scene, the permit was revoked. He would have to settle for creating a replica, and even then was only allowed to film below the chins of the giant faces.

    Here's what Hitchcock told an interviewer:

    Now, in that same film there was a final sequence on the faces at Mount Rushmore. Due to the objections of the government, we weren't allowed to have any of the figures over the faces. We were told very definitely that you could only have the figures slide down between the heads. They said this is the shrine of democracy. (Source)

    He wasn't unreasonable, though:

    In North by Northwest during the scene on Mount Rushmore I wanted Cary Grant to hide in Lincoln's nostril and then have a fit of sneezing. The Parks Commission [sic] of the Department of Interior was rather upset at this thought. I argued until one of their number asked me how I would like it if they had Lincoln play the scene in Cary Grant's nose. I saw their point at once. (Source)

    Hitchcock proceeded on a PR tour of South Dakota, assuring the citizens that all he meant to do was to honor their great state and its national treasure. Hitchcock filmed only the scenes in the cafeteria and parking lot on location, and spent $50,000 to build a replica of the monument on the MGM lot. Even then, the Park Service didn't want him to show murder and mayhem on the faces on the Presidents, even if they were replicas.

    Hitchcock didn't really keep his promise, as you can see from that climactic scene that includes plenty of violence. He used some of the still shots of the actual monument as the backdrop for part of the chase and used his replica for the rest. Hitchcock even implied during the run-up to the movie's release that the chase scenes across the faces were shot on location.

    The National Park Service was not amused. NPS Director Conrad Wirth even demanded the film be recalled, stating, "It is an act of deliberate desecration of a great National Memorial to even imply that a game of cops and robbers, for the sole purpose of producing movie thrills, has been played over the sculptured faces of our most honored Presidents" (source).

    But by then, it was way too late. The film had been released to rave reviews, and the Park Service had to settle for removing the credit that acknowledged its cooperation in making the film. Not surprisingly, the film drew tons of visitors to Mount Rushmore—people who probably wouldn't have gone otherwise. That dignified national monument was now part of the popular culture.

    Hitchcock's biographer Donald Spoto wrote that, despite what he said to the authorities, he probably never had any intention of obeying any of the Park Service restrictions that stood in his way (source).

    Except for that sneeze, of course. That would have been just plain ridiculous.

  • Music (Score)

    Hurry, Hurry, Herrmann

    Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock's go-to man for scoring, composed the music for North by Northwest. And there's no denying that he did a bang-up job. What resulted from his collaboration with Hitch was, in one critic's colorful description, "a kaleidoscopic orchestral fandango designed to kick-off the exciting rout which follows" (source).

    And "kick-off" is right. Just think of how important fast-paced music is for a movie made up of so many chase scenes and hot pursuits. When you cue the music, you cue the speed. The score keeps the audience enthralled and gives a sense of unity and direction to the film's most action-packed sequences, which might otherwise seem like an incoherent bunch of shots.

    Herrmann's score does the work of making these shots cohere especially well, sending subliminal messages that let us know when to brace ourselves and when we can relax once a chase has wound down. Needless to say, North by Northwest's score also contributes to the development of the film's love story. So the ultimate moment of relaxation comes at the very end, when soaring strings announce the honeymoon that's also a happily ever after.

    Meet the Composer

    Like Hitchcock, Herrmann lays claim to a cult of his own. There are whole books dedicated to his accomplishments, even if these don't quite amount to the library that Hitch fills.

    Herrmann's renowned for collaborating not only with the Master of Suspense, but also with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane, which often vies with Hitchcock's own Vertigo for the title of Best Film of All Time. It's impossible to imagine what either film would be without its scores—almost as impossible as it is to conceive of North by Northwest without Herrmann's up-tempo music to accompany and fuel its chase scenes.

  • Fandoms

    Since the Master of Suspense made more classics than you can count in one sitting, it makes sense that he'd have a massive and fiercely loyal cult following. And the cult's not just made up of artsy types who devotedly attend summer screenings of Hitch films in indie theaters. Nor is it just made up of techies who ooh and aah over film restorations and eagerly await silent film re-releases, either.

    Nope. The Hitch cult is a much bigger and more inclusive happy family.

    Don't believe us? Head to the big and beautiful Hitchcock Wiki for proof. And here's North by Northwest's very own wiki in case you have a hard time finding it amid all the distractions and attractions of the wild, weird, wonderful Wiki overall. Take it from us: you can spend whole days wandering within that site full of trivia, stills, rumor mills, and other delights. You'll find more Hitch-related fun facts trivia than you thought could exist, and plenty of salacious gossip for the US Weekly readers among you. (We know you're out there.)

    There's also a rival site for die-hard Hitch fans called The Hitchcock Zone. This one leads you to blogs and other fan sites dedicated to the work of the Master. Their sheer number will impress and let you gauge the extent of Hitch's outsized, worldwide influence.

    For the nerdiest among you, never fear. The worldwide association of Hitch devotees reaches deep into the groves of academia. Hitchcock's films gave rise to some of the definitive texts of film studies. Handy collections of essays like this one and this one feature key texts in the ever-expanding field of Hitchcock studies. We told you: there's truly something for everyone under the great big umbrella of His Royal Hitchness.