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North by Northwest is a 1959 American suspense film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason, and featuring Leo G. Carroll and Martin Landau. The screenplay was written by Ernest Lehman, who wanted to write "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures".Jaynes, Barbara Grant; Trachtenberg, Robert. Cary Grant: A Class Apart. Burbank, California: Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and Turner Entertainment. 2004.

North by Northwest is a tale of mistaken identity, with an innocent man pursued across the United States by agents of a mysterious organization who want to stop his interference in their plans to smuggle out microfilm containing government secrets (a classic MacGuffin).

Author and journalist Nick Clooney praised Lehman's original story and sophisticated dialogue, calling the film "certainly Alfred Hitchcock's most stylish thriller, if not his best".

This is one of several Hitchcock movies with a music score by Bernard Herrmann and features a memorable opening title sequence by graphic designer Saul Bass. This film is generally cited as the first to feature extended use of kinetic typography in its opening credits.

The world premiere took place at the San Sebastian International Film Festival.


A Madison Avenue advertising executive, Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant), is mistaken for a Mr. George Kaplan and kidnapped by thugs Valerian (Adam Williams) and Licht (Robert Ellenstein). He is taken to the house of Lester Townsend on Long Islandmarker. There he is interrogated by a man he assumes to be Townsend, but who is really Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). When Thornhill repeatedly denies he is Kaplan and refuses to cooperate, Vandamm orders his right-hand man Leonard (Martin Landau) to get rid of him.

Thornhill is forced to drink bourbon in an attempt to stage a fatal accident. However, after a car chase on a perilous road, he is rear-ended by a police patrol car and apprehended. He is charged with drunken driving. He is unable to get the police, the judge or even his mother (Jessie Royce Landis) to believe what happened to him, especially when a woman at Townsend's residence claims he got drunk at a dinner party; she also informs them that Townsend is a United Nations diplomat.

Thornhill and his mother go to Kaplan's hotel room, but cannot find anyone at the hotel who has seen him.

Narrowly avoiding recapture, Thornhill takes a taxi to the General Assembly buildingmarker of the United Nations, where Townsend is due to deliver a speech. Thornhill meets Townsend face to face and is surprised to find that the diplomat is not the man who interrogated him. Then Valerian throws a knife that strikes Townsend in the back. He falls forward, dead, into Thornhill's arms. Unthinkingly, Thornhill removes the knife, making it appear to witnesses that he is the killer, forcing him to flee.

Thornhill (Grant) on the run, attempting to travel incognito.

Knowing that Kaplan has a reservation at a Chicagomarker hotel the next day (Vandamm mentioned it), Thornhill goes to Grand Central Terminalmarker and sneaks onto the 20th Century Limited train. On board, he meets the seductive Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who helps Thornhill evade policemen searching the train by hiding him twice—once in the overhead fold-up bunk in her sleeping car compartment. She asks about his personalized matchbooks with the initials ROT; he says the O stands for nothing.

Unbeknownst to Thornhill, Eve is working with Vandamm and Leonard, who are in another compartment. Upon arriving at Chicago's LaSalle Street Stationmarker, Thornhill borrows the uniform of one of the porters and carries Eve's luggage through the crowd, eluding police. Eve (who is Vandamm's lover) lies to Thornhill, telling him she has arranged a meeting with Kaplan. She gives him directions to the place.

In an iconic sequence, Thornhill travels by bus to an isolated crossroads, with flat countryside all around and nobody in sight. Another man finally arrives, but then takes the next bus. Before he leaves, the puzzled stranger observes that a biplane is "dusting crops where there ain't no crops." Without warning, the plane flies towards Thornhill and the pilot begins shooting at him. He flees to the only cover, a cornfield, but the plane dusts it with pesticide, forcing him out. Desperate for help, Thornhill steps in front of a speeding gasoline tank truck, which stops barely in time. The plane crashes into it and explodes. When passing drivers stop to see what is going on, Thornhill steals a pickup truck and flees.

