‘North by Northwest’: Quite Possibly the Most Entertaining Hitchcock Ever

Cary Grant, mistaken for a nonexistent secret agent, is abducted from a business lunch, shot in the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel, in the opening scene of North by Northwest (1959). Production still photographer: Kenny Bell © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Cary Grant, mistaken for a nonexistent secret agent, is abducted from a business lunch, shot in the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel, in the opening scene of North by Northwest (1959). Production still photographer: Kenny Bell © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I want to do a Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures, allegedly announced screenwriter Ernest Lehman, after his friend, composer Bernard Herrmann recommended him to Alfred Hitchcock. This inspired idea was born at the time when Lehman and the famed filmmaker were experiencing a sort of a writer’s block—they were supposed to be making The Wreck of the Mary Deare for MGM, but when Lehman honestly stated he felt there was nothing he could do about advancing with the script, Hitchcock simply suggested they did something original. Directly out of this writer’s block came North by Northwest, one of the most entertaining movies of the period and, perhaps, one of the most stylish chase thrillers of all time. That Lehman wasn’t misguided when he announced his ambition mentioned at the start of this paragraph is clearly seen even upon a superficial glance on this project: we have an innocent man cornered into a grave, life-threatening situation thanks to the mistaken identity plot device, we have the typical Hitchcock blonde, played marvelously by Eva Marie Saint, we have the master’s signature cameo appearance, and then there’s the technical mastery distinctive for Hitchcock’s works, as well as his consummate skill at manipulating the audience’s emotions. North by Northwest encompasses all the best elements of Hitchcock’s opus, transforming an intriguing, nail-biting but surprisingly humorous script into quite possibly the most enjoyable Hitchcock ever.

The film went through several title changes during development, being known as The Man in Lincoln’s Nose, Breathless, In a Northwesterly Direction… The final title was hardly Hitchcock and Lehman’s first choice, but they simply failed to come up with an entry that satisfied them completely. The lead role, that of an advertising executive whose comfortable life is turned upside down when he is mistaken for a secret agent, went to the ever-charming Cary Grant, even though Hitchcock’s old friend and collaborator James Stewart allegedly eagerly wanted the part. As huge Stewart fans, we believe he would have been great as the troubled, charismatic “ordinary man in an extraordinary situation,” but who can possibly say Hitchcock dropped the ball with sticking with Grant? Even though MGM tried to force Cyd Charisse down Hitch’s throat, and despite the fact he briefly mused over casting Grace Kelly or Elizabeth Taylor, he chose Saint for the lead female role. Bernard Herrmann’s contribution to the film was not restricted to the fateful recommendation that put Hitchcock in touch with Lehman: he composed a superb score that matches the adventures and turmoil featured on the screen perfectly. The acclaimed graphic designer Saul Bass provided an exceptional and highly memorable opening title sequence, Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief director of photography Robert Burke operated the camera, while George Tomasini, the first-rate editor who previously worked on The Birds, Psycho, Rear Window and Vertigo, pieced everything together flawlessly.

The way Hitchcock skillfully plays with the viewer’s emotions has been aptly demonstrated in the famous crop duster scene, where Grant’s character is hunted down by a menacing airplane in the middle of a field, in bright sunlight, with nowhere to hide. This might be rightfully considered the trademark image of North by Northwest, but one should not forget this film abounds in numerous other unforgettable scenes: just consider the Mount Rushmore sequence at the climax, or the humorous final shot of a train entering a tunnel as we presume the two lead characters within the train start getting all hot and sweaty. North by Northwest is painlessly easy to find pleasure in.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter, read Ernest Lehman’s screenplay for North by Northwest [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

Though Ernest Lehman is best known today for his work in films (he has won more Best Screenplay Awards from the Writer’s Guild than anyone in the Guild’s history), his collection, which consists of over 2500 items from his personal and professional files, covers an entire career that spans over forty years in New York and Hollywood, not only as a screenwriter but also as a novelist, short story writer, journalist, motion picture producer and director. Lehman met Hitchcock through their mutual friend, composer Bernard Herrmann. North by Northwest was Ernest Lehman’s only original screenplay. Hitchcock had an idea of a chase across the face of Mount Rushmore. The idea of a man being mistaken for a nonexistent secret agent was suggested to Hitchcock by journalist Otis L. Guernsey Jr. That was the starting point for Lehman’s screenplay: the chase on Mount Rushmore, mistaken identity, and the United Nations building. —The Ernest Lehman CollectionErnest Lehman’s notes

One temporary title for North by Northwest was Breathless!, which was later used for the famous 1960 French film. Courtesy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“One day, Hitch said to me, ‘I’ve always wanted to do a scene in the middle of nowhere—where there’s absolutely nothing. You’re out in the open, and there’s nothing all around you. The camera can turn around 360 degrees, and there’s nothing there but this one man standing all alone—because the villains, who are out to kill him, have lured him out to this lonely spot.’ Then Hitch continued, ‘Suddenly, a tornado comes along and…’ ‘But Hitch,’ I interrupted, ‘how do the villains create a tornado?’ and he had no idea. So I wondered, ‘What if a plane comes out of the sky?’ And he liked it immediately, and he said, ‘Yes, it’s a crop duster. We can plant some crops nearby.’ So we planted a fake cornfield in Bakersfield and did the scene that way. And, like you said, it became a very famous sequence. As a matter of fact, that’s how I knew that Cary Grant had died. Every channel on TV was showing that shot of Cary running away from the plane. It’s strange, isn’t it, that such a distinguished career should be remembered mostly for that one shot?” —An Interview with Ernest Lehman

The cinematographer’s camera angles for the crop dusting sequence from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. All 61 bullet points represent a specific camera angle, a specific shot, as detailed below. The iconic sequence was a combination of location footage and studio-based rear projection. The book, Casting a Shadow: Creating the Alfred Hitchcock Film, by Will Schmenner and Corinne Granof is a Cinephile’s delight, filled with all manner of delightful insider info to how Hitchcock actually made movies. Courtesy of The Big Picture.

