This is one of several Hitchcock films that features a music score by Bernard Herrmann and 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.
At a New York City hotel bar in 1958, two thugs looking for a "George Kaplan" see a waiter calling out for him at the same time advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) summons the waiter. Thornhill is then mistaken for "George Kaplan" and is kidnapped. Thornhill is brought to the Long Island estate of Lester Townsend and is interrogated by spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). Despite Thornhill denying he is George Kaplan, Vandamm thinks he is lying and has his henchman Leonard (Martin Landau) arrange Thornhill's death in a staged drunken driving accident. Thornhill manages to miraculously steer away from danger but is soon arrested for driving under the influence.
The next morning, Thornhill tries but fails to convince his mother and the police that he had been kidnapped and forcibly inebriated. Journeying to the scene of the crime with police, a woman at Townsend's home (Josephine Hutchinson), presumed to be Mrs. Townsend, says he showed up drunk at her dinner party. She also informs them that Townsend is a United Nations diplomat. While searching Kaplan's hotel room with his mother, Thornhill answers a phone call from the thugs who are in the hotel lobby. He escapes and visits the U.N. General Assembly building to meet Townsend. He discovers that Townsend (Philip Ober) is not the man he met on Long Island, and that Townsend is a widower. As Thornhill questions Townsend, one of the thugs throws a knife, hitting Townsend in the back, killing him. Thornhill catches Townsend as he falls and grabs the knife, giving the appearance that he murdered Townsend. Thornhill flees and attempts to find the real Kaplan.
Meanwhile, a government intelligence agency in Washington, D.C. read the news and realize that Thornhill has been mistaken for "George Kaplan", a fictional persona created by the agency to thwart Vandamm. However, Thornhill is not rescued for fear of compromising their operation.
Thornhill sneaks onto the 20th Century Limited train. He meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who hides him from the police. Kendall and Thornhill begin to establish a relationship but Kendall, unbeknownst to Thornhill, is actually working with Vandamm and his thugs. In Chicago, Kendall tells Thornhill she has arranged a meeting with Kaplan at an isolated bus stop. Thornhill waits at the bus stop, but Kaplan never shows up. He is then attacked by a crop duster plane. After unsuccessfully trying to hide in the fields, he steps in front of a speeding tank truck and the airplane crashes into it, leaving Thornhill to escape in a stolen pickup truck when traffic stops.
When he reaches Kaplan's hotel in Chicago, he discovers that Kaplan had checked out and left before Kendall said she talked to him on the phone. Thornhill goes to her room and confronts her, but she leaves. He tracks her to an art auction, where he finds Vandamm and his thugs. Vandamm purchases a Mexican Purépecha statue and leaves his thugs to deal with Thornhill. To engineer an escape from the thugs, Thornhill disrupts the auction by acting erratically; the police are summoned and take him away. When he tries to tell them he is the fugitive murderer, the police release him to the government agency's chief Professor (Leo G. Carroll). The Professor reveals that Kaplan does not exist and was invented to distract Vandamm from the real government agent: Kendall. Thornhill agrees to help maintain her cover.
At the Mount Rushmore visitor center, Thornhill (as Kaplan) negotiates Vandamm's turnover of Kendall for her prosecution as a spy. When "Kaplan" confronts Kendall, she shoots him "fatally" with a handgun (loaded with blanks) and flees. Thornhill and Kendall meet in a forest. Thornhill discovers Kendall must depart with Vandamm and Leonard on a plane. When Thornhill tries to persuade her from going, he is knocked unconscious and locked in a hospital room. Thornhill escapes the Professor's custody, and goes to Vandamm's house to rescue Kendall.
At the house, Thornhill overhears that the sculpture holds microfilm, and that Leonard discovered that the gun used by Kendall to kill Thornhill was filled with blanks. Vandamm indicates that he will kill Kendall during the flight. Thornhill warns her with a surreptitious note. Vandamm, Leonard and Kendall depart the house to board the plane. Thornhill attempts to follow, but is stopped by Anna, the housekeeper, who holds him at bay with a gun—until he realizes its the one loaded only with blanks. As Vandamm is boarding the plane, Kendall takes the sculpture and runs to the pursuing Thornhill. They flee to the top of Mount Rushmore. As they begin to climb down the mountain, they are pursued by Vandamm's two thugs, Leonard and Valerian. After a harrowing chase, Valerian falls to his death, while Leonard is fatally shot by the Professor, who appears on the scene with park rangers.
