Wednesday, July 29, 2009

North By Northwest Turns 50

(Warning: Here there be spoilers.)

It was 50 years ago yesterday that Alfred Hitchcock's classic spy thriller North by Northwest was released. North by Northwest would prove to be one of the hit films of 1959. Since then it has not only come to be regarded as a classic, but as one of Hitchcock's best films and one of the greatest films of all time. What is more, it would prove to extremely influential.

The genesis of North by Northwest goes back to 1957. MGM had bought the rights to the novel The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes (published in 1956). The studio assigned the project to director Alfred Hitchcock, who brought screen writer Ernest Lehman (who had previously written Billy Wilder's Sabrina) onto the project. After a few weeks of struggling with the script, Lehman went to Hitchcock and told him that he really did not know how to The Wreck of the Mary Deare and he should find someone else to write the screenplay. Hitchcock simply told him that they would do something else. Under contract to MGM, Lehman asked the director what they would tell the studio. Hitchcock replied, "We won't tell them anything." After Hitchcock and Lehman had met for several weeks, Lehman told the director that he wanted to " a Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures..." The movie would have all of the elements which audiences expected from a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock: suspense, wit, enormous set pieces, and an innocent, ordinary person caught in intrigue. Eventually Hitchcock would confess that he always wanted to film a chase atop Mount Rushmore. Out of Lehman's desire to write the ultimate Alfred Hitchcock movie and Hitchcock's desire to film a chase atop Mount Rushmore emerged North by Northwest (for those of you wondering about the adaptation of The Wreck of the Mary Deare, it was made by Michael Anderson and starred Gary Cooper).

Initially the movie would be titled In a Northwesterly Direction and even briefly Breathless (which would become the English title of Jean-Luc Goddard's Hitchcock homage A bout de souffle). The title would finally be established as North by Northwest, a play on words as at one point in the plot Cary Grant's character would travel by Northwest Airlines. As the screenplay developed it was established that the movie would start in New York City, with a scene set at the United Nations building, and would then move in a northwesterly direction (hence the original title) to Mount Rushmore and perhaps even as far as Alaska. It was established that the innocent protagonist would be mistaken for a decoy--a spy for the United States government who did not really exist and intended to fool the Soviets. This idea then became the MacGuffin which propelled the plot forward.

The casting of North by Northwest would prove interesting. MGM wanted Gregory Peck for the role of the innocent protagonist. Alfred Hitchcock told Jimmy Stewart about the movie, and Stewart became very interested in the film. Unfortunately for Stewart, Hitchcock thought Verigo had failed at the box office because Stewart looked "too old." So as not to disappoint Stewart, Hitchcock simply delayed North by Northwest until Stewart was committed to Anatomy of a Murder, directed by Otto Preminger. All along Hitchcock wanted Cary Grant (with whom he had worked three times before) to play the protagonist and it was Cary Grant who was cast in the end. Ironically, Cary Grant was actually four years older than Jimmy Stewart! For the role of the beautiful female spy MGM had wanted Hitchcock to cast dancer Cyd Charisse or Italian actress Sophia Loren. As might be expected Hitchcock wanted a blonde in the part. The role ultimately went to Eva Marie Saint.

Although North by Northwest takes place in several different locales (everything from New York City to rural Indiana), much of the film was shot on soundstages. Much of this was due to necessity. The United Nations building forbade any movies from filming there. To get around this Hitchcock came up with a novel solution. Hitchcock and a photographer went into the UN building's lobby posing as tourists doing what tourists do--taking pictures. These photographs would then be used to build a set duplicating the lobby of the United Nations. When combined with footage of Cary Grant entering the UN building filmed with hidden camera, the shots filmed on set replicating the UN lobby gave the illusion that Grant was actually in the United Nations. Hitchcock ran into a similar problem with Mount Rushmore. The Department of the Interior would not permit any shooting to take place atop the monument itself. What is more, they would not even allow the characters to crawl over a facsimile of the monument. Eventually the Department of the Interior and Alfred Hitchcock compromised. The characters could be filmed crawling over a replica of the monument, but they could only go in between the faces of the presidents, not over them. The scene taking place in a South Dakota woods was also shot on a soundstage. Hicthcock thought that shooting in an actual South Dakota forest would be cost prohibitive, so instead he planted 100 pine trees on an MGM soundstage. The famous cornfield chase was not filmed in Indiana either. Instead, it was shot in Bakersfield, California in a cornfield planted by the studio.

Of course, while many of the scenes in North by Northwest were shot on soundstages, there were also scenes shot on actual locations. The scene at the train station was shot at Grand Central Station in New York City. An early scene in a hotel restaurant was shot in the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel in New York. The scenes taking place in Midway Airport in Chicago were actually shot there.

While many today regard North by Northwest as a nearly perfect film, amazingly enough MGM thought the movie was too long. They wanted Hitchcock to cut the movie by 15 minutes. Fortunately, Hitchcock's contract stipulated that he receive approval of the final cut of the film. In the end, only 5 seconds were cut from North by Northwest. One line in the film would be changed. It was felt that Eva Marie Saint's original line, "I never make love on an empty stomach" was to be too risqué; it was overdubbed with the line "I never discuss love on an empty stomach."

Upon its release North by Northwest proved to be a hit. It would become the highest grossing movie at the United Artist Theatre in Chicago and became MGM's highest grossing movie at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, playing there for a full seven weeks. It also received sterling reviews from critics. In the end North by Northwest would tie for the sixth highest grossing film of 1959 (a banner box office year for Hollywood) with Anatomy of a Murder). The film would be nominated for three Oscars (Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Colour; Best Film Editing; and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen).

