Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film North by Northwest is an iconic film, that most people know of for at least one sequence – the cropduster scene in the middle of the film – with the assumption that this is a tense thriller. It is, but it’s also a little more comedic than you’d think.
The film stars Cary Grant as a Madison Avenue ad executive – Roger Thornhill. When Thornhill raises his hand at exactly the wrong time while in a cocktail bar, he’s mistaken for George Kaplan, a government agent hunting down a group of spies who are trying to sell a microfilm (this film’s McGuffin – to use Hitchcock’s preferred term), he’s kidnapped and nearly killed in a staged drunk driving accident, and proceeds to spend the rest of the film trying to track down the actual George Kaplan to find out what’s going on – and to also get to the bottom of why he was kidnapped.
Since this is a film starring Cary Grant, the film has a ton of banter, which is generally snappy and, to the credit of the writing considering the film stars a Mad Men-era ad executive, mostly manages to avoid being skeevy – though there are some unpleasant lines. In particular, when Thornhill is flirting with his love interest Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), there’s a line that feels a little too aggressive – but since this is the late 50s, you do have to come into films of this period knowing that a line like that is coming.
The film also moves incredibly fast – the initial case of mistaken identity happens almost seven minutes into the film, and in spite of the film having a two hour runtime, it never really drags. The only real breather in the film comes about halfway into the movie, during the sequence on the train. Otherwise the film just keeps going, leading to a film where you don’t feel the film’s duration.
This movie came out in probably one of the strongest stretches of Hitchcock’s career – starting with (depending on where you count it) either Rear Window or The Man Who Knew Too Much (depending on what you think about The Trouble With Harry) and continuing to The Birds with home run after run after run, and the film definitely fits in strongly there. Definitely give this movie a watch.