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North by Northwest (1959)

The Master of Suspense presents a 3000-mile chase across America!
director Alfred Hitchcock
producers Herbert Coleman
Alfred Hitchcock
writer Ernest Lehman
starring Cary Grant
Eva Marie Saint
James Mason
Jessie Royce Landis
Leo G. Carroll
Martin Landau
original music Bernard Herrmann
cinematographer Robert Burks
editor George Tomasini
running time 136 minutes
colour colour (Technicolor)
sound mix mono (Westrex Recording System)
aspect ratio 1.66:1 VistaVision
studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
distributor Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
availability DVD & Blu-ray


Madison Avenue advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for a fictional US government agent named George Kaplan by a gang of spies, headed by the sauve Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and his mistress Eve Kendall. Kidnapped and then framed for the murder of a United Nations diplomat, Thornhill goes on the run across America in order to clear his name and to expose the activities of the foreign spies. After surviving an encounter with a sinister crop-duster plane and an exploding gasoline tank truck, the film climaxes with a memorable chase across Mount Rushmore.



[[Ernest Lehman]] & [[Hitchcock]]

Initially, Alfred Hitchcock had planned to film The Wreck of the Mary Deare for MGM and, whilst continuing to work on Vertigo, he met sporadically during the summer of 1957 with screenwriter Ernest Lehman to discuss how to adapt Hammond Innes' book.[1] According to Lehman, it was composer Bernard Herrmann who had recommended him to Hitchcock.[2]

By early August, both Hitchcock and Lehman had their reservations about the project and their discussions turned instead towards creating an original screenplay.[3] For several years, Hitchcock had been mulling over an idea he called "The Man on Lincoln's Nose", inspired by an story told to him by the journalist Otis Guernsey in the early 1950s about an innocent man who is mistaken for a master spy.[4] Hitchcock eventually purchased the story rights from Guernsey for $10,000.[5]

Hitchcock's plans for the film included an assassination at the United Nations, a chase across America, and a climax at Mount Rushmore. The plot appealed to Lehman, who greatly admired Hitchcock's "innocent man" films, and the two began sketching out further ideas for the storyline.[6]

At the end of August, Hitchcock approached MGM and informed them that he was working on a story of "espionage and counter-espionage in the United States with locales in New York, Detroit, Mount Rushmore and Alaska, among others". Apparently, MGM executives initially interpreted this to mean that Hitchcock and Lehman would return to adapting The Wreck of the Mary Deare afterwards.[7] When it finally became apparent that Hitchcock had no interest in Innes' book, the project was passed on to director Michael Anderson and screenwriter Eric Ambler.


Lehman completed an outline of the first act of "In a Northwesterly Direction" in September 1957. Needing inspiration for the remainder of the script, he took a two-week tour of New York, Chicago and South Dakota in order to get a stronger feel for the locations.[8][9]

a staged publicity photograph of Eve shooting Roger

By November, Lehman had completed most of the draft, but was struggling to come up with a suitable segue to lead into the climax of the film at Mount Rushmore. A few weeks later, the idea of Kendall "killing" Thornhill to prove her allegiance to Vandamm unlocked his writer's block and Lehman completed the first draft over the winter of 1957-8.[10] Whilst holidaying over Christmas in Montego Bay, Jamaica, Hitchcock read the first part of the draft and wrote back to Lehman:

My dear Ernie ... Let me say how much I enjoyed the sixty-five pages. I really thought they were excellent. And so amusingly written. You have done a fine job ... Love, Hitch.[11]

Although the first completed draft was initially titled "North by Northwest" (after a suggestion by MGM story editor Kenneth MacKenna), Lehman, Hitchcock and MGM continued to test other titles, including "Breathless" and "The CIA Story". Although Hitchcock remained unsatisfied with the suggested title, due to the favourable pre-publicity the film had generated, MGM persuaded him not to change it.[12]

The famous crop duster scene was originally envisaged by Hitchcock as "a scene where our hero is standing all alone in a wide open space and there's nobody and nothing else in sight for 360 degrees around, as far as the eye can see... and then along comes a tornado. No place to run!"[13] However, unable to think of a plausible way that Vandamm could manufacture a tornado, let alone direct it towards Thornhill, they settled instead on a plane attack.