North by Northwest would prove to be one of Hitchcock's most financially successful films. Indeed, in some ways it is difficult to argue that with North by Northwest Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman did not create the ultimate Hitchcock film. The premise of the film is pure Hitchcock. Advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) finds himself mistaken for one George Kaplan, allegedly a secret agent for a United States intelligence agency. Hunted by foreign spies and framed for murder, Thornhill must flee across the United States. The film not only features some of the most iconic scenes in any Hitchcock movie, but some of the most iconic scenes in any movie. The crop dusting scene, in which Thornhill is pursued by an aeroplane through a cornfield, may be the second most famous scene from any Alfred Hitchcock film, surpassed in fame only by the shower scene from Pscycho. The scenes atop Mount Rushmore remains one of the most famous climaxes in film history.

Ultimately, North by Northwest would prove to be one of Hitchock's most influential films when it comes to Anglo-American pop culture. With the Fifties and the Cold War, there was renewed interest in espionage in the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere. During the Fifties spy fiction experienced a rebirth in popularity, with characters such as Johnny Fedora, James Bond, and Sam Durell appearing in print for the first time during the decade. North by Northwest would capitalise on the growing interest in spies and would prove a powerful influence on the spy craze that would sweep the UK and U.S. in the Sixties. Many of the elements which would make the James Bond movies a success in the coming decade would first be seen in North by Northwest. Like the Bond movies, North by Northwest takes place in several different, colourful settings, from the UN building to a cornfield in Indiana to Mount Rushmore. Like the Bond movies it featured a secret government agency headed by a mysterious figure (the Professor, played by Leo G. Carroll, in North by Northwest; M in the James Bond movies). Like the Bond movies, North by Northwest featured a beautiful woman (Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint) with whom the hero becomes involved. Many of the elements which would make the Bond movies and similar spy movies a success were already present in North by Northwest.

As much of an influence as North by Northwest was upon the spy movies of the Sixties, it may have been even more of an influence on the spy shows which took over both British and American television in the Sixties. The influence of North by Northwest may well be most apparent on one of the most successful Sixties spy shows, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. While Ian Fleming's nonfiction book Thrilling Cities would provide part of the inspiration for the series (to the point that producer Norman Felton asked Ian Fleming to create a rough outline for the prospective show), it would be the success of North by Northwest which provided the initial impetus for the show. It occurred to Norman Felton that audiences may be growing tired of the cowboys, policemen, private eyes, and physicians who had been the protagonists in TV shows up to the early Sixties. Looking to Alfred Hitchcock's spy thrillers, especially North by Northwest, Fenton thought American television might be ready for a hero who was a spy. The influence of North by Northwest upon The Man From U.N.C.L.E would go further than providing the initial idea for the series. The Man From U.N.C.L.E would feature a hero very much like Cary Grant in the form of U.N.C.L.E. agent Napoleon Solo (played by Robert Vaughn). Leo G. Carroll, who played the mysterious head of a United States intelligence agency in North by Northwest, was cast as Mr. Waverly, the head of U.N.C.L.E. What is more, Felton decided that every episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E should feature an innocent bystander who would become involved in the plot, not unlike Thornhill in North by Northwest.

While other spy shows of the Sixties would not be as heavily influenced by North by Northwest as The Man From U.N.C.L.E, they would be influenced nonetheless, particularly with regards to casting. Edward Platt, who played Thornhill's lawyer Victor Larrabee, was cast as the Chief of CONTROL on the spy comedy Get Smart. Martin Landau, who played the villain's Vandamm's henchman in North by Northwest, would be cast as master of disguise Roland Hand on Mission: Impossible. Even actors with smaller roles would benefit from their exposure in North by Northwest with regards to appearing in Sixties spy series. Robert Ellenstein, who played Licht in the movie, would make several guest appearances on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, The Wild Wild West, and Mission: Impossible.

The influence of North by Northwest on movies has persisted to this day. Quite simply, in many ways it was the first modern spy thriller. While there was no shortage of excitement in spy thrillers before North by Northwest, North by Northwest took its action scenes to an entirely new level, with situations (such as being pursued by a plane across a cornfield and struggling to survive atop Mount Rushmore) in which escape seemed nearly impossible for the hero. The vast majority of spy thrillers made since 1959 show some influence from North by Northwest in their action scenes, from Dr. No to The Bourne Identity.

North by Northwest has consistently been ranked among the greatest films of all time. The American Film Institute placed it at #40 among the best films ever made in their 100 Years…100 Movies list. The magazine Cashiers du Cinemart also counted North by Northwest among the 100 greatest films of all time, as did Entertainment Weekly. In the Writers Guild America's list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays, the screenplay for North by Northwest came in at #21. In 1995 the Library of Congress selected North by Northwest for inclusion in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Fifty years after it was made, North by Northwest is not only hailed as a classic, but one of the greatest films of all time. Given its continued popularity and the influence it has had on pop culture, it is very difficult to argue otherwise.


Holte Ender said...

As a big fan of Hitchcock, I wonder how he would make movies in 2009. He was such a master of the simple scene, yet, as you described, ahead of his time with his approach to action.

I have a feeling, if he were here with us as a young director, there would blondes, an ordinary Joe, simple scenes in a room with a window, and some high stakes action.

Holte Ender said...

Here is a link you might enjoy:

Mercurie said...

Thanks for the link, Holte! That was interesting. I have to agree. I think Hitchcock were alive and making movies today, he'd do it pretty much the same way he did then.

dmarks said...

This blog is almost invisibie. I can read the posts by highlighting the text, but otherwise by default the letters are very dark grey on black.

Mercurie said...

I don't know why the letters are showing up as dark grey for you, dmarks. They are by default supposed to be a very light grey. I have a friend who has poor eyesight and he can read it no problem. Of course, if I get more complaints I might change the font colour.