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The Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.
—Ernest Lehman, screenwriter
A classic 1959 thriller by Alfred Hitchcock, in which an innocent man mistaken for a spy is chased halfway across the USA by enemy spies searching for a MacGuffin. The most famous and memorable scene from the movie is the crop duster chase, which has often been homaged.
The film begins when Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is abducted by enemy agents working for the master foreign spy Vandamm (James Mason), currently masquerading as the diplomat Lester Townsend. Vandamm believes Roger to be an American spy, George Kaplan, who has been tailing Vandamm. When Roger insists he is not the spy, Vandamm orders him killed. His henchmen, led by the sinister Leonard (Martin Landau), decide to stage a fatal accident by pouring alcohol down Roger's throat then placing him at the wheel of a stolen car.
One car chase later, Roger escapes but is Wrongly Accused of drunk driving. To clear his name, he goes to the UN, where the real Townsend is giving a speech. Roger, surprised to find that it wasn't Townsend who abducted him, is even more surprised when Townsend's corpse lands in his arms. Now wrongly accused of murder, Roger flees New York.
After a train journey, where Roger meets Femme Fatale Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), and the famous cropduster incident, Roger eventually follows Eve to an auction where Vandamm is bidding on a statue. To escape the spy, Roger disrupts the auction, deliberately getting himself arrested by the police.
The police are ordered to take Roger to the Professor, an American spymaster, who explains the plot. George Kaplan never existed; he was only a red herring, meant to divert the enemy from the real agent. While Roger's actions initially provided a useful inadvertent distraction, he has ended up raising Vandamm's suspicions towards the real spy, so the Professor proposes a complex charade to resolve the situation.
When this goes wrong, Roger and Eve end up being chased across Mount Rushmore by Leonard and Vandamm's other henchmen.
The movie was a major stylistic influence on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: in fact, Leo G. Carroll, who played Alexander Waverly in that series, plays a very similar character (sobriquetted "The Professor") in the film, and the TV show drew its "innocent gets caught up in international intrigue" shtick from the film.
This film contains examples of:
- Action Survivor: Roger.
- Affably Evil: Vandamm.
- The Alcoholic: Thornhill himself.
- Ambiguously Gay: Leonard. "Call it my women's intuition."
- Artifact Title: Early drafts of the script called for the final showdown to take place in Alaska, but no one could come up with a better replacement title after the climactic scene was changed to Mount Rushmore.
- Artistic Title: The opening sequence, designed by Saul Bass, depicts the credits sliding up and down the side of a Manhattan office building.
- As You Know: The truth about Kaplan is explained incredibly awkwardly by the Professor to the only other people in the world who already know about it.
- Better Manhandle the Murder Weapon
- Big Applesauce
- Blatant Lies: Thornhill's explanation for why the cops are combing the 20th Century Limited for him.
Roger Thornhill: Seven parking tickets.
- Bond Villain Stupidity
- Broken Heel: The heel of Eve's left shoe breaks while she and Thornhill hang on Mount Rushmore. Not surprisingly, she then ditches her shoes.
- California Doubling: the iconic crop-duster scene. Supposedly set in Indiana southeast of Chicago, but actually filmed near Bakersfield, California. Can't imagine why: if you actually drive into Indiana southeast of Chicago, you'd think, "Wow, this looks like where they filmed that scene from North by Northwest where Cary Grant was chased by the crop duster."
- Because it's cheaper to film in California than take all the crew and equipment to Indiana.
- The California coastline stands in for that of Glen Cove, New York, where Thornhill was originally to meet his fate. The north shore of Long Island is rocky, but not THAT rocky.
- The Chase
- Climbing Climax: The final fight on the Mount Rushmore.
- Cold War
The Professor: War is hell, Mr. Thornhill. Even when it's a cold one.
- Cool Car: That Mercedes convertible they try to kill Thornhill in.
- Cool House: Vandamm's Frank Lloyd Wright-style abode in South Dakota.
- Cool Train: The Twentieth Century Limited.
- The Corpse Stops Here
- Creator Cameo: Alfred Hitchcock is seen missing a bus during the opening credits of the film, shortly after his name appears on the screen.
- Daylight Horror: The crop-duster attack.
- Deadpan Snarker: Roger.
"Not that I mind a slight case of abduction now and then, but I have tickets for the theater this evening, to a show I was looking forward to and I get, well, kind of unreasonable about things like that."
Vandamm: Has anyone ever told you that you overplay your various roles rather severely, Mr. Kaplan? First, you're the outraged Madison Avenue man who claims he's been mistaken for someone else. Then you play the fugitive from justice, supposedly trying to clear his name of a crime he knows he didn't commit. And now, you play the peevish lover, stung by jealousy and betrayal. It seems to me you fellows could stand a little less training from the FBI and a little more from the Actor's Studio.
- Depraved Homosexual: Leonard is implied to be one.
- Disney Villain Death: Valerian and Leonard (although it's arguable Leonard was already dead from the gunshot).
- The Dragon: Leonard
- Evil Brit: Vandamm
- Evil Minions
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Professor
- Exposition Cut: When Roger is brought up to speed, we do not hear the exposition since we already know this stuff.
- Femme Fatale: Eve Kendall.
