I was asked recently to review my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie. This was not a simple request to fulfill, since I've seen many, not all, of his films and liked most of them. But after reflecting on it for a while, I decided that North by Northwest was the one with which to go.
The film begins with Roger Thornhill, played by one of my all-time favorites, Cary Grant. Thornhill is an ad executive in New York. While out at lunch one day, he is kidnapped by a group of men who have apparently mistaken him for “Mr.Kaplan”, a government agent that has been following them. The gang leader, Vandamm, played by the excellent James Mason, disbelieves Thornhill's protests and tries to kill him by staging an 'accident': getting him roaring drunk and putting him into a car headed down a winding road.
Thornhill survives, but no one believes his story of abduction – the criminal/spy gang have a good enough cover story to bluff the police. So then Thornhill tries to track down the real owner of the house where he was held, and finds that he works at the U.N. The two barely have time to meet before a member of the gang kills the diplomat with a thrown knife. Thornhill foolishly grabs the knife and implicates himself for the murder. Somehow he escapes, and goes on the run, trying to find Mr. Kaplan. He makes it on board a train headed to Chicago, and meets Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint. She helps Thornhill escape capture by the police for her own reasons. In Chicago, Thornhill is pointed towards a meeting with Kaplan in an isolated cornfield. Instead of a meeting, Thornhill gets attacked by a biplane and almost gets run over by a truck. Escaping mostly by luck, he returns to Chicago and confronts Vandamm again. When Vandamm threatens his life, Thornhill's only way to escape is to get himself arrested. Once in custody he is turned over to “The Professor”, a CIA-type director who explains the truth about Mr. Kaplan, Vandamm and Eve Kendall, all of whom are more (or less) than they seem.
So why is this my favorite Hitchcock movie? Well, anything with Cary Grant is going to be worth my time. Here he's less the suave, urbane man-about-town that you get in some of his films, and more a man struggling to cope with a situation he is totally unprepared for. But he still gives great delivery of both dialogue and action. James Mason is also terrific in this film. He nails the slimy threatening bad guy, covered over with a veneer of sophistication. Eva Marie Saint trades witty banter with Grant and Mason and is a far more complex character than a 'damsel in distress', although she's in great danger throughout the film.
While the action scenes show their age in both the special effects and in the amount of stuff exploding, any observant movie watcher should know that good effects and explosions can't prop up a weak story. Hitchcock gives us a strong story with strong characters to keep our interest. The tension in this film, and it is tense, is all about the unanswered questions about Mr. Kaplan, and the menacing presence of Vandamm. There are twists in the plot that keep you guessing, but you know in the end, the good guy is going to win, and get the girl.