Growing up in the not always great Britain of the 1970s and 1980s, television was a mainstay of family life. Indeed, for most of that time there were only three channels. ITV was the UK’s only commercial broadcaster until Channel 4 sprung up as the new kid on the block in 1982.
You could guarantee with perennial precision that ITV would wheel out their cinematic big guns at regular intervals – a James Bond season, Some Like It Hot and various Hitchcock gems that while often misunderstood at the box office had attracted a new audience on the small screen. I have a profound connection with all of the above thanks in every part to ITV – or Channel 3 as we often liked to call it back in the day.
We all know how wonderfully influential Alfred Hitchcock was on film history and style, how inventive he was with new technologies, and how open he remained to new ideas. He wrote the book on suspense, took bold experimental leaps, and pushed against all boundaries having to do with sex and violence. He had an adjective coined from his last name and his face should be on a banknote; pound or dollar, it scarcely matters.
We owe the Fat Man.
And although I am far from alone in regarding the Freudian knottiness of Psycho and the psychological intricacy of Vertigo as masterworks in cinematic history, North by Northwest (and to some extent its precursor, The 39 Steps) is the one I have such a warm and fuzzy fondness for that constant re-screenings led me in later years to regard Cary Grant as the greatest actor of his generation.
Sixty years ago, a suave, sharp-suited everyman found himself trapped inside an unfamiliar identity in a succession of extraordinary situations. In Hitch’s landmark spy thriller from the summer of ‘59, sophisticated and vaguely European heavies in the employ of secrets-smuggler Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) mistake the charming and impossibly handsome Madison Avenue ad executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) for an agent by the name of George Kaplan. The ensuing caper sets off a cat and mouse domino game of machinations, misunderstanding and murder across the poker face of America.
The plot’s MacGuffin allows the characters to move seamlessly across iconic American landscapes by means of plane, train and automobile. Thornhill must rely on his wits and quickly form an uncertain alliance with a mysterious and seductive femme fatale. The kicker, of course, is that there’s no such person as George Kaplan. The CIA invented him as a decoy to deflect attention away from their real agent. The CIA? Or was it the FBI? As the shadowy ‘Professor’ (Leo G. Carroll) dismisses: “We’re all in the same alphabet soup.” Even at the intelligence agencies, identity is fluid.
Grant’s physicality is impressive, particularly during that scenic stop at an empty field somewhere in Indiana. In that famous crop-duster scene, we see the actor hit the deck time after time and sprint in between. He still displays the agility of his youth – and the sequence could in another context play out as a comedy, thanks to his trademark jerky movements and exasperated facial expressions.
North By Northwest is the ultimate thriller, whose classic combination of edge-of-the-seat action and sardonic humour would inspire and influence both Ian Fleming and the producers of the Bonds. It can be argued that although Fleming had written Casino Royale six years earlier, in 1953, North By Northwest pretty much invented the 007 movies. Indeed, many aficionados of cinema like to tag it as the first James Bond film in all but name.
All the elements of an 007 movie are right there: the international intrigue, the individual hero living by his wits on the run from a group of sinister agents – and the law – owing to a case of mistaken identity, the amorous encounters, the relentless suspense. The only difference is that Bond is a professional spy, whereas Roger Thornhill (Grant), like the Thirty Nine Steps’ Richard Hannay (NXNW was nothing if not a brilliant technicolour retooling of the older film), was an amateur and a reluctant one at that.
Put in the analyst’s chair (perhaps at Goldfinger’s dynamite with a laser beam lair), North by Northwest is a Bond movie told from the Bond girl’s perspective, with – no kidding – Cary Grant being the Bond girl. Some average Joe (or Jane, in the case of the Bond girls) suddenly finds himself in the middle of a spy story (like, say, Honey Ryder or Christmas Jones or Madeleine Swann) without really understanding what’s going on and becomes the love interest of a secret agent. The secret agent woman being Eva Marie Saint’s character, Eve Kendall.