- Funny Background Event: During the scene where Eve pretends to shoot Thornhill, you can clearly see a kid in the background plug his ears in anticipation. Eva Marie Saint notes in the making of special that there were other good takes, and she has no idea why that one was used.
- Gambit Pileup: Vandamm, the Professor, Thornhill and Eve have their own elaborate plans, which clash constantly.
- Going by the Matchbook: Roger writes a warning to Eve on his personal matchbook with his initials(R.O.T.) on them and secretly throws it next to her in Van Damm's house. When they first met on the train earlier Eve noticed his matchbook and asked what the "O" stood for. Roger's reply: "Nothing". This was a sly dig at producer David O. Selznick, with whom Hitchcock had regular battles for creative control; his middle initial also didn't stand for anything.
- Hammer and Sickle Removed For Your Protection
- He Knows Too Much
- Idiot Ball: Not once, but twice the villains choose an overly elaborate method to try and kill Thornhill, from which he is easily able to escape: first by getting him drunk and putting him behind the wheel of a car so that he'll drive into the ocean and it'll look like an accident, second by running him over with a crop-duster in the film's most iconic scene. Hitchcock did acknowledge that the crop-duster scene is needlessly complex, but pointed out that no one thinks that while they're actually in the cinema.
- Indy Ploy: Thornhill quickly becomes adept at making escape plans on the fly.
- Internal Reveal: The audience learns the truth about Kaplan at the end of the first act. See Plot-Based Voice Cancellation for when Thornhill finds out.
- Invented Individual: George Kaplan
- It Was Here, I Swear
- Knife Nut: Valerian.
- Literary Allusion Title: From Hamlet:
I am but mad north-northwest; when the wind is southerly,
- MacGuffin: Both the microfilm and George Kaplan, since the first two acts of the movie are about Thornhill and Vandamm both looking for the nonexistent spy.
- Mistaken for Spies: The entire basis of the film.
- Momma's Boy: Thornhill, at least to the extent that it's Mother who he calls to bail him out of jail and assist him in casing "Kaplan"'s room at the Plaza.
- Monumental Battle
- Mr. Exposition: The Professor
- Overly Narrow Superlative: "You're the smartest woman I've ever spent the night with on a train."
- Playing Gertrude: Jessie Royce Landis, who plays Thornhill's mother, was only seven years older than Cary Grant in real life.
- Plot-Based Voice Cancellation: The Professor explains the whole "George Kaplan" scenario to Thornhill at the airport, and his voice is drowned out by the roar of plane engines. This is actually a rather clever inversion of the trope, in that we the viewers already know about the stuff he's talking about, so making the conversation inaudible is sparing us from the redundancy.
- Product Placement: Northwest Airlines has a sign at Midway Airport.
- Which makes for a very subtle, nonverbal Title Drop: Thornhill and the Professor fly north by Northwest from Chicago to Rapid City.
- Remonstrating with a Gun: Actually a knife, but the effect is the same. Townsend is surreptitiously stabbed in the back by one of Vandamm's henchmen as he talks with Thornhill at the UN. As he falls foward, Thornhill catches him, and seeing the knife pulls it out of Townsend's back. Only then does the large crowd around them notice what's happened, and the trope is duly invoked.
- Shout-Out: Seeing Vandamm and Leonard together with Eve at the Chicago art auction leads Thornhill to comment, "Now that's a picture only Charles Addams could draw."
- In the same scene Vandamm tells Roger that with all the roles he's been playing, he could "use a little less training from the FBI and a little more from the Actor's Studio." Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau both studied there.
- Shout-Out/To Shakespeare: Some theorize that the title refers to Hamlet's line that he's only pretending to be insane: "I am but mad north-northwest."
- Sissy Villain: Leonard refers to his suspicion of who the double-agent is as his "woman's intuition" and Vandamm comments that he thinks Leonard is jealous of his relationship with Eve.
- Sorry, Ociffer...: Thornhill is force-fed a quart of bourbon and put behind the wheel of a car on a cliffside road to kill himself. He manages to escape his foes, but gets caught by the police. At the station he absolutely admits that he's drunk, but can't get them to believe the circumstances.
- Spanner in the Works: Thornhill screws up both plans (see below) before being incorporated into them.
- Spiritual Successor: To previous Hitchcock films The Thirty-Nine Steps and Sabotage.
- Staged Shooting: Eve shoots Roger in the Mt. Rushmore restaurant with blank cartridges.
- Take My Hand
- Traitor Shot: Provides the page image.
- Unwitting Pawn: Thornhill, up to a certain moment, is this to both the Professor's and Vandamm's plans.
- Visual Innuendo: Train and tunnel version.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Licht, Vandamm's henchman wearing a hat, disappears without explanation midway through the film. In the script, he was one of the two men in the cropduster but there's nothing in the film to suggest this.
- The Windy City
- Word of Gay: Martin Landau stated in interviews that he portrayed Vandamm's henchman Leonard as a closeted homosexual who was secretly jealous of Eve Kendall's relationship with his employer. In the scene where he revealed to Vandamm that Eve was secretly working for the Feds, he commented, "Call it my woman's intuition if you will..."
- Wrongly Accused