Thornhill returns to the Chicago hotel, where he is surprised to learn that Kaplan had already checked out when Eve claimed to have spoken to him. A suspicious Thornhill goes to Eve's room. She allows him to get his suit cleaned and use the shower as she leaves. From the impression of a message written on a notepad, Thornhill learns her destination: an art auction.

There, he finds Vandamn, Leonard, and Eve. Vandamm purchases a pre-Columbian Tarascan statue and leaves. Thornhill tries to follow, only to find all exits covered by Vandamm's men. Thinking quickly, he begins placing nonsensical bids, making such a nuisance of himself that the police have to be called to remove him.

Thornhill identifies himself as a wanted fugitive, but en route to the police station, the officers are ordered to take him instead to the airport (where a gate for Northwest Airlines is seen, playing on the film's title). There, he meets the Professor (Leo G. Carroll), a spymaster who is after Vandamm. The Professor reveals that George Kaplan does not exist; he was invented to distract Vandamm from the real government agent—Eve, whose life is now in danger. To protect her, Thornhill agrees to help the Professor.

They fly to Rapid City, South Dakotamarker, where Thornhill (now pretending to be Kaplan) meets Eve and Vandamm in a crowded cafeteria at the base of Mount Rushmoremarker. He offers to let Vandamm leave the country unhindered in exchange for Eve, but is turned down. When he tries to keep her from leaving, Eve shoots Thornhill and flees. He is taken away in an ambulance. At a secluded spot, however, he emerges unharmed, having been shot with blanks. To his dismay, he learns that, having proven her loyalty, she will accompany Vandamm. To keep him from interfering further, Thornhill is locked in a hospital room by the Professor.

Thornhill manages to escape. He goes to Vandamm's mountainside home, scales the exterior and slips inside undetected. He learns that the microfilm has been put inside the Tarascan statue. While Eve is out of the room, Leonard fires the gun she used at Vandamm, demonstrating how the shooting was faked. Vandamm decides to throw Eve out of the airplane once they are airborne. Thornhill manages to warn her by writing a note inside one of his distinctive matchbooks and dropping it where she can find it.

On the way to the airplane, Eve grabs the statue and joins Thornhill. Leonard and Valerian chase them across the Mount Rushmore monument. When Valerian tries to ambush the pair, he instead falls to his death. Eve slips and clings desperately to the steep mountainside. Thornhill grabs her hand, while precariously holding on with his other hand. Leonard appears and starts grinding his heel on Thornhill's hand. They are saved when the Professor directs a police marksman to shoot Leonard. Vandamm is taken into custody.

The scene transitions from Thornhill pulling Eve to safety on Mount Rushmore to him pulling her (the new Mrs. Thornhill) up onto an overhead train bunk. The final shot shows their train speeding into a tunnel.


Alfred Hitchcock's cameo is a signature occurrence in most of his films. In North by Northwest he can be seen missing a bus at the end of the opening credits.

Landis, who played Thornhill's mother, was only eight years older than Grant. She also played his future mother-in-law in To Catch a Thief.

It is rumored James Stewart was the original choice to play Thornhill, and that Hitchcock replaced him with Grant after the poor box office performance of Vertigo, which Hitchcock supposedly blamed on Stewart looking too old to still attract audiences. This was untrue, as Hitchcock was planning to reunite with Stewart during his next film, The Blind Man.

MGM wanted Cyd Charisse for the role played by Eva Marie Saint. Hitchcock stood by his choice.


John Russell Taylor's official biography of Hitchcock, Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock (1978), suggests that the story originated after a spell of writer's block during the scripting of another movie project:

Alfred Hitchcock had agreed to do a film for MGM, and they had chosen an adaptation of the novel The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes.
Composer Bernard Herrmann had recommended that Hitchcock work with his friend Ernest Lehman.
After a couple of weeks, Lehman offered to quit saying he didn't know what to do with the story.
Hitchcock told him they got along great together and they would just write something else.
Lehman said that he wanted to make the ultimate Hitchcock film.
Hitchcock thought for a moment then said he had always wanted to do a chase across Mount Rushmoremarker.
Lehman and Hitchcock spitballed more ideas: a murder at the United Nations Headquartersmarker; a murder at a car plant in Detroitmarker; a final showdown in Alaskamarker.
Eventually they settled on the U.N. murder for the opening and the chase across Mount Rushmore for the climax.
For the central idea, Hitchcock remembered something an American journalist had told him about spies creating a fake agent as a decoy.
Perhaps their hero could be mistaken for this fictitious agent and end up on the run.
They bought the idea from the journalist for $10,000.

