November 3, 2009


Spy Vibe fans of Alfred Hitchcock will be happy to hear that his classic North By Northwest is now available on Blu-ray. Although Hitchcock had already developed his trademark conventions (the maguffin, the wrong man, climax in an epic location), North By Northwest is remembered by many as the ultimate Hitchcock thriller. A suave, successful New York advertising executive finds himself mistaken as a spy and is embroiled in a web of intrigue, lost microfilm, seduction, and murder. Stars Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint (Grand Prix), James Mason, Martin Landau (Mission Impossible, Space 1999), Leo G. Carroll (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), and Edward Platt (Get Smart).

Hitchcock set out to create a theme endearing to Spy Vibers in North By Northwest by accentuating the main character's isolation in the lap of mid-century modernist luxury. As Sandy MacLendon points out on JetSetModern, Hitchcock created a carefully crafted world of affluence that would be recognizable to a mass audience: The director himself chose Eva Marie Saint's wardrobe from Bergdorf Goodman and jewelry from Van Cleef. Chris from Clothes On Film discusses Grant's famous grey Kilgour suit, which has been recognized by GQ as an iconic look for men. Characters were put behind the wheels of the latest chic cars by Mercedes, Lincoln, and Cadillac. But where the film really shines for design fans is in its choice of locations: Plaza Hotel/New York, estate house/Long Island, UN Building/New York, Grand Central Station/New York, aboard the Twentieth Century Limited train to Chicago, and the piece de resistance- the modernist Vandamm home in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright. According to MacLendon, Wright had agreed to design a previous Hollywood film- for ten percent of the project's budget! Never to be thwarted, Hitchock had his design crew set to work on a Wright-style house that audiences would recognize, using Wright's signature materials and lines, and through matt photography, placed it atop Mount Rushmore. They added support beams for dramatic effect, providing a way for Grant's character to climb into the house undetected. MacLendon points out that "The living room set was dressed in the best of 1958’s furniture and art, and it makes a very interesting point. The furniture is largely Scandinavian Modern. There is Chinese art, and a Pre-Colombian statue figures prominently in the action. Greek flokati rugs are on the floors. Vandamm’s spying is meant to set the nations of the world at war, but it seems they co-exist peacefully enough under his roof!"

The title sequence by Saul Bass is also noteworthy. Bass had begun to design for Hitchcock on his previous film, Vertigo, and Bass pushed the theme of modernity further for North By Northwest. As the Design Museum describes: "In 1958’s Vertigo, his first title sequence for Alfred Hitchcock, Bass shot an extreme close-up of a woman’s face and then her eye before spinning it into a sinister spiral as a bloody red soaks the screen. For his next Hitchcock commission, 1959’s North by Northwest, the credits swoop up and down a grid of vertical and diagonal lines like passengers stepping off elevators. It is only a few minutes after the movie has begun - with Cary Grant stepping out of an elevator - that we realise the grid is actually the fa├žade of a skyscraper." The use of bold fonts and animation based on perspective accentuated the geometric, sleek modern tone of the film.

According to John Patterson at The Guardian, "North By Northwest has been called the first James Bond movie (screenwriter Ernest Lehman called it "the ultimate Hitchcock picture" while he was writing it, but no matter). And the similarities are evident. In 1960 Hitchcock himself briefly considered directing Thunderball. Ian Fleming originally wanted Grant (who was a good friend of Bond producer Cubby Broccoli) to play 007 in Dr No, and North By Northwest surely had a lot to do with that (Grant turned down the part). 1959 was also the year Fleming published Goldfinger, the first truly ridiculous Bond novel (delightful though it is), which, as the third Bond movie, would perfect the NXNW-style template from which the series would barely deviate until the advent of Daniel Craig." Patterson's review of Goldfinger notwithstanding, the idea of a Hitchcock-directed Bond has been a point of discussion among 007 fans.

The film has been ranked #7 in the top-ten greatest mystery films of all time by the American Film Institute.


  1. I am on the way to Best Buy to buy my copy TONIGHT! I cannot wait to see my all-time ultimate film in BR!

  2. Looking at that last shot you can make an equally compelling argument for NXNW's influence on Mad Men.

    Indeed, Don Draper is "the wrong man" as an existential crisis. What could be more mid-century?!