And the similarities are evident. Much more of a play on tension than symbolism, North By Northwest is a series of eye-poppingly inventive sequences linked in the loosest way imaginable by a breathtakingly slender plotline. It’s this format that has since been hijacked and used as the narrative chassis, or template for countless Bond films, particularly the Roger Moore era, and, well, numerous action films thereafter.
Hitchcock’s masterpiece had on its release an immediate impact on early attempts to bring James Bond to the screen. According to correspondence reproduced in Robert Sellers’ book, The Battle for Bond, Ivar Bryce, Ian Fleming’s friend and, effectively, producer and financier of those initial efforts, was so impressed by North By Northwest (“the best film of his life”, he wrote) when attended a screening in September 1959 that he urged Fleming to see it. In Bryce’s view, the film closely followed the style of Fleming’s 007 adventures and represented a model for their proposed Bond film.
Ian Fleming and Cary Grant were acquaintances through their mutual friend Noel Coward, and by the following month Fleming had seen NXBW. Robert Sellers reveals that the author had enjoyed it, though complained about the humour, which he felt undermined the suspense.
Still, the film must have stayed with him, because, tellingly, he referenced it in the novel of Thunderball, which he wrote at his Jamaican estate, Goldeneye, over the winter of 1960. It’s the most obvious sign that North By Northwest had had a degree of impact on his writing: Chapter 9 sees SPECTRE agent Giuseppe Petacchi on board the Vindicator aircraft preparing to hijack the plane. “Five more hours to go,” he muses. “Rather a bind missing North by North-West at the Odeon. But one would catch up with it at Southampton.”
1960 was also the year Alfred Hitchcock himself had also briefly considered directing Thunderball, before Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and Harry Saltzman’s Eon Productions won the movie rights to Ian Fleming’s novels that kickstarted the most enduring movie franchise in cinema history. When NXNW was released 1959 the writer had just completed Goldfinger, the first truly ridiculously OTT Bond novel, delightful though it is.
Goldfinger, as the third 007 movie, would perfect the NXNW-style template from which the series would barely deviate until the advent of Daniel Craig in 2006.
Make no mistake, 007 was also conceived with Cary Grant in mind. His hardboiled yet debonair performance as ruthless secret agent T.R. Devlin in Notorious (above), an earlier Hitchcock production from 1946, showed that the actor could also provide Bond’s darker shading, and undoubtedly helped inspire Ian Fleming to create his semi-autobiographical character.
In a triptychal case of art imitating life, both Fleming and Noel Coward had been recruited by the authorities for intelligence purposes. In 2005, a biography published by Marc Eliot concluded that Grant was also hired by the FBI to spy on his second wife, Woolworths heiress Barbara Hutton, who they reportedly thought was sending money to the Nazis.
As Jeremy Duns argues in his book, Rogue Royale (2013), Devlin is closer than Thornhill is to the character of Bond. Devlin is morally ambiguous; his complicity in placing Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia Huberman in danger underscores his determination to serve the greater, patriotic, good. Alicia accedes to the Nazi-hunting mission for Devlin’s sake, but receives little reassurance in return. He’s in love with Alicia, but must appear cold and unyielding in order to make her play her role convincingly. It was only natural, then, that Cary Grant came up as strong choice to play Bond in Dr. No.
Eon’s co-founder Cubby Broccoli was a close friend of Grant’s, and a month before North By Northwest was released, the actor served as best man at the producer’s wedding in Las Vegas. In his autobiography, When The Snow Melts, Broccoli recounts how he tried to persuade his friend to take the role. He doesn’t mention Notorious or NXBW by name, but both spy films provided the ideal screentest:
“I talked to Cary Grant who liked the project. He had the style, the sophistication and, in fact, had been born in Britain. He also happened to be a Bond aficionado. But he said no. As a very important actor and a world-class star, he didn’t feel he could lock himself into the Bond character.”
Cary Grant’s answer to Broccoli’s offer was, of course, no. Grant didn’t do sequels and Broccoli and Saltzman were offering a three-picture deal. Also, when Dr. No was released he would also have been 58 – Roger Moore’s age when he was seen on screens playing Bond for the final time, in 1985’s creaky A View to a Kill.