One of the visual ideas that failed to make it into the final script was a sequence set in Detroit automobile factory, which would have shown a car being constructed from start to finish on an assembly line. The scene would have ended with the car door being opened, and a corpse slumping out of the seat. In an homage to Hitchcock, director Steven Spielberg incorporated a similar scene into his 2003 film Minority Report. [14][15]

Hitchcock officially began working for MGM at the start of June, just as Lehman was putting the finishing touches to the completed script.[16]


[[Cary Grant]], [[Eva Marie Saint]], [[Alfred Hitchcock]] and [[James Mason]]

In order to reduce the budget, MGM had suggested a number of their own actors for the film — including Gregory Peck as Thornhill and Cyd Charisse as Kendall — but these were rejected by Hitchcock, whose contract with MGM gave him the final say over the principal cast.[17]

Although James Stewart had been initially earmarked for the role of Roger Thornhill, a combination of delays to the completion of Vertigo in 1957 and then Alma Reville's diagnosis with cervical cancer in April 1958, meant that Stewart was edged out in favour of Cary Grant. The subsequent disappointing box-office performance of Vertigo may also have contributed to Hitchcock favouring a different actor for his next film.[18]

Throughout June and July, with Grant confirmed as the star, Hitchcock began casting the other roles. For the role of Eve Kendall (initially named "Eva" in early drafts), Hitchcock briefly considered Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor, before settling on Eva Marie Saint, who was suggested to him by producer Herbert Coleman and agent Kurt Frings.[19][20]

When Yul Brynner proved to be unavailable for the role of the baddie — at that point, named "Mendoza" in Lehman's script — Hitchcock cast James Mason and the character was renamed "Vandamm".[21] With Jessie Royce Landis, who had starred opposite Grant in To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock regular Leo G. Carroll, and Martin Landau in his first major film role, the principal cast were complete.

As an aside, many scholars have commented on the Biblical connotations of the character names: "Thornhill" (Christ was crucified on a hill wearing a crown of thorns), "Eve" (the first woman) and "Vandamm" (of damnation).

Edith Head was unwilling to leave Paramount to work as the costume designer on North by Northwest, so Coleman instead took Eva Marie Saint to the Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York to select a range of costumes from their collection.[22] As with To Catch a Thief, Grant mostly wore his own wardrobe.

Principal Photography

The cast and crew departed California in mid-August and principal photography on North by Northwest began on August 27th, 1958 in New York.

New York

assassination at the UN

As United Nations officials had refused a filming permit, cameraman Robert Burks clandestinely filmed a master shot of Cary Grant walking towards the UN building. Initially, producer Herbert Coleman had intended to use a camera hidden in a van to get the shot, but he was recognised by UN security staff and shooting was abandoned. The footage was subsequently shot using a camera hidden in a nearby building and long focal-length lens.[23]

A stills photographer was then hired to surreptitiously capture key shots of the inside of the UN building, so that they could be re-created later as studio sets and background transparencies.[24]

Further establishing scenes in New York were filmed at Madison Avenue, Grand Central Station, the Plaza Hotel on 5th Avenue, and at Westbury House and gardens on Long Island.[25] As with many of Hitchcock's previous films, the majority of the interiors were recreated back in the studio, including the Oak Room Bar at the Plaza.

[[Cary Grant]] & [[Doreen Lang]]

According to producer Herbert Coleman, the opening sequence of the film, with Thornhill dictating non-stop to his secretary as they travel two blocks across New York to the Plaza Hotel, was an inside joke about David O. Selznick's habit of dictating memos continuously, often with multiple secretaries in tow.[26] In the film, Thornhill also jokes that the middle initial "O" in his name stands "for nothing" — Selznick had apparently added the "O" to his name purely on a whim to distinguish himself from a relative also named "David".[27]


Production then transferred by train to Chicago, to film scenes at LaSalle Street Station, the Omni Ambassador Hotel and Midway Airport.

At the same time, producer Herbert Coleman began scouting for suitable locations for the "crop duster" sequence in the area around Indiana and Iowa, but was was unable to find anywhere that matched Hitchcock's requirements. Once filming had returned to the MGM studios, Coleman eventually found an ideal desolate highway location near the San Joaquin Valley, California.[28]

South Dakota

[[Cary Grant]], [[Eva Marie Saint]] and [[James Mason]] at [[Mount Rushmore]]

In late July 1958, MGM location manager Charles Coleman, accompanied by Rapid City Chamber of Commerce official Larry Owen, visited the National Park Service at Mount Rushmore to discuss using the monument as a location in the film. Although permission was granted, it was on the strict provisos that no scenes of violence would be filmed "near the sculpture [or] on the talus slopes below the structure" or on "any simulation or mock-up of the sculpture or talus slope."[29]

However, the Department of the Interior subsequently withdrew the filming permit after a local newspaper journalist published an article detailing how Hitchcock was planning to stage a violent chase across the granite faces of the presidents. The article also included a photograph of a paper napkin on which Hitchcock had drawn the route of the chase.[30]

After further negotiations, officials partially relented and gave permission for the action to take place on a studio set "on the condition that the presidents' faces be shown below the chin line in scenes involving live actors".[31]

"Due to the objection of the government, we weren't allowed to have any of the figures on the faces, even in the interior studio shots ... We were told very definitely that we could only have the figures slide down between the heads of the presidents. They said that after all, this is the shrine to democracy."[32]

— Alfred Hitchcock

With location shooting limited to the Mount Rushmore parking lot, the park cafeteria and an adjoining terrace, it was completed quickly in two days.

