Alfred Hitchcock is a highly acclaimed filmmaker who, while he never got an Academy Award, he did get a movie about him wherein he was played by Anthony Hopkins. Plus, there was that HBO movie too with that guy who played Truman Capote. No, not Philip Seymour Hoffman. The other guy. While he has many beloved movies, 1959's North by Northwest is high on the list. It features Hitchcock working alongside one of his favorite actors in Cary Grant, and several scenes and set pieces that have become extremely famous. It probably does not require a spoiler alert to mention that Grant is chased by a plane at one point. We all know that happens. We've seen the parodies on The Simpsons.
Grant plays Roger Thornhill, a suave, quippy New York ad executive. The exact kind of character he excelled at. One day, he is mistaken for a mysterious gentleman named George Kaplan, so a couple of mysterious goons kidnap him and take him to a house where he meets a mysterious man played by James Mason. After he escapes an attempt on his life, Thornhill decides to try and get to the bottom of the situation, and so begins a series of events that take Thornhill all over the United States. Well, at least all over the Northeast and Midwest. Eventually, he runs into Eve Marie Saint's Eve Kendall. Is she mysterious? You better believe it!
The movie is full of action and intrigue and twists and spy games and sexuality and a young Martin Landau as one of James Mason's henchmen. While Grant plays a character who, through a case of mistaken identity, finds himself in a very serious situation wherein his life is in danger, Thornhill never really seems to show much panic or dread. In fact, he remains quippy and even willingly gets himself deeper into the mystery. This is key to being able to enjoy the film. It lightens the burden on the viewer and the tension, but it does not make it untense. It also allows for some funny moments, and the script is quite solid when it comes to the dialogue.
However, when it comes to plotting there are some issues. On a website dedicated to a particular TV show, there was once an article discussing the fact that the plotline of a movie required the main character, who was ostensibly smart and successful, making so many stupid decisions. If not for all these mistakes, the plot could not have moved forward. The TV show in question is Mystery Science Theater 3000, which is dedicated to lampooning poorly made movies. Unfortunately, North by Northwest indulges in such contrivances as well, at least early on. Once the momentum is built up, it mostly works and becomes more reasonable and interesting and exciting, but it is still reflects negatively on the movie.
The performances in the movie are strong. Grant is pretty much perfect for the roll of Thornhill. Saint is fine as the woman at the center of the story. Mason is a reasonable villain, and at the very least his sort of posh way he carries himself serves the role well. There are also a few good supporting performances. Also, a young Martin Landau.
North by Northwest is a fine thriller. That being said, there's nothing special about it. There are certainly better thrillers out there, ones that are more tense and plotted more successfully. On the other hand, few of them have a central figure as engaging as Grant as Thornhill, and his charisma is asked to carry the film more or less, which is something he is up for. There are a few exciting moments, and a few funny, clever lines. Maybe you will be intrigued by Grant and Saint's interactions as well, but they don't really "pop" as it were. The fact the movie was made in 1959 may have something to do with it. As for Hitchcock's direction, it is, presumably to the surprise of nobody, largely successful. The cinematography is intriguing, and there are a few well-crafted moments of the film. North by Northwest is a good movie. A perfectly fine movie to watch. It's just not, you know, necessarily the legendary film many feel it is.