Screenwriter Ernest Lehman wanted to write the ultimate Hitchcock movie. Hitchcock himself wanted to have fun after the psychological intensities of Vertigo (and its stinging box office failure).
Together they came up with North By Northwest, a film loosely based on a story about Allied spies creating a fictitious agent in World War 2 to throw the Nazis off their scent.
But, this is also the apotheosis of Hitchcock’s “wrong man” movies: a series of films he’d been making since the silent days, and which bore such gems as The 39 Steps and, suitably enough, The Wrong Man.
Small wonder that many regarded this as the first James Bond movie to hit the screens. With its high-level powerbrokers, espionage theme, deadly and beautiful women, nail biting set-pieces, and Cary Grant’s magnetic performance of suave insouciance and gritty resolve, there is more than a whiff of Fleming ink here.
And like Bond's missions, Grant’s pursuit of George Kaplan, the superspy James Mason has mistaken him for, is so much MacGuffin. What matters is the predicaments Hitchcock and Lehman have fun devising, and how the debonair hero manages to squeeze himself out.
Most famous is the isolated prairie, where is she or isn’t she femme fatale Eva Marie Saint sends the hapless ad-man to meet Kaplan. Hitchcock uses widescreen VistaVision to place Grant as a dot in the vast landscape, and the observation from a passer-by that a plane is dusting crops where there aren’t any, to slowly crank up the tension.
When the plane swoops in for the kill, it's the directors best realised action sequence.
But, such near-fatal misses as the drunken clifftop drive, an auction scene where Grant must dodge Mason’s goons, and the cliffhanging Mount Rushmore climax are popular cinema at their most thrilling.
Incidentally, while filming at the monument Grant charged fans 15 cents an autography, despite a $450,000 salary (plus profits), and $315,000 overtime. Nice work if you can get it.
To ensure we don’t take the silliness seriously, Lehman peppers the script with self-referential nods to performances, witty wordplay, and in Grant’s Mad Men style exec, a blank slate upon which audiences can project their fantasies. Even the O in Grant’s character’s name, Roger O. Thornhill, stands for nothing.
And in James Mason and fey, wide-eyed "enforcer" Martin Landau, the film reprises the two camp, cosmopolitan killers from Rope.
Hitchcock succeeded in wanting to give popcorn munchers a movie to smile at. And he was never this playful again.
His next movie was Psycho, ironic at Grant's character has issues with his dryly disapproving mother here. After changing horror cinema forever with that shower scene, the Master of Suspense would explore his darker imaginings for the rest of his career.