Lehman would sometimes repeat this story himself, as in the documentary Destination Hitchcock that accompanied the 2001 DVD release of the film. In his 2000 book Which Lie Did I Tell?, screenwriter William Goldman, commenting on the film, insists that it was Lehman who created North by Northwest and that many of Hitchcock's ideas were not used. Hitchcock had the idea of the hero being stranded in the middle of nowhere, but suggested the villains try to kill him with a tornado. Lehman responded, "but they're trying to kill him. How are they going to work up a cyclone?" Then, as he told an interviewer; "I just can't tell you who said what to whom, but somewhere during that afternoon, the cyclone in the sky became the crop-duster plane."

In fact, Hitchcock had been working on the story for nearly nine years prior to meeting Lehman. The "American journalist" who had the idea that influenced the director was Otis C. Guernsey, a respected reporter who was inspired by a true story during World War II when a couple of British secretaries created a fictitious agent and watched as the Germans wasted time following him around. Guernsey turned his idea into a story about an American traveling salesman who travels to the Middle East and is mistaken for a fictitious agent, becoming "saddled with a romantic and dangerous identity." Guernsey admitted that his treatment was full of "corn" and "lacking logic." He urged Hitchcock to do what he liked with the story. Hitchcock bought the sixty pages for $10,000.

Hitchcock often told journalists of an idea he had about Cary Grant hiding out from the villains inside Abraham Lincoln's nose and being given away when he sneezes. He speculated that the film could be called "The Man in Lincoln's Nose" (Lehman's version is that it was "The Man on Lincoln's Nose") or even "The Man who Sneezed in Lincoln's Nose," though he probably felt the latter was insulting to his adopted America. Hitchcock sat on the idea, waiting for the right screenwriter to develop it. At one stage "The Man in Lincoln's Nose" was touted as a collaboration with John Michael Hayes. When Lehman came on board, the traveling salesman — which had previously been suited to James Stewart — was adapted to a Madison Avenue advertising executive, a position which Lehman had formerly held.

Themes and motifs

Hitchcock planned the film as a change of pace after his dark romantic thriller Vertigo a year earlier. In an interview with François Truffaut ("Hitchcock / Truffaut"), Hitchcock said that he wanted to do something fun, light-hearted, and generally free of the symbolism permeating his other movies. Writer Ernest Lehman has also mocked those who look for symbolism in the film. Despite its popular appeal, however, the movie is considered to be a masterpiece for its themes of deception, mistaken identity, and moral relativism in the Cold War era.

The central theme is that of theatre and play-acting, wherein everyone is playing a part, no one is who they seem, and identity is in flux. This is reflected by Thornhill's line: "The only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead." Significantly (and ironically), Thornhill is a successful advertising executive (a man who makes his living by distorting reality and deceiving the public). In the role of Thornhill, Grant was distressed with the way the plot seemed to wander aimlessly, and he actually approached Hitchcock to complain about the script. "I can't make heads or tails of it," he said (unwittingly quoting a line that Thornhill utters in the film).

The title North by Northwest is often seen as having been taken from a line in Hamlet, a work also concerned with the shifty nature of reality. Hitchcock noted this in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich in 1963. Lehman however, states that he used a working title for the film of "In a Northwesterly Direction," because the film's action was to begin in New Yorkmarker and climax in Alaskamarker. Then the head of the story department at MGM suggested "North by Northwest," but this was still to be a working title. Other titles were considered, including "The Man on Lincoln's Nose," but "North by Northwest" was kept because, according to Lehman, "We never did find a [better] title." The Northwest Airlines reference in the film plays on the title. The title is not an actual compass direction, the two closest directions being northwest by north (NWbN) and north-northwest (NNW), with the latter traditionally taken as the title's intended meaning.