MGM Studios

rear projection was used for some parts of the ''crop duster'' sequence

By mid-September, production had returned to the MGM Studios in Culver City to film all the interior sets, including the final chase sequence across the fake Mount Rushmore set created by production designer Robert Boyle.[33] As with Vertigo, many of the interiors, including The Oak Bar of the Plaza Hotel, were recreated in the studio.

The Mount Rushmore studio sequences were created using a combination of still photographs (used for point-of-view shots), background transparencies and portions of the rock face made from foam rubber. To capture the photographs, Robert Boyle and his photograhper were lowered down the monument on ropes by park rangers.[34]

Vandamm's house above Mount Rushmore was designed by Robert Boyle and his team to look like it had been built by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright — who, coincentally, died just as the film was being completed. Although portions of the structure were built in the studio, including the interiors, the shots of the full exterior were achieved using matte paintings created by Matthew Yuricich. The surrounding woodland was recreated on a MGM sound stage by transplanting ponderosa pine trees.

With the film now running over its original budget, Hitchcock was forced to abandon several of the planned scenes, including:

  • helicopter footage of the "crop duster" attack, showing the pilot's point-of-view and which would have shown that Vandamm's henchman Licht (played by Robert Ellenstein) was the gunman in the plane[35]
  • an opening credit sequence (budgeted at $20,000) showing Roger Thornhill in his office which establishes that he works in advertising, by panning across various advert layouts awaiting for his approval[36]

Studio filming was briefly interrupted in October 1958 with a location shoot at Bakersfield, to film footage for the "crop duster" sequence. Local crop-duster pilot Bob Coe[37] was paid $150 per day and $100 per hour spent flying.[38] The final iconic sequence is a blend of location footage and a rear-projection MGM studio set.

[[Saul Bass]]'s title sequence

As Hitchcock was unable to film his preferred opening sequence, graphic designer Saul Bass created his second credit sequence for the director. Frequently a pioneer, Bass's iconic title sequence was the first to feature kinetic typography, with credits flying into the frame from off-screen, and mirrors Hitchcock's use of straight lines and intersections within the film.[39]

By mid-December, the majority of filming was complete, although editing, and subsequent inserts, retakes and overdubs, continued until early April 1959.

The Production Code

Throughout January and February 1959, Hitchcock tussled with Production Code Administration officials over the final sequence in the film — in which Roger Thornhill pulls Eve Kendall into the train compartment bed to make love to her — and also with Kendall's earlier line "I never make love on an empty stomach".[40]

one of the scenes the Production Code officials objected to

Eventually, Hitchcock agreed to redub the line to "I never discuss love..." and to re-edit the final sequence with altered dialogue, so as to imply that Thornhill and Kendall are now a married couple. With the film over-budget, Hitchcock was unable to shoot new footage, and instead editor George Tomasini repurposed a close-up of Eva Marie Saint from the Mount Rushmore cafeteria footage for the re-edited scene.[41]

However, not to be outdone, Hitchcock then inserted one final sexually suggestive shot of a train entering a tunnel that was filmed by second unit team in late March — the shot hadn't been in Lehman's script and was not submitted for approval to the Production Code officials.[42]

Earlier objections to explicit references of Leonard's homosexuality in Lehman's script resulted in Martin Landau giving a more subtle and understated performance as Vandamm's jealous right-hand man.[43]

Post Production

Mount Rushmore studio set

After a screening of the initial cut of North by Northwest to the entire MGM board, concerns were raised about the length of the film. MGM studio head, Sol Siegel, requested that Hitchcock cut out the forest interlude between Thornhill and Kendall that takes place after the faked shooting at the Mount Rushmore cafeteria. Hitchcock, aware that his contract gave him "final cut" over the film, refused and MGM executives backed down over the request.[44]

