North by Northwest (DVD, 2009, 2-Disc Set, Special Edition) Reviews
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North by Northwest (DVD, 2009, 2-Disc Set, Special Edition)

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The Man on Lincoln's Nose

Jul 4, 2001 (Updated Jul 4, 2001)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Hitchcock got everything perfect on this one: casting, production and script.

Cons:It gives crop-dusters a bad name.

The Bottom Line: As screenwriter Ernest Lehman says, "This is the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures."


A man stands alone at a deserted crossroads in the middle of a prairie. A crop-dusting plane drones in the background, spraying the air on the horizon. The sun beats down mercilessly. The man, dressed in a charcoal-gray suit, is nervously awaiting a rendezvous with a mysterious federal agent who might or might not hold his fate in the balance.

Cars come along the highway, passing the man with an approach-and-fade Doppler effect drone. The plane buzzes in the background. A pickup truck stops. A man gets out. Could he be the agent? The two men stare at each other across the expanse of road. Finally, the first man walks over to the second and tries to engage him in conversation, hoping to see if he’s a spy or not. Turns out, the other fella is just a farmer waiting for a bus. Before he gets on board, however, he turns to the other man and says, "That’s funny….that plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops."

It is, in my book, the most chilling line in all of movie history. The man in the suit is, of course, Cary Grant and the plane is about to attack him, buzzing right over his head and firing a burst of machine-gun fire in Alfred Hitchcock’s best film, North by Northwest. Hitch was doing something different in this scene—using a bare expanse of prairie to set the stage for one of his most terrifying sequences. No crowded lifeboats, showers or concert halls here—just flat earth everywhere Cary Grant looked. It’s the antithesis of the film-noirish dark street corner where the only illumination comes from a streetlamp. Here, we get an empty cornfield in the bright blaze of daylight.

We see the plane at the very beginning of the quiet, seven-minute sequence, but we don’t pay any attention to it. Not until the farmer remarks that it’s an odd thing. Then, when Grant is all alone out there and the crop-duster suddenly aims for him, we see a quick parade of emotions march across his face: puzzlement, concern, fear, then outright terror. Whenever I think of North by Northwest, I always get the image of an impeccably dressed man running full-tilt through a cornfield, tie flapping over his shoulder while a plane looms just over his head.

The classic crop-dusting scene is a great one, but there’s so much to enjoy about this, Hitchcock’s 37th sound feature. Released in 1959, North by Northwest was bookended by two other masterpieces: Vertigo and Psycho. To say Sir Alfred was at his peak in these years is an understatement. While I love many of his films (especially Notorious, Vertigo and the original Thirty-Nine Steps), I always come back to North by Northwest. I’ve seen it seven times so far and, without exception, it has never failed to thrill, amuse and captivate me.

Recently, I “came back to it” via the DVD version. It’s a true Hitchfreak’s dream, featuring one of the best “behind-the-scenes” documentaries I’ve ever seen (40 minutes of detailed production history hosted by female lead Eva Marie Saint) and a delightfully droll audio commentary by screenwriter Ernest Lehman. The voice-over by the still-spry 86-year-old writer (who also penned the scripts for The Sweet Smell of Success, West Side Story and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) is worth the purchase price alone. Lehman’s voice, though hoarse with age, is never too intrusive as he discusses specifics about some scenes and waxes nostalgic during others. I’ll be quoting from his commentary and snippets from the documentary throughout this review.

North by Northwest is a culmination of everything that made Hitchcock one of the best in the business: the mistaken identity, the camera shots that make us pay attention to the smallest details, the wry humor, the icy blond (here it’s Eva Marie Saint in one of her best performances) and the big, climactic chase scene (running around Mt. Rushmore in this one). It’s as if Hitch woke up one day and said, “I think I’ll make the perfect movie today.”

Lehman: I wanted to make the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures—something that had wit, sophistication, glamour, action and lots of changes of locale.

Though James Stewart and Gregory Peck lobbied for the part, I can’t imagine anyone but Cary Grant as Madison Avenue ad man Roger O. Thornhill who is mistaken for a federal agent by the Bad Guys in the opening scenes. His dry humor and fussy neatness is a perfect counterbalance to all the chaos that surrounds him. He may be crawling around Mt. Rushmore, but he does so with neat-as-a-pin style.