The plot of this film is one of the purer versions of Alfred Hitchcock's idea of the "MacGuffin," the physical object that everyone in the film is chasing but which has no deep relationship to the plot. Late in North by Northwest, it emerges that the spies are attempting to smuggle microfilm containing government secrets out of the country. They have been trying to kill Thornhill, who they believe to be the agent on their trail, "George Kaplan." Indeed, the fictitious Kaplan himself could be the "MacGuffin" of the film as Thornhill, as well as the villains, spend most of the movie vainly trying to track him down.

There are similarities between this movie and Hitchcock's earlier film Saboteur (1942), whose final scene atop the Statue of Libertymarker foreshadows the Mount Rushmore scene in the later film. In fact, North by Northwest can be seen as the last in a long line of "wrong man" films that Hitchcock made according to the pattern he established in The 39 Steps (1935).

North by Northwest has been referred to as "the first James Bond film" due to its similarities with splashily colorful settings and secret agents, not to mention the elegantly daring, wisecracking leading man. Based on the strength of North by Northwest, Hitchcock was seriously considered to direct the first conceived Bond film by Ivar Bryce (co-owner of Xanadu Productions), Ian Fleming, and Kevin McClory. Hitchcock read the script that would eventually become Thunderball and was interested in directing it. Later the team shared doubts about Hitchcock's involvement because of his minimum salary requirement and the amount of control over the picture they would have to give up. Hitchcock ultimately passed on the Bond film to direct Psycho.

The film's final shot — that of the train speeding into a tunnel during a romantic assignation onboard — is a famous bit of self-conscious Freudian symbolism reflecting Hitchcock's mischievous sense of humor. [In Hitchcock / Truffaut (p.107-108), Hitchcock called it a "phallic symbol... probably one of the most impudent shots I ever made."]


The filming of North by Northwest took place between August and December 1958 with the exception of a few re-takes that were shot in April 1959.

This was the only Hitchcock film released by MGM. However, it is now owned by Turner Entertainment — since 1996 a division of Warner Bros. — which owns the pre-1986 MGM library.


At Hitchcock's insistence, the film was made in Paramount's VistaVision widescreen process, making it one of the few VistaVision films made at MGM.

The car chase scene in which Thornhill is drunkenly careening along the edge of cliffs high above the ocean, supposedly on Long Islandmarker, was actually shot on the California coast. (Long Island is devoid of precipitous seaside cliffs.)

At the time, the United Nations prohibited film crews from shooting around its New York City headquarters. In an example of guerrilla filmmaking, Hitchcock used a movie camera hidden in a parked van to film Cary Grant and Adam Williams exiting their taxis and entering the building.

The cropduster sequence, meant to take place in northern Indianamarker, was shot on location on Garces Highway (155) near the towns of Wascomarker and Delanomarker, north of Bakersfieldmarker in Kern County, Californiamarker ( ) . The aircraft seen flying in the scene is an N3N, a World War II Navy pilot trainer. After the war, many were converted for cropdusting. The actual aircraft used survives and has been restored to its wartime markings. The aircraft that hits the truck and explodes is a wartime Stearman (Boeing Model 75) trainer. Like its N3N lookalike, many were used for agricultural purposes through the 1970s. It's assumed that the film company bought a wrecked or worn-out plane for the explosion. At the time they would have been available for as little as a few hundred dollars. The plane was piloted by Bob Coe, a local cropduster from Wasco. Hitchcock placed replicas of square Indiana highway signs in the scene. In an extensive list of "1001 Greatest Movie Moments" of all time, the British movie magazine Empire in its August 2009 issue ranked the cropduster scene at number one: "The Number One Greatest Movie Moment" (number two was the bicycle/moon silhouette from E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and number three was "Bond, James Bond" from Dr. No).

When Eve shoots Thornhill in the Mount Rushmore cafeteria, a boy can be seen covering his ears just before the shot is fired.

The shootout on Mount Rushmore at the end of the film was filmed on a replica constructed in Hollywood.