Later, Thornhill invites Kendall, now the new Mrs. Thornhill, onto the upper berth of a train, which then, suggestively, enters a tunnel.
Hitchcock's cameo appearances are a signature occurrence in most of his films. In North by Northwest, he is seen getting a bus door slammed in his face, just as his credit is appearing on the screen. There has been some speculation as to whether he made one of his rare second appearances, this time at around the 44-minute mark in drag as a woman in a turquoise dress on the train. In fact, the woman was played by Jesslyn Fax, who went on to appear in many episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. She had previously appeared in Rear Window.
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 film 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 Rushmore.
Lehman and Hitchcock spitballed more ideas: a murder at the United Nations Headquarters; a murder at a car plant in Detroit; a final showdown in Alaska. 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 British Intelligence obtained a dead body, created a fictitious officer who was carrying secret papers and arranged for the body, carrying misleading papers, to be discovered by the Germans as a disinformation exercise. 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. In an interview in the book Screenwriters on Screenwriting (1995), Lehman stated that he had already written much of the screenplay before coming up with critical elements of the climax.
This was the only Hitchcock film released by MGM. It is currently owned by Turner Entertainment—since 1996 a division of Warner Bros.—which owns the pre-1986 MGM library.
Production costs on North by Northwest were seriously escalated when a delay in filming put Cary Grant into the penalty phase of his contract, resulting in an additional $5,000 per day in fees for the actor, before shooting even began.
At Hitchcock's insistence, the film was made in Paramount's VistaVision widescreen process, making it one of only two VistaVision films made at MGM; the other was High Society.
The car chase scene in which Thornhill is drunkenly careening along the edge of cliffs of Long Island, high above the ocean, was actually shot on the California coast, and in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, according to DVD audio commentary.
The cropduster sequence, meant to take place in northern Indiana, was shot on location on Garces Highway (155) near the towns of Wasco and Delano, north of Bakersfield in Kern County, California (35°45′39″N 119°33′41″W). Years later, in a show at the Pompidou Center called "Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences", an aerial shot of Grant in the cornfield, with a "road cutting straight through the cornrows to the edge of the screen", was said to draw on Léon Spilliaert's "Le Paquebot ou L'Estran", which features "alternating strips of sand and ocean blue bands stretch[ed] to the edge of the canvas."
The aircraft seen flying in the scene is a Naval Aircraft Factory N3N Canary, a World War II Navy pilot trainer sometimes converted for cropdusting. 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. 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 film magazine Empire in its August 2009 issue ranked the cropduster scene as the best.
The house near 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 City, where MGM's studios were located. House exteriors were matte paintings.
A panel of fashion experts convened by GQ in 2006 said the gray suit worn by Cary Grant throughout almost the entire film was 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", and wrote a short story "Cary Grant's Suit" which recounts the film's plot from the viewpoint of the suit. There is some disagreement as to who tailored the suit; according to Vanity Fair magazine, it was Norton & Sons of London, although according to The Independent it was Quintino of Beverly Hills.
Eva Marie Saint's wardrobe for the film was originally entirely chosen by MGM. Hitchcock disliked MGM's selections and the actress and director went to Bergdorf Goodman in New York to select what she would wear.
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", as the censors considered the original version 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.
During its two-week run at Radio City Music Hall, the film grossed $404,056, setting a record in that theater's non-holiday gross.
According to MGM records the film earned $5,740,000 in the US and Canada and $4.1 million elsewhere, resulting in a profit of $837,000.
Time magazine called the film "smoothly troweled and thoroughly entertaining." A. H. Weiler of The New York Times made it a "Critic's Pick" and said it was the "year's most scenic, intriguing and merriest chase"; Weiler complimented the two leads:
Cary Grant, a veteran member of the Hitchcock acting varsity, was never more at home than in this role of the advertising-man-on-the-lam. He handles the grimaces, the surprised look, the quick smile, ... and all the derring-do with professional aplomb and grace, In casting Eva Marie Saint as his romantic vis-à-vis, Mr. Hitchcock has plumbed some talents not shown by the actress heretofore. Although she is seemingly a hard, designing type, she also emerges both the sweet heroine and a glamorous charmer.