With pre-publicity for the film gaining momentum, Hitchcock began leading journalists to believe that the Mount Rushmore climax was filmed on location and an article in the Los Angeles Examiner went so far as to claim James Mason falls to his death from Lincoln's nose. Incensed, Elmer F. Bennett of the Department of the Interior complained directly to MGM president Joseph E. Vogel that "the phony studio shots leave the average customer with the idea that the scenes of violence were staged on the memorial itself". This led to the screen credit acknowledging the Department of the Interior's cooperation being removed from the film.[45][46]

The Score

''The Wild Ride'' composed by Bernard Herrmann

Described by Bernard Herrmann as "a kaleidoscopic orchestral fandango designed to kick-off the exciting rout which follows", the film's dynamic opening overture is repeated in variations throughout the film.[47]

As was typical, Herrmann ignored MGM's request for a "Gershwinesque" score — instead he used South American rhythms, alternating between 3/4 and 6/8 time signatures, to evoke "the crazy dance ... between Cary Grant and the world".[48][49]

Release & Reception

Hitchcock at the [[North by Northwest]] premiere

North by Northwest premiered in Chicago on July 1st 1959, with Hitchcock, Eva Marie Saint and Leo G. Carroll in attendance, and was followed by national openings and a large publicity campaign.[50][51]

Although the film was nominated for 3 Oscars — for art direction (Robert Boyle), film editing (George Tomasini), and screenplay (Ernest Lehman) — it failed to win in any of the categories. However, Lehman did receive the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1960 for his screenplay.

Originally budgeted by MGM at $2,300,000, producer Herbert Coleman had refused to sign off, knowing that the script — and Hitchcock's preference for creating detailed studio sets — was calling for a budget in excess of $3,000,000.[52] Despite Hitchcock's attempts to lower the production costs, the film ended up costing MGM $3,300,000.[53][54]

North by Northwest became the sixth highest-grossing film on 1959 and would eventually generate a healthy domestic box office return of $13,275,000.

In 1995, it became the fourth Hitchcock film to be selected for preservation by the United States National Film Preservation Board and remains one of the most popular Hitchcock films with cinema audiences.


North by Northwest set the tone for many of the subsequent spy films of the 1960s and was an influence on the "James Bond" series — the helicopter attack in From Russia With Love (1963) bears more than a passing resemblance to the "crop duster" sequence and the use of glamourous lead actresses and iconic locations and landmarks in the Bond films is arguably another reference to Hitchcock. After the release of North by Northwest, Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, sent a telegram to Hitchcock via their mutual friend Eric Ambler (husband of Joan Harrison) which outlined the plot and asked "Would Hitchcock be interested in directing this first Bond film ... ?" Fleming was also keen for Cary Grant to play the role of Bond.[55]

According to it's producer, Matthew Weiner, the look and feel of the film is a direct visual influence on the US Lionsgate Television series "Mad Men" (2007-present).[56]

See Also...

For further relevant information about this film, see also...

Blu-ray Releases

released in 2012

9085.gif Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection - Universal (Blu-ray, 2012)
only as part of the US release
limited edition: Amazon (USA)

released in 2009

5507.gif North by Northwest (1959) - Warner Brothers (Blu-ray, UK, 2009)
Amazon (UK)
5508.gif North by Northwest (1959) - Warner Brothers (Blu-ray, USA, 2009)
Amazon (USA)
5509.gif Der Unsichtbare Dritte (1959) - Warner Brothers (Blu-ray, Germany, 2009)
Amazon (Germany)

DVD Releases

released in 2005

5506.gif La Mort aux Trousses (1959) - Warner Brothers (France, 2005)
5505.gif Der unsichtbare Dritte (1959) - SZ-Cinemathek (Germany, 2005)

released in 2004

5504.gif North by Northwest (1959) - Warner Brothers (UK, 2004)
PAL 1.78:1 (anamorphic) [02:10:44]

...view older DVD releases

Image Gallery

Images from the Hitchcock Gallery (click to view larger versions or search for all relevant images)...


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other images

Film Frames

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Cast and Crew

Directed by:


Produced by:

Written by:

Photographed by:

Edited by:

Music by:

Production Design by:


  1. "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light" - by Patrick McGilligan, page 548
  2. "A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann" - by Steven C Smith, pages 226-7
  3. "The Dark Side of Genius: Life of Alfred Hitchcock" - by Donald Spoto, page 391
  4. "Hitchcock at Work" - by Bill Krohn, pages 202-4
  5. Document: Letter from Otis L. Guernsey (14/Oct/1957)
  6. "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light" - by Patrick McGilligan, page 549
  7. Western Humanities Review (1983) - Hitchcock at Metro by Leonard J. Leff
  8. "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light" - by Patrick McGilligan, page 549
  9. Western Humanities Review (1983) - Hitchcock at Metro by Leonard J. Leff
  10. Western Humanities Review (1983) - Hitchcock at Metro by Leonard J. Leff
  11. "North by Northwest" - by Ernest Lehman, introduction
  12. "Hitchcock at Work" - by Bill Krohn, page 204
  13. "North by Northwest" - by Ernest Lehman, introduction
  14. "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light" - by Patrick McGilligan, page 558
  15. Internet Movie Database - Trivia for North by Northwest
  16. "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light" - by Patrick McGilligan, page 565
  17. Western Humanities Review (1983) - Hitchcock at Metro by Leonard J. Leff
  18. "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light" - by Patrick McGilligan, pages 557 & 565-6
  19. "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light" - by Patrick McGilligan, page 566
  20. Western Humanities Review (1983) - Hitchcock at Metro by Leonard J. Leff
  21. "Hitchcock at Work" - by Bill Krohn, page 204
  22. "Hitchcock at Work" - by Bill Krohn, page 281. However, other sources state it was Hitchcock who took her to Bergdorf Googman's.
  23. "The Man Who Knew Hitchcock: A Hollywood Memoir" - by Herbert Coleman, pages 282-3
  24. "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light" - by Patrick McGilligan, page 569
  25. "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light" - by Patrick McGilligan, page 569
  26. "The Man Who Knew Hitchcock: A Hollywood Memoir" - by Herbert Coleman, page 281
  27. Wikipedia: David O. Selznick
  28. "The Man Who Knew Hitchcock: A Hollywood Memoir" - by Herbert Coleman, page 284
  29. PBS.org: Mount Rushmore
  30. "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light" - by Patrick McGilligan, page 569
  31. PBS.org: Mount Rushmore
  32. "The Dark Side of Genius: Life of Alfred Hitchcock" - by Donald Spoto, page 407
  33. "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light" - by Patrick McGilligan, page 571
  34. "The Man Who Knew Hitchcock: A Hollywood Memoir" - by Herbert Coleman, page 279
  35. "Hitchcock at Work" - by Bill Krohn, page 211
  36. "Hitchcock at Work" - by Bill Krohn, page 211
  37. The Bakersfield Californian (11/Oct/2007) - Wasco man had Hitchcock movie role
  38. "Hitchcock at Work" - by Bill Krohn, page 213
  39. Art of the Title: North by Northwest
  40. "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light" - by Patrick McGilligan, pages 573-4
  41. "Hitchcock at Work" - by Bill Krohn, page 216
  42. "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light" - by Patrick McGilligan, page 574
  43. Western Humanities Review (1983) - Hitchcock at Metro by Leonard J. Leff
  44. "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light" - by Patrick McGilligan, page 575
  45. PBD.org: Mount Rushmore
  46. "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light" - by Patrick McGilligan, page 569
  47. "A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann" - by Steven C Smith, page 227
  48. Herrmann, 1973 radio interview with Misha Donat
  49. "A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann" - by Steven C Smith, page 227
  50. "Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light" - by Patrick McGilligan, page 575
  51. "The Dark Side of Genius: Life of Alfred Hitchcock" - by Donald Spoto, page 412
  52. "The Man Who Knew Hitchcock: A Hollywood Memoir" - by Herbert Coleman, pages 277-8
  53. "Hitchcock at Work" - by Bill Krohn, page 213
  54. Western Humanities Review (1983) - Hitchcock at Metro by Leonard J. Leff
  55. Letters of Note: Hitchcock for Bond?
  56. "The Making of Mad Men" (2007 documentary)

Hitchcock's Major Films
1920s The Pleasure Garden · The Mountain Eagle · The Lodger · Downhill · Easy Virtue · The Ring · The Farmer's Wife · Champagne · The Manxman · Blackmail
1930s Juno and the Paycock · Murder! · The Skin Game · Rich and Strange · Number Seventeen · Waltzes from Vienna · The Man Who Knew Too Much · The 39 Steps · Secret Agent · Sabotage · Young and Innocent · The Lady Vanishes · Jamaica Inn
1940s Rebecca · Foreign Correspondent · Mr and Mrs Smith · Suspicion · Saboteur · Shadow of a Doubt · Lifeboat · Spellbound · Notorious · The Paradine Case · Rope · Under Capricorn
1950s Stage Fright · Strangers on a Train · I Confess · Dial M for Murder · Rear Window · To Catch a Thief · The Trouble with Harry · The Man Who Knew Too Much · The Wrong Man · Vertigo · North by Northwest
1960s Psycho · The Birds · Marnie · Torn Curtain · Topaz
1970s Frenzy · Family Plot
( view full filmography )