Set design

The house at the end of the film was not real. Hitchcock asked the set designers to make the set resemble a house by Frank Lloyd Wright, the most popular architect in America at the time, using the materials, form and interiors associated with him. The set was built in Culver Citymarker, where MGM's studios were located.


The gray suit worn by Cary Grant throughout almost the entire film has taken on somewhat iconic status. A panel of fashion experts convened by GQ magazine in 2006 called it both the best suit in film history, and the most influential on men's style, stating that it has since been copied for Tom Cruise's character in Collateral and Ben Affleck's character in Paycheck. This sentiment has been echoed by writer Todd McEwen, who called it "gorgeous." There is some disagreement as to who tailored the suit; according to Vanity Fair magazine, it was Norton & Sons of Londonmarker,, although according to The Independent it was Quintino of Beverly Hillsmarker.

Eva Marie Saint's wardrobe for the film was originally entirely chosen by MGM; however, Hitchcock didn't agree with them. In the end, both the actress and director went to a shop in New York to select what she would wear. (Reference in the film's Making of.)

Editing and post-production

In François Truffaut's book-length interview, Hitchcock/Truffaut (1967), Hitchcock said that MGM wanted North by Northwest cut by 15 minutes so the film's length would run under two hours. Hitchcock had his agent check his contract, learned that he had absolute control over the final cut, and refused.

One of Eva Marie Saint's lines in the dining car seduction scene was redubbed. She originally said "I never make love on an empty stomach," but it was changed in post-production to "I never discuss love on an empty stomach." It is said that the censors felt the original version was too risqué.


The trailer for North by Northwest features Hitchcock presenting himself as the owner of Alfred Hitchcock Travel Agency and telling the viewer he has made a motion picture to advertise these wonderful vacation stops. (DVD Extras- Original Trailer)

Home Video

Warner Bros. released 50th Anniversary Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray editions, on November 3, 2009.


North by Northwest was nominated for three Academy Awards for Film Editing (George Tomasini), Art Direction (William A. Horning, Robert F. Boyle, Merrill Pye, Henry Grace, Frank McKelvy), and Original Screenplay (Ernest Lehman). The film also won, for Lehman, a 1960 Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay.In 1995, North by Northwest was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congressmarker as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

In June 2008, the AFI revealed its "Ten top Ten" — the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres — after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. North by Northwest was acknowledged as the seventh best film in the mystery genre.

American Film Institute recognition


  1. The Kinetic Typography Engine
  2. John Brady, "The craft of the screenwriter", 1981. Page 202
  3. John Brady, "The craft of the screenwriter", 1981. Page 201
  4. Hitchcock, however, was not above inserting a Freudian joke as the last shot (which, notably, made it past contemporary censors).
  5. John Brady, "The craft of the screenwriter", 1981. Page 199/200
  6. The line reads: "I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly / I know a hawk from a handsaw." (Act II, Scene ii). Hamlet thus hints to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his friends, that his madness is only an act to protect himself while he gathers information on his father's murder.
  7. The Bakersfield Californian, Wasco man had Hitchcock movie role, 11/Oct/2007
  8. The cropduster scene was ranked number one with a full-page explanation and stills from the movie. Number 1001 was a closing scene from Hellboy 2.
  9. Cary Grant's suit in “North by Northwest ” named top male fashion trend-setter, SAWF News, October 17, 2006
  10. Cary Grant's Suit, Todd McEwen, Granta, Summer 2006
  11. It’s the Hitch in Hitchcock, Jim Windolf, Vanity Fair, March 2008
  12. Fashion: Suits they are a-changin, Glenn Waldron, The Independent, January 28, 2008
  13. Warner Home Video has announced 50th Anniversary DVD ($24.98) and Blu-ray Book ($34.99) editions of North by Northwest for the 3rd November. Each will include a Screenwriter commentary, a music only track, a Cary Grant: A Class Apart documentary, a Destination Hitchcock: The Making of North by Northwest featurette, a photo gallery, trailer gallery, and 2 brand new documentaries ("The Master’s Touch: Hitchcock’s Signature Style", "North by Northwest: One for the Ages"). The Blu-ray Book also contains 44 pages full of photos, film facts and insider information. We've attached the package artwork below:

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