"The Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures."
— Ernest Lehman, screenwriter
A classic 1959 thriller by Alfred Hitchcock, in which an innocent man mistaken for a spy is chased halfway across the USA by enemy spies searching for a MacGuffin. Probably best known as being that movie that had a climax on Mount Rushmore or more likely as "the movie where a character is chased by a crop duster," a scene which has often been homaged.The film begins with advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) being abducted by enemy agents working for the master foreign spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), who is currently masquerading as the diplomat Lester Townsend. Vandamm believes Roger to be an American spy, George Kaplan, who has been tailing Vandamm. When Roger insists he is not the spy, Vandamm orders him killed. His henchmen, led by the sinister Leonard (Martin Landau), decide to stage a fatal accident by pouring a bottle of bourbon down Roger's throat and then placing him at the wheel of a stolen car on a cliffside road.One car chase later, Roger escapes but is arrested for drunk driving. To clear his name, he goes to the UN, where the real Townsend is giving a speech. Roger, surprised to find that it wasn't Townsend who abducted him, is even more surprised when Townsend's corpse lands in his arms. Now Wrongly Accused of murder, Roger flees New York.After a train journey, where Roger meets Femme Fatale Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), and the famous cropduster incident, Roger eventually follows Eve to an auction where Vandamm is bidding on a statue. To escape the spy, Roger disrupts the auction, deliberately getting himself arrested by the police.The police are ordered to take Roger to the Professor, an American spymaster, who explains the plot. George Kaplan never existed; he was only a red herring, meant to divert the enemy from the real agent. While Roger's actions initially provided a useful inadvertent distraction, he has ended up raising Vandamm's suspicions towards the real spy, so the Professor proposes a complex charade to resolve the situation.When this goes wrong, Roger and Eve end up being chased across Mount Rushmore by Leonard and Vandamm's other henchmen.The movie was a major stylistic influence on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: in fact, Leo G. Carroll, who played Alexander Waverly in that series, plays a very similar character (sobriquetted "The Professor") in the film, and the TV show drew its "innocent gets caught up in international intrigue" shtick from the film. It has also sometimes been called the first James Bond film.
Artifact Title: Early drafts of the script called for the final showdown to take place in Alaska, but no one could come up with a better replacement title after the climactic scene was changed to Mount Rushmore.
Actually, "North by Northwest" doesn't even exist on the compass. The only valid directions similar are North by West, Northwest by North, and North-Northwest.
Although, at one point, Roger does get on a Northwest Airlines plane, and apparently goes north.
Artistic Title: The opening sequence, designed by Saul Bass, depicts the credits sliding up and down the side of a Manhattan office building.
As You Know: The truth about Kaplan is explained incredibly awkwardly by the Professor to the only other people in the world who already know about it.
Better Manhandle the Murder Weapon: Conveniently, a photographer is present to take an incriminating photo at the exact moment the victim falls on Cary Grant; not getting what's happening, he pulls the knife out of the victim's back. The look on Grant's face doesn't help, either. Then his guilty-looking mug is plastered on the front page of every newspaper in the USA!
California Doubling: The entire crop duster scene was supposedly set in Indiana southeast of Chicago, but actually filmed near Bakersfield, California because it's cheaper to film in California than take all the crew and equipment to Indiana.
The California coastline stands in for that of Glen Cove, New York, where Thornhill was originally to meet his fate. The north shore of Long Island is rocky, but not THAT rocky.
Vandamm's house behind Mount Rushmore. Anyone who's been to Mount Rushmore knows there aren't any houses within several miles. Not to mention the topography is all wrong. It does make for a good climax, however.
The Calls Are Coming from Inside the Hotel: Thornhill gets a call from the bad guys while casing "Kaplan"'s room at the Plaza Hotel. He then finds out from the hotel's switchboard operator that the call came from the lobby.
Chekhov's Gun: A literal one. The gun Eve uses on Thornhill in the diner scene is first revealed as loaded with blanks after Thornhill is revealed to still be alive. It's later revealed by Leonard to Vandamm to be loaded with blanks. Later on the housemaid uses it on Thornhill, and the blasts from inside the house give Eve the chance to grab the MacGuffin statue and escape with Thornhill. Could also count as a Chekhov's Boomerang.
Also, the ROT matchbox. Thornhill shows it to Eve first of all on the train to Chicago, then he later uses it near the end of the film to scribble a message inside to warn Eve of the attempt about to be made on her life.
Chekhov's Gunman: In the scene in the CIA after the scene in the United Nations where Thornhill is framed as the murderer of the real Lester Townsend, the Professor mention "their own agent" who later turns out to be Eve. Literally, considering the diner scene.
Chicago: We do go through Chicago on the way west.
"Not that I mind a slight case of abduction now and then, but I have tickets for the theater this evening, to a show I was looking forward to and I get, well, kind of unreasonable about things like that."
"Now you listen to me, I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself 'slightly' killed."
Vandamm: Has anyone ever told you that you overplay your various roles rather severely, Mr. Kaplan? First, you're the outraged Madison Avenue man who claims he's been mistaken for someone else. Then you play the fugitive from justice, supposedly trying to clear his name of a crime he knows he didn't commit. And now, you play the peevish lover, stung by jealousy and betrayal. It seems to me you fellows could stand a little less training from the FBI and a little more from the Actors Studio.
Roger: Apparently, the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.
Vandamm: Your very next role. You'll be quite convincing, I assure you.
Thornhill on the phone to his mother in Grand Central Station foreshadows the crop-dusting sequence once he arrives in Chicago as well as his first meeting with Eve: "The train, it's safer... Well, because there's no place to hide on a plane if anyone should recognize me... Oh, you want me to jump off a moving plane?"
At the art auction:
Roger: Apparently, the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.
