❉ How Hitchcock accidentally created the template for the modern action movie.
Did Alfred Hitchcock invent the Bond film? It’s an increasingly well-exercised thought these days, and Exhibit A is ‘North by Northwest’. It’s all there – the eye-poppingly inventive action sequences, the sly mix of cartoon violence and innuendo-laden sex, the tailor-made suits and splashily colourful settings. It’s always been seen as Hitchcock’s most giddily enjoyable film. Sandwiched inbetween the more dour and psychologically complex Vertigo and the punky lo-fi aesthetics of Psycho, ‘North by Northwest’ is unashamedly popcorn. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman said he wanted to create “the ultimate Hitchcock picture”. That he did. And accidentally created the template for the modern action movie in doing so.
Like so many Hitchcock flicks ‘North by Northwest’ came out of an unconnected handful of scenarios dreamt up by the director. He was working with Ernest Lehman, a hotshot Jewish writer who’d penned the sizzling Sweet Smell of Success, on an adaptation of ‘The Wreck of the Mary Deare’, but that was going nowhere. Instead, they start spitballing ideas for a replacement movie. Hitchcock pitched Lehman two scenes he wanted in their planned picture – a chase across the face of Mount Rushmore and a scene where a delegate is addressing the United Nations and says, “I refuse to continue until the delegate from Peru wakes up.” After shaking him, they discovered he’s been murdered.
But what story to hang it on? Hitchcock remembered a story a journalist had pitched to him about the CIA inventing a man who did not exist as a decoy in an elaborate spy plot. Hitch told MGM of his plans to do ‘In a North-Westerly Direction’ instead of the Mary Deare film, which him and Lehman had already decided to dump (they figured they couldn’t make it without it turning into “a boring courtroom drama”, an instinct bourne out when Michael Anderson eventually took over the film).
Hitch was shooting ‘Vertigo’ as Lehman beavered away on the script. “I wanted to make the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures,” said Lehman. “Something that had wit, sophistication, glamour, action and lots of changes of locale.” It was still being called ‘In a North-Westerly Direction’ until Kenneth McKenna, head of MGM’s script department, suggested ‘North by Northwest’ (possibly influenced by the line from ‘Hamlet’, “I am but mad north-north-west”) as a better title.
Lehman’s research involved walking the corridors of the UN building for an entire week and climbing Mount Rushmore for inspiration (suffering, ironically, from vertigo, he never finished the climb and asked a park ranger to photograph the top for him). Even through the writing process Hitch was still throwing in new scenes that Lehman was forced to weave into the script. For years, Hitchcock had driven north from Los Angeles to his house in Scotts Valley and has been enraptured by the flat, featureless fields en route. What if, he asked Lehman, our protagonist was attacked by a crop plane in this area in which there’s no place to hide? The scene would go on to become, after ‘Psycho’s shower scene, Hitchcock’s most famous sequence.
But who to cast as this Everyman caught up in this web of skulduggery? Gregory Peck? He was MGM’s choice. James Stewart maybe? Too old, reasoned Hitch. Eventually he plumped for the ageless debonair charms of Cary Grant to play the unfortunate Roger Thornhill, in what would be their fourth and last film together. Eva Marie Saint was cast as the the enigmatic Eve Kendall, after Hitch resisted MGM’s choice of Cyd Charisse.
Saint wasn’t an obvious choice for the Hitchcock Blonde part. Trained as a Method actress (a style of acting Hitch despised), she wasn’t known for the kind of sophisticated, glammed up roles that took Hitchcock’s eye. But Hitchcock liked refashioning actresses to his own mould. He’d done it before with Kim Novak and he’d do it again with Tippi Hedren and Saint proved a willingly malleable subject. He threw out the designs MGM had for her clothes and took the actress to Bergdorf Goodman in New York, personally selecting her wardrobe off the peg.
James Mason was then cast as the silkily evil bad guy, Phillip Vandamm and Martin Landau, then only 30, was cast as his henchman, Leonard, a small but juicily controversial part for the novice actor.
“I chose to play him, you know, slightly gay, because I felt he wanted to get rid of Eva Marie Saint with such a vengeance, that it made sense,” said Landau. “Hitchcock liked it a lot, and Ernie Lehman actually added a line when he saw the dailies off of my performance. The line when I’m exposing the gun with the blanks, my character says, ‘Call it my women’s intuition, if you will.’ It was a very daring line for the 50s, if you think about it, for a man to say that. That was not in the original script.”
The shooting of ‘North by Northwest’ was anything but simple. The UN didn’t allow any filming on their grounds, even for someone as culturally towering as Alfred Hitchcock. Cunning as ever, Hitch set up a camera hidden a carpet cleaning van across the road from the famous building and had Cary Grant walk into frame, unbeknownst to UN security. The interior was uncontroversially constructed in MGM’s studios.
When the authorities got to hear about Hitchcock’s plans for the end of the movie, which would be the chase – with guns – over Mount Rushmore, the Department of the Interior – the government department that protects the country’s national heritage – again forbade Hitch from filming. Aside from establishing shots the entire sequence was filmed on concrete-filled sound stages mixed in with miniatures.
The film’s final scene is almost as iconic as the Rushmore chase and the crop-dusting sequence (see above clip). As Thornhill and Eve end up smooching in a train carriage, the scene cuts to the train speeding into the tunnel. The End. The sly, mischievous Freudian nature of the shot was typically Hitchcock and it passed with not a jitter from the censors. The original script just had the train rattling off into the sunset. The tunnel was Hitch’s naughty embellishment. “There’s no way I can take credit for that, dammit,” lamented Lehman years later.
“The obvious parallel to the sexual act always gets a laugh,” said production designer Robert Boyle. “It may be that trains had some sexual feeling for Hitchcock.”
‘North by Northwest’ has never been a particular Hitchcock favourite among critics. It’s too fizzy and silly, next to the psychological intricacy of ‘Vertigo’ or the Freudian knottiness of ‘Psycho’. But it’s probably the people’s favourite.
It’s easy to see ‘North by Northwest’ as the stylistic prototype for the Bond movies, especially after ‘Goldfinger’. And its grand visual ambitions and jaw-dropping set pieces did prove a lasting influence, for better or worse. As Hitch told Lehman, “We’re not making a movie, we’re constructing an organ. Press this chord, the audience laughs, press that chord and they gasp and we press these notes and they chuckle. Someday we won’t have to make the movie, we can just attach them to electrodes.”
❉ Steve O’Brien is a film and TV journalist, and is a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’, ‘SFX’, ‘Digital Spy’, ‘Sci-Fi Now’ and co-author of ‘Whographica’ from BBC Books.