North By Northwest – A Precursor to James Bond in One of Hitchcock’s Greatest Classics

RETRO MOVIE REVIEW – The long-running James Bond series was recently dropped from HBO Max’s lineup, and perhaps as “compensation”, this powerful Hitchcock classic was added in its place, and it could also be considered a precursor of sorts to the James Bond films. The charming Cary Grant would have been the perfect choice for agent 007 – it’s no coincidence that Ian Fleming wanted him, but unfortunately Grant, at 58, didn’t take the part. But North by Northwest, made three years earlier, is a brilliant spy thriller, with its epic, much-quoted, and film-esthete-flavoured flying attack scene. Undoubtedly one of Hitchcock’s best films – let’s see why…



For film fans who want to immerse themselves in Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest classics, North by Northwest is the first of the two films I’d recommend as their first choice.  The other two are Vertigo and Rear Window with James Stewart.  For those frightened by the borderline suspense and horror fame of Alfred Hitchcock’s works such as Psycho and The Birds, North by Northwest is, in the writer’s opinion, the most accessible film for the masses.



American James Bond, who is not a super spy


If you’ve never seen or heard of North by Northwest, go to a place where you can rent or buy videos today and watch it.  You won’t be disappointed.  If I could put it in a nutshell, North by Northwest is an American James Bond type movie, if James Bond didn’t know he was James Bond.

Screen legend Cary Grant plays Roger Thornhill, the charming Madison Avenue advertising executive in New York.  When he is mistaken for George Kaplan by a hotel bellboy, Roger is kidnapped by a pair of gangsters who are after Kaplan.  He is taken to a Long Island residence owned by UN diplomat Lester Townsend, where he is interrogated by a foreign spy, Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), who won’t give his name and poses as Townsend.  Although Roger insists he’s not the Kaplan guy they’re looking for, Vandamm doesn’t believe him and calls in his trusty right-hand man Leonard (the quietly terrifying Martin Landau) to get rid of him.

When Thornhill escapes an attempted murder to make his death look like a drunk-driving accident, he can’t seem to get anyone to believe his kidnapping story, not even the authorities or his own mother.  When he searches for the real Lester Townsend in the United Nations General Assembly building, Vandamm’s thugs follow him.  With a knife thrown in his back, they murder the diplomat, who falls into Roger’s arms.  A flash of lightning and the screams of witnesses make it appear that Thornhill murdered Townsend.

Now a wanted man on the front pages of newspapers everywhere, Thornhill is determined to clear his name before he surrenders to the authorities.  Dodging Vandamm, his men and a nationwide manhunt, he follows the breadcrumbs of clues picked up by the real George Kaplanon.  These leads send him by train to Chicago.  On the train, he begins a torrid romance with the blonde and beautiful Eve Kendell (platinum-haired Eva Marie Saint, Hitchcock’s typical doomed woman), who helps him evade the police.  Slowly the clues bear fruit, new layers emerge and the great mystery at stake begins to unfold.



Made with a guerrilla twist


Production notes on the North Northwest have become the stuff of Hollywood legend.  Hitchcock used guerrilla filming to shoot scenes in the heavily guarded UN headquarters.  Also, when he was denied permission to film at the real Mount Rushmore National Monument in South Dakota, he built a replica in a recording studio.  California is often substituted for Northern Indiana in the crop-dusting scene and Long Island in the drunk driving scene.

The opening titles, created by graphic artist Saul Bass, who would later become famous as the creator of the James Bond titles, were the first “moving text” of their kind.  In 2006, a panel of fashion gurus from GQ magazine named Cary Grant’s grey suit the best suit in film history and the most influential suit ever to influence men’s style.  Although nominated for three Oscars, Ben-Hur fell short of a record 11 Oscars that year.  Yet history was kind to the film’s reception.  The American Film Institute ranked North by Northwest as the 40th highest-grossing thriller of all time, the 4th highest-grossing thriller and the 7th highest-grossing crime thriller.  To date, it holds a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.



Hitchcock’s most commercially successful film


North by Northwest is arguably Hitchcock’s most commercially successful film.  Made barely a year after Vertigo and a year before Psycho (and, coincidentally, three years before Dr. No, the first James Bond film), it is a twisty, witty and brisk thriller with very little of the typically weird and grotesque symbolism that sometimes alienates Hitchcock films from the general public.

Its pace is the closest thing to a Jason Bourne-like thriller by 1959 standards.  The action sequences, from the famously chilling poster scene to the attacking plane to the thrilling climax on and around Mount Rushmore, are deftly and excitingly shot.

Although this film may seem mainstream, all of Hitchcock’s visual flair and cinematic tricks are present (note his distinctive personal cameo immediately after the opening scenes).  Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock’s frequent collaborator, composes a dynamic musical score to heighten the tension, and writer Ernest Lehman gives our actors a pithy and sophisticated script to bite into, full of innuendo and discourse on the pendulum of power in the Cold War, appropriate for the time.

Even if you’re not a die-hard Hitchcock fan, North by Northwest is, for me, one of those films that every man should see before he dies.  It is a truly iconic classic of film history, in which style, thrills, romance, action are all in perfect unity, and the typical Hitchcockian tension is not missing.


North By Northwest

Direction - 10
Actors - 9.6
Story - 9.6
Visuals/Music/Action (1959) - 9.8
Ambience - 9.8



Even if you're not a die-hard Hitchcock fan, North by Northwest is, for me, one of those films that every man should see before he dies.  It is a truly iconic classic of film history, in which style, thrills, romance, action are all in perfect unity, and the typical Hitchcockian tension is not missing.

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BadSector is a seasoned journalist for more than twenty years. He communicates in English, Hungarian and French. He worked for several gaming magazines – including the Hungarian GameStar, where he worked 8 years as editor. (For our office address, email and phone number check out our impressum)

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