Our latest movie in our Films & Architecture series is another ’60s classic, this time by the master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. In North by Northwest we see a New York in the heyday of its architectural glory, with one scene taking place at a newly constructed United Nations building. In fact, the last scene takes place in a “house” that, under Hitchcock’s instructions, was meant to seem designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (in reality, the house was just another set design). The film shows a variety of urban spaces, and puts special emphasis on the contrast between the densities of urban and rural realms.
As always, enjoy and comment!
Original title: North by Northwest Year: 1959 Runtime: 136 min. Country: United States Director: Alfred Hitchcock Writer: Ernest Lehman Soundtrack: Krishna Levy Cast: Lee Pace, Catinca Untaru, Justine Waddell
Advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for “George Kaplan”, and is kidnapped by Valerian (Adam Williams) and Licht (Robert Ellenstein). The two take him to the house of Lester Townsend on Long Island. There he is interrogated by a man he assumes to be Townsend, but who is actually foreign spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Vandamm orders his right-hand man Leonard (Martin Landau) to get rid of Thornhill. Thornhill is forced to drink bourbon, but manages to escape a staged driving accident. He is unable to get the police, a judge, or even his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) to believe what happened, especially when a woman at Townsend’s residence says he got drunk at her dinner party; she also remarks that Lester Townsend is a United Nations diplomat. Thornhill and his mother go to Kaplan’s hotel room. While there, Thornhill answers the phone; it is one of Vandamm’s henchmen. Narrowly avoiding recapture, he goes to the U.N. General Assembly building, where Townsend is due to deliver a speech. Thornhill meets Townsend and is surprised to find that the diplomat is not his interrogator. Valerian throws a knife which hits Townsend in the back. He falls dead into Thornhill’s arms. Without thinking, Thornhill removes the knife, making it appear that he is the killer. He is forced to flee.
Knowing that Kaplan has a reservation at a Chicago hotel the next day, Thornhill sneaks onto the 20th Century Limited. On board, he meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who hides Thornhill from searching policemen. Unbeknownst to Thornhill, Eve is working with Vandamm and Leonard, who are in another compartment. In Chicago, Eve lies to Thornhill, telling him she has arranged a meeting with Kaplan.
Thornhill travels by bus to an isolated crossroads with flat countryside all around. Another man (Malcolm Atterbury) is dropped off, but he eventually leaves. Then a crop duster dives at him. Thornhill hides in a cornfield, but the plane dusts it with pesticide, forcing him out. Desperate, he steps in front of a speeding gasoline tank truck, which stops just in time. The plane crashes into the tanker. Thornhill learns that Kaplan had already checked out two hours before Eve claimed to have met him. Suspicious, he goes to Eve’s room. As he is getting cleaned up, she leaves. From the impression of a message written on a notepad, Thornhill learns her destination: an art auction. There, he finds Vandamm, Leonard, and Eve. Vandamm purchases a Tarascan statue and departs. Thornhill tries to follow, only to find the exits covered by Valerian and Leonard. Trapped, he begins placing nonsensical bids, making such a nuisance of himself that the police are called to escort him away.
Thornhill identifies himself as the fugitive wanted for Townsend’s murder, but the officers are ordered to take him to the Professor (Leo G. Carroll), a spymaster. The Professor reveals that George Kaplan does not exist. He was invented to distract Vandamm from the real government agent: Eve. As he has inadvertently put Eve’s life in danger, Thornhill agrees to help maintain her cover. In Rapid City, South Dakota, Thornhill (now pretending to be Kaplan) meets Eve and Vandamm in a crowded cafeteria. He offers to let Vandamm leave the country in exchange for Eve, but is turned down. When Thornhill grabs her arm, Eve shoots him and flees. Apparently dead, he is taken away in an ambulance. At a secluded spot, however, he emerges unharmed, having been shot with blanks. To his dismay, he learns that, having made herself a fugitive, Eve will accompany Vandamm out of the country that night. To keep Thornhill from interfering further, the Professor has him locked in a hospital room. Thornhill escapes and slips inside Vandamm’s mountainside home undetected. He overhears that the statue contains some microfilm. While Eve is out of the room, Leonard fires the gun she used at Vandamm, demonstrating how the shooting was faked. Vandamm decides to throw Eve out of the airplane once they are airborne. Thornhill manages to warn her.
On the way to the airplane, Eve grabs the statue, and she and Thornhill are chased across the face of the Mount Rushmore monument. Valerian lunges at them, but falls to his death. Eve slips and clings desperately to the steep mountainside. Thornhill grabs her hand, while precariously holding on with his other hand. Leonard appears and grinds his shoe on Tornhill’s hand. Fortunately, a police marksman shoots Leonard. Vandamm is taken into custody. The scene transitions from Thornhill pulling Eve up to safety on Mount Rushmore to him pulling her, now his wife, onto an upper bunk on a train. The final shot shows their train symbolically speeding into a tunnel.
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