North by Northwest, by Albert W. Vogt III

Have you ever traveled by car through the state of Indiana?  It is one of the dullest parts of the country.  Then again, one could say the same thing about my native Illinois.  You will have to pardon me for being partial.  And, to be fair, I have not done an extensive amount of exploration of the Hoosier State.  Or have I?  There have been a few times when my route between Chicago and Florida (note the connotation of the Windy City as a state) has taken me along the western edge of Indiana.  I have gone by train from Chicago to Notre Dame, which is in northern part.  Finally, one cannot get from my area of Illinois to Pennsylvania as I did with my dad once without going through Indiana, unless you want to take the most circuitous and unnecessary route ever.  Thus, with apologies to Indianapolis, I have seen enough of that state.  Whatever its characteristics, this is a long way of saying that the iconic scene in North by Northwest (1959), number fifty-five on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of All Time, when Roger Thornhill (Carey Grant) is being strafed by a biplane in the middle of Indiana farm country, looks nothing like the genuine Hoosier-dom.  This is, perhaps, my only criticism of the film.

Before we get to the out-of-phase desert conditions of the Indiana agriculture in North by Northwest, we meet Roger on the bustling streets of New York City.  He is a busy advertising executive on his way to meet with clients.  Shortly after getting to his bar rendezvous, he realizes he must send a telegram to Clara Thornhill (Jessie Royce Landis).  On his way to carry out this innocuous task, he is kidnapped by two men and taken to a large mansion outside of the city.  Once there, he is eventually greeted by a person he believes is Lester Townsend (Philip Ober).  This is ruining the proceedings somewhat early, but the man who briefly entertains Roger is actually Phillip Vandamm (James Mason).  Speaking of mistaken identity, Phillip is convinced that Roger is George Kaplan.  Despite Roger’s protests, Phillip continues to insist that Roger is George, and arranges to have the henchmen from earlier make it appear that Roger will die in a drunk driving accident.  Roger comes to before the stolen car in which he is placed goes over a cliff.  Despite being forced to be under the influence, Roger has enough sense to find a way to get into police custody.  Yet, the next morning, after he has sobered, no one will give credit to his story.  He tries a variety of ways of doing so, but his attempts to track down this George Kaplan, whom he is accused of being, proves fruitless.  This quest takes him to the United Nations, where Phillip had told Roger he would be addressing the international body.  When he gets there, he asks for Lester Townsend thinking he will get Phillip.  He gets United Nations representative Lester Townsend, but he is not Phillip.  Before Roger can get any further answers, a knife if thrown from across the room and lodges itself in Lester’s back.  Roger is accused of being the murderer with his face appearing in newspapers across the country.  Now on the run and fearful of going to the police, Roger manages to slip through the train station and board the 20th Century Limited bound for Chicago.  Once on one of the cars, he receives some timely help from Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who sends the police in the wrong direction.  She later arranges for Roger to sit at the same table as her in the dining car.  She knows who he is by his picture in the newspaper, but she is taken by him and decides to help him find George.  It is during these sequences that we switch to an American Intelligence office where the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) tells us that not only does he know that there is no George Kaplan, but that he is aware of the truth behind everything happening to Roger.  He will not intervene, though, because Phillip is his target and Roger is leading them to Phillip.  Further, despite Eve and Roger getting cozy in an adult way, she is working for Phillip.  This comes to the fore after they arrive in Chicago, and she arranges to have him sent to the aforementioned deserted part of Indiana, only to get shot at by a fake crop duster.  He returns to Chicago and an understandably surprised Eve, though this is not the only shocking revelation of the evening.  His suspicions aroused, he follows her to a furtive rendezvous where he finds Eve with Phillip.  In order to escape, Roger once again arranges to have himself arrested.  He does not go to jail as he hoped, instead being redirected to the airport by the Professor.  They meet there, and the plot thickens when the Professor tells Roger that not only is Eve actually an intelligence operative, but that she is in love with him.  This is how Roger is convinced to fly to South Dakota to where Phillip has a swanky house overlooking Mount Rushmore.  They arrange a meeting in a café at the base of the monument, with Eve using a gun loaded with blanks to shoot at Roger and thereby maintain her cover as Phillip’s mistress.  Roger is not pleased when he learns that Eve must return to Phillip so that the Professor can continue to bring in intelligence on American enemies.  To save her, Roger decides to sneak over to Phillip’s house.  He overhears a conversation that indicates that Phillip has learned Eve’s true identity.  With this, Joes decides to take more direct action to save Eve.  It leads to the second most iconic sequence in the film, that being the chase on foot atop the presidential heads.  It all leads to Eve and Roger, with some assistance, taking care of Phillip and retrieving the stolen microfilm he had been trying to smuggle out of the country.  Of perhaps greater importance, it ends with Eve and Roger married and on the train back to New York.

North by Northwest is director Alfred Hitchcock at his cleverest.  For me, that is enough to make it my favorite movie of his, and it is not simply because part of it is set in Chicago.  You keep watching it because you want to see how far this case of mistaken identity can go, even if you are given the real story pretty early in the film.  The rest is done in order to make you think that just maybe Roger Thornhill is George Kaplan.  There is an interesting line apropos of all this, when Eve meets Roger for the first time.  When she sends the police the wrong direction, he refers to her as a “good Samaritan.”  We get this from the Biblical parable found in Luke 10:29-37.  There, an injured person is helped not by the Jewish people that first find him, but by an outsider, or a stranger like Eve is to Roger.  Another phrase we get from the Bible, but can be related to the first one mentioned, is going the extra mile.  This comes from Matthew 5:31, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount.  At a few points, Roger has the opportunity to walk away from the whole affair, especially after Chicago.  Of course, it helps that he is in love with Eve, but he remains committed to helping a person evidently in need.  Whether it is providing extra care for an injured person as with the Good Samaritan, going above and beyond as Jesus directly teaches us, or assisting a beautiful woman with escaping an international spy, there is a special grace for those devoted to the betterment of another.

I imagine there are younger people that would be turned off by North by Northwest.  It does not have the fastest pace to it.  I must also confess that my love of it has something to do with Carey Grant.  The more of his movies I watch, the more he becomes one of my favorite actors of all time.  He keeps his wit despite the tenseness of the situation in this film.  That makes it worth a view.


One thought on “North by Northwest, by Albert W. Vogt III

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s