Man on the Run
What was Hitchcock's best movie "Rear Window", "Vertigo", "Psycho" depending on what sort of movie you are in to it could be any one of these, it could even be the often forgotten "Lifeboat". But it could also be "North by Northwest" which even if it isn't what you would chose as Hitchcock's best movie it is his best movie which covers the wrongly accused man idea. Hitchcock explored this idea of an innocent person mistaken for someone else and forced to go on the run in various other movies and each of them was good but "North by Northwest" brings everything together perfectly a good storyline, suspense, stunning action, sexual chemistry and good characters plus of course good performances. Don't get me wrong as "North by Northwest" is not a perfect movie but from start to finish it is entertaining as it drip feeds plot detail so we learn more and more as the story twists its way to an action packed climax.
Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is an ordinary sort of guy, an advertising exec who has been married twice and divorced twice which makes it seem very strange when he is kidnapped by two men and taken to a mansion where Philip Vandamm (James Mason) and his henchmen believe that he is George Kaplan a spy. When they try to kill him Roger manages to escape but that leads to more difficulties as no one believes him and then he finds himself accused of murder. With no one he can trust Roger is forced to go on the run and become detective, trying to track down the elusive Kaplan to clear things up. But fortunately or maybe not Roger makes a friend in the attractive Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint - Superman Returns) who he meets as he tries to sneak on a train whilst evading the pursuing police.
So as already mentioned "North by Northwest" is at its heart the simple idea of a man being mistaken for someone else and ending up going on the run to save their life whilst trying to work out what is going on and clear their name. But this simple formula, one which Hitchcock explored in other movies is accompanied by what is a great storyline. And it is a great storyline because it is all about the mystery and the drip feed of information so that whilst we recognize what is going on we don't know everything too soon but don't have to wait for the end for it too become apparent. Although whilst you know what is happening it also needs you to pay attention or else you will miss something important.
You also have to pay attention because less than surprisingly not everything seems as straight forwards as things always look. Basically there are some great twists incorporated in to the movie some which you can sort of see coming whilst others seem to appear out of nowhere but in that drip drip of information become clear. There is no doubt that with "North by Northwest" Hitchcock has delivered one of his most suspenseful movies because you are never sure if things will twist again after they have been made sense of.
Now like with other Hitchcock movies which explore the innocent man theme we have Roger Thornhill who is the only one who knows the truth and he also knows how preposterous it sounds to anyone else from being plied with drink and put in a car heading for a cliff to the murder of Townsend but not the Townsend he thinks it is. It actually gives the reason why he turns sleuth to try and uncover what is really going on because he needs to prove to others that he hasn't made it all up. And because he is not only mistaken for being Kaplan by Vandamm he is also wanted for a murder he didn't commit which means he has to be a one man detective agency. But then we also learn something about Kaplan which he doesn't till much later on and it adds that something extra which makes it more interesting.
Now there is another side to "North by Northwest" and that is alongside this clever and suspenseful storyline is plenty of action. There is of course the big action and the crop duster scene where it dive bombs Roger is still fantastic as is the big climax on Mount Rushmore, which ironically like much of the movie was filmed in a sound stage. But it is also the smaller moments, the drunken car chase as Roger tries to avoid going over the cliff edge whilst also trying to escape, it is obviously done on a sound stage but it still gets your pulse racing as is his attempt to escape from being plied with alcohol.
Now here's a funny fact about "North by Northwest", James Stewart wanted the role of Roger Thornhill but Hitchcock said no because Stewart was too old, ironically Cary Grant who got the role was 4 years older than Stewart. Anyway that little bit of "North by Northwest" trivia aside Grant delivers his usual charming performance the sort where he may be in danger but he still has time to charm a woman. Throw in some minor humour as we watch a drunken Thornhill deal with being arrested and you have a typically fun character played by Grant but one who is interesting and appealing. And Grant has great chemistry with Eva Marie Saint especially when it comes to their flirtatious head to heads, yes she may not deliver the drama as well as Kim Novak but she certainly gets the sexual element, the seduction of Thornhill bang on.
What this all boils down to is that "North by Northwest" is not only Hitchcock's best take on the case of the innocent man and mistaken identity but it is also one of his best movies. It's not perfect but everything comes together to deliver a fun, exciting, suspenseful experience which grabs you from the minute we witness Hitchcock make his cameo as he misses a bus right up until the big climax on Mount Rushmore.