The spectre of Cary’s careful constructed image still hovered over the first three or so Bond films though. Thanks to the joys of YouTube we can witness the scene where 007 is playing a game of Baccarat at London club Le Cercle, and the audience is introduced to Sean Connery for the first time. He’d never sound so upper class or look so Grant-like permatanned again.
The follow-up to Dr. No, 1963‘s From Russia With Love, probably the most Hitchcockian of Bond films, paid tribute to North By Northwest by alluding to its iconic but implausible crop-duster blockbuster scene. Just as Thornhill escapes the biplane, Bond flees from the path of a helicopter piloted by SPECTRE agents, and is forced to dive to the ground as it swoops down.
It’s scenes such as these which again play on a very deep-seated fear of having nowhere to hide. When Hollywood went all bigger is better-minded in the 1980s, this was the kind of structure – all thrills, no brains – it came to rate most highly.
Not that you’ll hear any complaints about Cary’s decision or indeed North By Northwest from me. I love everything about the film, from his beautifully tailored suit to the notion that he has a formidable mother who henpecks him. Shades of the closing scene in Bowie’s Ashes To Ashes video perhaps? Also, the Kaplan/Thornhill mistaken-identity twist is clever, and who wouldn’t want to slide down Abraham Lincoln’s large nose with a seductress like Eva Marie Saint?
The production notes about North By Northwest have become the stuff of Hollywood legend. Hitchcock used guerrilla filmmaking to shoot scenes at the restricted U.N. headquarters. Also, when he wasn’t granted permission to shoot at the actual Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota, he build a replica in a soundstage. California frequently substitutes for northern Indiana in the crop-duster scene and for Long Island in the drunk-driving scene.
A panel of fashion gurus at GQ magazine in 2006 named Cary Grant’s tailored two-piece the best suit in film history and most influential ever on men’s style. Though nominated for three Oscars, it lost to Ben-Hur’s record haul of 11 Academy Awards that year.
Still, history has been kind to the film’s reception. The American Film Institute ranked North by Northwest its No.40 movie of all-time, No.4 thriller, and No.7 mystery film. It maintains to this day a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Sequences in Bond movies and the action movies that came to imitate them – Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Jack Ryan and Jason Bourne movies and everything since – are as tenuously joined to each other as theme-park rides, separate, intense experiences strung together with the merest soupçon of plot coherence or narrative plausibility. A good half of every summer’s blockbusters still adhere to this approach and we’re poorer for it.
It’s not Hitchcock’s fault that his imitators are such tools, but it is useful now and then to trace a tiresome phenomenon back to its not-so-tiresome source.
In 2001, I remember attending multiple screenings of an extensive Cary Grant season at the National Film Theatre on London’s Southbank, and at one point during the run I asked my mum, apropos of everything and nothing, if she liked him as an actor:
“He’s more your gran’s era!” she smirked. Old before my time then, obviously. But the great thing about North By Northwest is its ageless pan-generational allure.
If you haven’t already seen the movie, I’m jealous. You’re in for an amazing ride. Have I even mentioned the climax on Mount Rushmore? A sequence that elevates nail-biting to an Olympic-level sport, ending in a final shot that will never fail to induce adolescent chuckles.
Cary Grant is a leading man so suave, so debonair, so assured he makes 007 look insecure, and Eva Marie Saint a love interest with more charisma than Tippi Hedren and Kim Novak combined. Then there’s Bernard Hermann’s punchy and frenetic score, and the film’s revolutionary opening titles; the first “moving text” kinetic typography of its kind, created by graphic designer Saul Bass.
This is Hitchcock at his slickest, his most crowd-pleasing, his least encumbered by cod-psychological plotlines involving trances or kleptomania. It’s a rollicking, old-fashioned adventure, laced with endless excitement, the very essence of Fifties metro chic.
Our thrill is to see it all unfold, safe in the knowledge that at the end we’ll be able to return to the old routine. And even if things don’t always go as planned, perhaps we’ll be able to tackle them with a little of the old Thornhill panache.
Watch and be wowed. Repeatedly.
More Matinee Idols than Realities: the Secret Swinging Life of Cary Grant is here