Vandamm: Your very next role. You'll be quite convincing, I assure you. Ironically, Thornhill's next acting role will be to play dead, after Eve shoots him in the diner scene.
Funny Background Event: During the scene where Eve pretends to shoot Thornhill, you can clearly see a kid in the background plug his ears in anticipation. Eva Marie Saint notes in the making of special that there were other good takes, and she has no idea why that one was used.
Gambit Pileup: Vandamm, the Professor, Thornhill and Eve have their own elaborate plans, which clash constantly.
Giving Them the Strip: Eve discards her scarf, jacket, and shoes in succession during the Mount Rushmore chase.
Going by the Matchbook: Roger writes a warning to Eve on his personal matchbook with his initials(R.O.T.) on them and secretly throws it next to her in Van Damm's house. When they first met on the train earlier Eve noticed his matchbook and asked what the "O" stood for. Roger's reply: "Nothing". This was a sly dig at producer David O. Selznick, with whom Hitchcock had regular battles for creative control; his middle initial also didn't stand for anything.
Idiot Ball: Not once, but twice the villains choose an overly elaborate method to try and kill Thornhill, from which he is easily able to escape: first by getting him drunk and putting him behind the wheel of a car so that he'll drive into the ocean and it'll look like an accident, and the second being the entire scene with the crop duster. Hitchcock did acknowledge that the crop-duster scene is needlessly complex, but pointed out that no one thinks that while they're actually in the cinema.
It Was Here, I Swear: When Thornhill takes the county detectives back to the house where Vandamm and his two goons had detained him. For instance, there are a lot of books where he remembered the henchmen getting a bottle of bourbon.
I am but mad north-northwest; when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.
MacGuffin: Both the microfilm and George Kaplan, since the first two acts of the movie are about Thornhill and Vandamm both looking for the nonexistent spy.
Match Cut: One comes at the very end, as Roger goes from offering his hand to Eve on the cliff to pulling her onto the overhead bunk in a train cabin.
Meaningful Background Event: If you listen very closely to the background in the opening scene where Thornhill is sitting with his associates, you can hear a worker announcing there's a page for "George Kaplan." Thornhill puts his hand up for an unrelated reason, and the spies assume he's Kaplan, answering the page. It's very easy to miss.
Emile Klinger, the officer who arrests Thornhill for drink-driving after the first attempt on his life. The man's surname refers to Thornhill's attempts to cling to reality as at first he doesn't know what is going on. Also doubles as Foreshadowing to the Mount Rushmore scenes at the end of the film.
Townsend. The murder of the real Lester Townsend (Town-Send) sends Thornhill from New York to Chicago to South Dakota.
Mugged for Disguise: Thornhill is able to slip out of the train station in Chicago, despite being the object of a huge manhunt, by dressing in a Red Cap’s uniform. Later, the REAL Red Cap is seen in his longjohns, being questioned by the police about the man who stole his uniform. (But then it turns out that he wasn’t really “Mugged For Disguise” so much as “Bribed For Disguise,” because we see him counting a wad of cash, presumably paid to him by Thornhill.)
Oh, Crap: Roger, when he sees the crop-dusting plane bearing down on him.
Playing Gertrude: Jessie Royce Landis, who plays Thornhill's mother, was only seven years older than Cary Grant in real life.
Plot-Based Voice Cancellation: The Professor explains the whole "George Kaplan" scenario to Thornhill at the airport, and his voice is drowned out by the roar of plane engines. This is actually a rather clever inversion of the trope, in that we the viewers already know about the stuff he's talking about, so making the conversation inaudible is sparing us from the redundancy.
P.O.V. Cam: When a park ranger slugs Thornhill in the face on the Professor's orders, to prevent his detaining Eve.
The Precarious Ledge: Thornhill escapes the Professor's custody in the Rapid City hospital by navigating one of these. Then later, he and Eve are forced into scaling the top of Mount Rushmore to escape Vandamm and co.
Which makes for a very subtle, nonverbal Title Drop: Thornhill and the Professor fly north by Northwest from Chicago to Rapid City.
Red Herring: Thornhill becomes on in the film against his will and uses the phrase to the Professor: "I'm an advertising man, not a red herring!"
Remonstrating With a Knife: Lester Townsend is surreptitiously stabbed in the back by Valerian as he talks with Thornhill at the UN. As he falls foward, Thornhill catches him, and seeing the knife pulls it out of Townsend's back. Only then does the large crowd around them notice what's happened, and the trope is duly invoked.
Serial Spouse: Thornhill mentions having two ex-wives at one point.
Shirtless Scene: At one point we see Roger in a hospital room wearing only a white towel.
Shout-Out: Seeing Vandamm and Leonard together with Eve at the Chicago art auction leads Thornhill to comment, "Now that's a picture only Charles Addams could draw."
In the same scene Vandamm tells Roger that with all the roles he's been playing, he could use "a little less training from the FBI and a little more from the Actors Studio." Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau both studied there.
Every location is north by northwest. For example, said Manhattan taxi ride, New York to Chicago, and so on.
Sissy Villain: Leonard refers to his suspicion of who the double-agent is as his "woman's intuition" and Vandamm comments that he thinks Leonard is jealous of his relationship with Eve.
Sorry Ociffer: Thornhill is force-fed a quart of bourbon and put behind the wheel of a car on a cliffside road to kill himself. He manages to escape his foes, but gets caught by the police. At the station he absolutely admits that he's drunk, but can't get them to believe the circumstances.
Spanner in the Works: Thornhill screws up both plans (see below) before being incorporated into them.
What Happened to the Mouse?: Licht, Vandamm's henchman wearing a hat, disappears without explanation midway through the film. In the script, he was one of the two men in the cropduster but there's nothing in the film to suggest this.