Film critic Charles Champlin saw the film as an "anthology of typical Hitchcockian situations", and was particularly taken by the scene and suspense in which Grant's character avoids death when attacked by a crop dusting plane in the cornfields, which he believed was representative of Hitchcock's finest work.
The London edition of Time Out magazine, reviewing the film nearly a half-century after its initial release, commented:
Fifty years on, you could say that Hitchcock's sleek, wry, paranoid thriller caught the zeitgeist perfectly: Cold War shadiness, secret agents of power, urbane modernism, the ant-like bustle of city life, and a hint of dread behind the sharp suits of affluence. Cary Grant's Roger Thornhill, the film's sharply dressed ad exec who is sucked into a vortex of mistaken identity, certainly wouldn't be out of place in Mad Men. But there's nothing dated about this perfect storm of talent, from Hitchcock and Grant to writer Ernest Lehman (Sweet Smell of Success), co-stars James Mason and Eva Marie Saint, composer Bernard Herrmann and even designer Saul Bass, whose opening-credits sequence still manages to send a shiver down the spine.
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".
North by Northwest currently holds a 100% approval rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, based on 64 reviews. The site states the critical consensus as, "Gripping, suspenseful and visually iconic, this late-period Hitchcock classic laid the groundwork for countless action thrillers to follow."
The film ranks at number 98 in Empire magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Films of All Time. The Writers Guild of America ranked the screenplay No. 21 on its list of 101 Greatest Screenplays ever written. It is ranked the 40th greatest American film by the American Film Institute.
Hitchcock planned the film as a change of pace after his dark romantic thriller Vertigo a year earlier. In his book-length interview Hitchcock/Truffaut (1967) with François 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, the film is considered to be a masterpiece for its themes of deception, mistaken identity, and moral relativism in the Cold War era.
The title North by Northwest is a subject of debate. Many have seen it as having been taken from a line ("I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw") in Hamlet, a work also concerned with the shifty nature of reality. Hitchcock noted, in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich in 1963, "It's a fantasy. The whole film is epitomized in the title—there is no such thing as north-by-northwest on the compass." ("Northwest by north", however, is one of 32 points of the compass.) Lehman 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 York and climax in Alaska. 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 film's plot involves a "MacGuffin", a term popularized by Hitchcock: a 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'.
North by Northwest has been referred to as "the first James Bond film" due to its similarities with splashily colorful settings, secret agents, and an elegant, daring, wisecracking leading man opposite a sinister yet strangely charming villain. The crop duster scene inspired the helicopter chase in From Russia with Love.
The film's final shot—that of the train speeding into a tunnel during a romantic embrace onboard—is a famous bit of self-conscious Freudian symbolism reflecting Hitchcock's mischievous sense of humor. In the book Hitchcock / Truffaut (p. 107–108), Hitchcock called it a "phallic symbol... probably one of the most impudent shots I ever made."
North by Northwest was released on the Blu-ray Disc format in the United States on November 3, 2009 by Warner Bros. with a 1080p VC-1 encoding. This release is a special 50th anniversary edition. A 50th anniversary edition on DVD was also released by Warner Bros.
North by Northwest was nominated for three Academy Awards—for Best Film Editing (George Tomasini), Best Art Direction – Set Decoration, Color (William A. Horning, Robert F. Boyle, Merrill Pye, Henry Grace, Frank McKelvy), and Best Original Screenplay (Ernest Lehman)—at the 32nd Academy Awards ceremony. Two of the three awards went instead to Ben-Hur, and the other went to Pillow Talk. The film also won a 1960 Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay, for Lehman.
In 1995, North by Northwest was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
In June 2008, the American Film Institute revealed its "10 Top 10"—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. It was also listed as No. 40 in AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies, No. 4 in AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills, and No. 55 in AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition).
The film's title is reported to have been the influence for the name of the popular annual live music festival South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, started in 1987, with the name idea coming from Louis Black, editor and co-founder of the local alternative weekly The Austin Chronicle, as a play on the Hitchcock film title.
The third episode of the Doctor Who serial "The Deadly Assassin" includes an homage to North by Northwest, when the Doctor, who like Hitchcock's hero is falsely accused of a politically motivated murder, is attacked by gunfire from a biplane piloted by one of his enemy's henchmen.
North by Northwest has been adapted as a stage play by Carolyn Burns. The adaptation premiered at the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2015.