Alfred Hitchcock at his Best
Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte
North by Northwest, a mystery thriller filmed in the 1950s, was Alfred Hitchcock at his best, and the movie received the 1960 Edgar Alan Poe Award for Best Motion Picture.
The plot: “A New York City advertising executive goes on the run after being mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies, and falls for a woman whose loyalties he begins to doubt.” (quote from IMB). There are a few terms and facts viewers should know before settling down in the jammies with the bowl of popcorn (light, of course). Warning: Spoilers included.
First—the Maguffin. An object or device in a movie or book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot and receives little in the way of explanations. In a more current film, Titanic, the search for the Heart of the Sea diamond necklace is the trigger that drives the plot and the action, but Hitchcock popularized the concept of the maguffin. In North by Northwest, there are two: The microfilm of government secrets that James Mason’s character, Vandamm is trying to sneak out of the country, and the identity of George Kaplan, who doesn’t exist – not even in the movie.
The movie begins in New York with a dramatic and dangerous encounter with foreign spies. Thornhill is mistaken for George Kaplan and is kidnapped, questioned, and almost killed by the Vandamm agents. He escapes and is then framed for the murder of Lester Townsend at the U.N. Grant/Thornhill begins his trek north by northwest by sneaking onto a train headed for Chicago, pursued by the evil foreign agents and the police. Here he meets Eva Marie Saint/ Eve Kendall, a confidant of Vandamm’s, played by James Mason.
In Chicago, Grant/Thornhill leaves the train disguised as a porter with the help of Saint/Kendall and is set up to meet the elusive George Kaplan at the Prairie Stop, Highway 41, a little-used route more than an hour outside of Chicago. Here, Hitchcock creates a scene that became the forerunner for future action movies, especially the James Bond Series.
Hitchcock doesn’t do the usual dark city street motif for a deadly attack on Grant/Thornhill. Instead, Hitchcock has him vulnerable in an open field and targeted by a small aircraft with firepower. After diving to the ground several times, Grant/Thornhill sees a cornfield and runs for cover, but in comes the small aircraft again, this time employing its crop-dusting capabilities to cover him in a cloud of chemicals and flush him out. As the small plane circles to make a second pass, a tanker truck barrels down the highway. Grant/Thornhill jumps out in front of it, forcing the driver to stop, but the small plane misjudges and crashes into the oil truck. Both explode. Now a few innocent bystanders appear, traveling on this up-until-now deserted road. They stop their cars and get out, to get a closer look at the disaster. Grant/Thornhill slinks past them, steals one of their vehicles, and escapes.
As the story unfolds, we discover who Eve Kendall is, and we learn there is no George Kaplan, but the most dramatic scenes that end the movie take place on the remarkable stone-carved Mt. Rushmore monument, where Grant/Thornhill and Saint/Kendall try to escape by descending the faces of Rushmore, pursued and shot at by Vandamm’s agents.
To my great disappointment, the only authentic shots of the remarkable stone carvings of Rushmore were from a distance. Although Hitchcock had a permit to film at the monument, government officials banned the production when word got out that the writers scripted a fight scene and a couple of deaths. Thus, the hard work of climbing, falling, and fighting took place in Hollywood, and Mt. Rushmore was created by Hollywood trickery, using set pieces, special effects, and clever camera work—but don’t let that stop you from watching.
Of course, like most movies of those times, the good guy (Thornhill) gets the girl (Kendall), and like so many Hitchcock thrillers, the drama is intense even when you know it’s Hollywood and how it will end, but politics aside, Mt. Rushmore is its own dramatic story.
John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum created this remarkable feat of sculpting and engineering. In the summer of 1925, at the age of 57, Borglum went to South Dakota and began the project. Work on the sculpture started in 1927. Borglum remained devoted to the project until he died in Chicago, and his son Lincoln put the finishing touches on his father’s vision. Sadly, however, what’s left out of this remarkable story is that in 1933, Borglum hired Italian immigrant, Luigi del Bianco as the chief stone carver and paid him $1.50 an hour. (Excellent pay in those days. ) Del Bianco was tasked with more than the rough work of blowing up rocks and carving out simple shapes. He was entrusted with many of the finer points of creating those faces. Among his many duties, Del Bianco was entrusted with carving the detail in the faces. He cut Abraham Lincoln’s eyes and patched a dangerous crack in Thomas Jefferson’s lip.
Borglum constantly praised del Bianco for his outstanding abilities as a classically trained stone carver: “He is worth any three men in America for this particular type of work…. He is the only intelligent, efficient stone carver on the work who understands the language of the sculptor….We could double our progress if we had two like Bianco.”(Wiki)
Despite Borglum’s high regard, del Bianco, the Italian, was ignored until finally, three-quarters of a century later, his family fought for and won the recognition he so richly deserved. In 2017, a plaque was placed at the monument to honor his work as the chief sculptor.
So, one might say that North by Northwest is a mystery/ thriller filled with high drama both on and off the set, both fictitious and real. I’ve watched North by Northwest many times and always discover something new with each viewing.