Alfred Hitchcock was never content with mastering a single genre. Having spent the 1950s perfecting the murder mystery (Rear Window), crime drama (To Catch a Thief) and psychological thriller (Vertigo), the master of suspense ended the decade by turning his lens to the world of spies and statecraft.
Now 60 years on from its premiere in Chicago, North By Northwest remains the perfect espionage thriller, providing the template for James Bond, Ethan Hunt and six decades of imitators.
Eschewing the slow-burn suspense and hushed atmosphere of Hitchcock’s earlier spy thrillers like The 39 Steps (1935) and Saboteur (1942), North By Northwest pioneered a new breed of action cinema rooted in larger-than-life adventure and momentous set-pieces. Indeed, the film’s lasting influence on action movies is all the more striking when compared against its descendants in 21st-century multiplexes. Recent instalments in blockbuster franchises from Mission: Impossible to Fast & Furious all borrow liberally from Hitchcock’s North By Northwest playbook and its colourful world of style, sex and explosive adventure.
The film’s screenwriter Ernest Leham reportedly set out to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures”, which crucially meant reteaming the director with one of his favourite leading men, Cary Grant. The Bristol-born actor stars as Roger Thornhill, a New York advertising man who is mistaken for government sleuth George Caplan and forced to flee from both law enforcement and murderous enemy agents. His mission to clear his name and discover the identity of the real Caplan has only one hitch – Caplan doesn’t exist, he’s a decoy invented by the American government to draw attention from their actual undercover operation.
Alfred Hitchcock often argued that the details of plot were incidental to his films, popularising the term “MacGuffin” to describe a plot device which exists to motivate the story but is ultimately inconsequential to the audience. North By Northwest is perhaps the purest expression of this concept. George Caplan, this story’s MacGuffin, is literally non-existent.
The film’s taut structure has become the standard for Hollywood actioners, as it leaps from one set-piece to another with just enough plot to justify the excitement. According to Hitchcock’s biographer, John Russell Taylor, Lehman and Hitchcock sketched an outline for North By Northwest by suggesting exciting action sequences (a murder at the United Nations; a chase across Mount Rushmore) and then finding a story to link them together. Towards the final act, there’s even a moment when the roar of an aeroplane engine drowns out two characters’ voices while they discuss the details of the plot, as if the director is willing us to stop worrying about the boring stuff and enjoy the ride.
In fact, Hitchcock was an artist who enjoyed challenging himself as much as his audience. The ingenuity and variety of the action sequences in North by Northwest was due in large part to his desire to avoid cliche. In a charming 1965 interview with French director André S. Labarthe, Hitchcock explained that the film’s famous crop-duster sequence was an exercise in subverting the expectations of his audience. The inevitable attempt on our hero’s life would not take place on a dark street corner, as is convention, but a sun-soaked cornfield, and the assailants would not arrive in a black limousine, but a biplane.
It might seem like an unwieldy way of putting a script together, but this process of developing elaborate set-pieces in exotic locations and then finding a plot to fit has been copied by generations of action filmmakers. When Roger Moore took over the mantle of the 007 franchise in 1973, the films began to sell themselves largely on the merit of their latest death-defying stunt, whether it was a sports car somersaulting through the air, a mountaintop parachute jump on skis, or mid-air fisticuffs over a parachute.
More recently, Christopher McQuarrie, the writer/director of the two most recent Mission: Impossible films (and, according to reports, the next two), admitted on the Empire Podcast that he composes his films in a similar manner to Hitchcock and Lehman, with his stories ultimately existing to serve whichever hare-brained stunt Tom Cruise has most recently dreamed up.
It would be remiss to discuss the influence of North By Northwest without paying homage to Cary Grant’s lead performance as a smooth Madison Avenue executive and reluctant spy. Grant made a career of playing suavely self-assured heroes, and Thornhill is the archetypal example. Elegantly dressed and well-travelled, he is every bit the proto-James Bond; it’s little surprise that Grant was one of Ian Fleming’s first choices to play 007 in the film adaptation of Dr No, three years after North By Northwest.
Thornhill may lack the expertise in hand-to-hand combat or gadgetry that came to characterise Bond, but his fine taste and capacity for seduction is instantly recognisable. Likewise, Thornhill’s beautiful grey suit was cemented as the uniform of a spy when a similar model was adopted by Sean Connery’s 007 (the hero of Fleming’s books was, in contrast, quite a sloppily dressed figure). There’s also plenty of Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt to be found in Thornhill, as a man who depends on his wits to survive and rarely acts on more than his own instinct. He is the ultimate figure of aspiration for anyone who wishes they always knew what to say and how to act, and look great doing it.
Grant’s affable turn is ably supported by Lehman’s script, which has a lightness of touch and a measure of self-awareness in its own absurdity. The dialogue is littered with pithy exchanges and acerbic one-liners – who can forget Thornhill’s lament that “I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders depending upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed”. The supporting cast is populated by similarly witty characters, not least James Mason’s villainous Phillip Vandamm, and they build an impression that the world of espionage is an exclusive and glamorous club where well-tailored gentlemen and alluring ladies exchange barbed witticisms in between martinis and assassinations.
This stylishly heightened reality has become the cinematic standard for the various worlds in which spies and action heroes operate; a parallel universe that was later perfected by the Bond films and since parodied by the likes of Austin Powers and OSS-117. Similarly, the film’s travelogue romp through the northern states of America has been echoed as recently as the globe-trotting antics of Vin Diesel’s Fast & Furious crew and Keanu Reeve’s violent odyssey in the John Wick films.
It’s easy to understand why the world of North By Northwest has proved so enduring, as the sense of humour and sophistication that permeates the film provides its characters with a romantic and attractive quality, despite the near-contrast scrapes with death and destruction that they endure.
Some might say that Hitchcock’s obsession with style and elaborate set-pieces betray a preoccupation with surface, but the counter-argument is that it represents a rejection of surface, and a desire to burrow directly to what really matters: excitement. All it takes is a simple case of mistaken identity to send Cary Grant across the United States and through a series of increasingly elaborate attempts on his life. He is pursued by trains, planes and automobiles; across dusty corn fields in the baking afternoon sun, and over national monuments in the dark of night. It’s a loosely plotted but tightly scripted masterpiece of action cinema at its most thrilling, inventing a world to which audiences have ceaselessly returned.