[Trivia note: One of the original titles Hitchcock proposed was The Man on Lincoln's Nose. He admitted he'd always wanted to make a movie that involved a chase around the presidential sculptures.]

One of the things I love about this movie is its pace. Starting with the opening credits and Bernard Hermann’s pulse-pounding score, North by Northwest wastes no time—BAM! Grant is mistaken for a federal agent, BAM! the baddies shanghai him off to their hideaway, BAM! when he won’t talk (“You’ve obviously got the wrong guy” doesn’t count), they pour bourbon down his throat, load him into a car, then send him on his way, drunkenly careening down a winding coastal highway.

And that’s all in the first fifteen minutes. Your popcorn isn’t even cold yet.

Though Lehman says the drunk ride down the twisting road goes on too long, I think it works just fine. It’s thrilling and funny at the same time (about the only time you’ll ever catch me saying DUI is “funny”). Like everything else in the movie, Grant’s sense of comic timing is perfect.

Thornhill: I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders dependent upon me. I don’t intend to disappoint them by getting myself slightly killed.

Hitchcock doesn’t let up after that first 15 minutes. Before he can even have the chance to change his suit, Thornhill starts zipping across the country, always one step ahead of both the Bad Guys and the cops. This movie will have you so far on the edge of your seat, you might just spill that bowl of popcorn.

Watching North by Northwest for the seventh time, I was struck by how much tension there was in this film—not only the close shaves the dapper Grant finds himself in, but also the sexual tension between Grant and Saint, who plays Eve Kendall, the mistress of Philip Vandamm (James Mason), the head of the Bad Guys (who also include a young Martin Landau). Underneath their unflappable exteriors, Thornhill and Kendall develop a sizzling relationship early in the film that, surprisingly for its time, piled on the double entendres pretty thick. Sure, Grant was old enough to be Saint’s father, but let’s face it, didn’t they make a cool pair of lovers?

Roger: The moment I meet an attractive woman, I have to start pretending I have no desire to make love to her.
Eve: What makes you think you have to conceal it?
Roger: She might find the idea objectionable.
Eve: Then again, she might not.


Somehow this movie, more than any other, manages to make sex cool and steamy at the same time.

Lehman: “I felt like I didn’t write dialogue—I wrote repartee.

There’s a kissing scene in Eve’s claustrophobically-small train compartment that ranks right up there with the all-time great kissing scenes (including that between Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious). Normally, Hitchcock would have revolved the camera around the two lovers, but since the railroad car set was so small, he had Grant and Saint be the ones to move. And so, you see them doing a sort of smooch-ballet, turning around in a slow circle in front of the camera.

Grant had the ability to melt women’s (and some men’s) hearts with one glance—nay, make that half a glance. His romantic charm had both spigots turned on in North by Northwest. One of the greatest illustrations of his universal appeal comes during a brief sequence, a little throwaway bit near the end of the movie. Thornhill has been locked in a hospital room and escapes by climbing out the window and into a neighboring room. A young woman, hair in curlers, sits up in bed and yells, “Stop!” She fumbles for her glasses, puts them on, takes one look at Cary and says, in a dreamy voice, “Stop.” Cary pauses, chuckles, then wags his finger at her, “Ahh-ha-ha…” as he nimbly leaves the room.

The movie is filled with delightful moments like that, thanks to Lehman’s sparkling collaboration with Hitchcock. Here’s another example of Lehman’s way with words, from earlier in the film when the villains are trying to pressure Thornhill to confess that he is, in fact, who he is not:

Vandamm: Do you intend to cooperate with us? I’d like a simple “yes” or “no.”
Thornhill: A simple “no” for the simple fact that I simply don’t know what you’re talking about.


Lehman gave Hitchcock the best script of his career. The dialogue is smart, funny and always memorable. “How does a girl like you get to be a girl like you?” is another example.

Lehman: “There were nights when I’d go home deep in gloom because I had written only one page, or a page-and-a-half. I was constantly painting myself into corners and not knowing how to get out of them.”

So how does a movie like this get to be a movie like this? When that most magical of Hollywood events occurs: the planetary alignment of all the elements—director, screenplay, costumes, music and acting. A movie like this is as rare as a crop-duster dusting crops where there ain’t none.


Recommend this product? Yes

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