As seen here, seamless rear projection was used to create the illusion of Cary Grant being pursued by a crop duster in North by Northwest. Courtesy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In this 1965 interview, Hitchcock discusses—partly in French—La Mort aux Trousses (French title for North by Northwest), and in particular the famous “that’s funny—he’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops” scene.

Production designer Robert F. Boyle created these sketches of James Mason’s modern hideout, the Vandamm house, which Cary Grant scales in North by Northwest. Courtesy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

A huge presidential nose offers a sense of scale for the Mount Rushmore sets created for the climax of North by Northwest. Courtesy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

This contact sheet shows the optical trickery used to show Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint descending Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest. Courtesy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

English actor James Mason became one of Hitchcock’s most memorable villains as Vandamm in North by Northwest. Courtesy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


“Storyboarding is really an illustrator’s work for the director. A motion picture illustrator puts pictures on paper and puts them on boards. In storyboarding a script for a Hitchcock film, the illustrator is told what pictures to put on the boards by the script, which has benefited from my conferences with the director. Of course, I participate in what is going to appear on that storyboard, because even without the storyboard the script describes exactly what is going to be on the screen. Hitch would have it no other way. The script even describes the size of the shot, whether it’s a medium or a tight close-up, whether the camera pulls back and pans to the right as the character walks toward the door, whether it tilts slightly down and shoots through the open doorway getting the helicopter as the lights go on outside. That’s why Hitch says it’s a bore for him to get the picture on the screen, because it has all been done already in his office.” —Dialogue on Film: Ernest Lehman

Storyboard sequence by Robert F. Boyle for the re-edited ending of North by Northwest.


“Even though it was early October, the climate was like a sweltering desert. This was one of the only times Hitch wore short sleeves on the set. For three days, poor Cary ran with a stunt plane swooping down at him or so it would seem. As nobody would think of putting Cary Grant in the position of getting decapitated by a plane some trick photography was used. I feel like a traitor telling you this but first the crew shot a swooping plane from a ditch and then, later, Cary was shot on a sound stage jumping into a fake ditch with the plane footage on a process screen behind him.” —Eva Marie Saint

Hosted by Eva Marie Saint, the film’s leading lady, this 40-minute documentary of Alfred Hitchcock’s only MGM film combines interviews (Martin Landau, Patricia Hitchcock, production designer Robert F.Boyle and screenwriter Ernest Lehman), movie clips and behind the scenes photos to make for a fascinating look at one of the silver screen’s glowing gems.


During the opening title sequence, which shows New Yorkers rushing home from work, Hitchcock just misses catching his bus. The cameo was filmed near to 347 Madison Avenue, New York City. Courtesy of The Hitchcock Zone.

An excerpt from The Man on Lincoln’s Nose, the Academy Award-nominated Documentary Short Subject about pioneer art director Robert F. Boyle (North by Northwest, The Birds, Fiddler on the Roof). This 6-minute excerpt features Bob Boyle and director Norman Jewison on location scouting and the design process for Fiddler on the Roof.



This kaleidoscopic compilation of soundtracks by Bernard Herrmann scored for film, television and radio presents a feature-length overview of this incredibly unique composer’s wide-ranging and distinctive style. Working with directors such as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese, during a career that spanned over forty years, Herrmann created scores of such innovative and emotional magnitude that notions of sound and music in cinema have never been the same. The breadth and scope of Herrmann’s ingenious composing, arranging and orchestrating talent is on full display here, from the use of the theremin in The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), to the all-string ‘black & white’ sound for Psycho (1960), and the whistled main title of The Twisted Nerve (1968). Stream the mix below or download it here. Total running time: 80 minutes. Courtesy of MUBI’s on-going series, Notebook Soundtrack Mixes.



Elegant. Witty. Stylish. A totally original talent. ‘Everyone wants to be Cary Grant… even I want to be Cary Grant,’ he was fond of saying. Born 100 years ago into dismal circumstances in Bristol, England, Archibald Leach got his start touring in vaudeville and eventually arrived in New York in 1920. He walked on stilts at Coney Island and sold neckties on midtown street corners before landing small parts, in route to Hollywood. He hit it big in 1933 as Mae West’s leading man in She Done Him Wrong, followed by Sylvia Scarlett and the emergence of his classy on-screen persona—and the invention of that persona off-screen as well. He worked with such directors as George Cukor, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks in such films as Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, North by Northwest, Notorious, and I Was a Male War Bride and opposite every top Hollywood female star, including Grace Kelly, Katherine Hepburn, Kim Novak, Ingrid Bergman, Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn. He remains one of the most adored actors in film history—whose greatest role was probably himself. —American Masters: Cary Grant: A Class Apart

Above: you don’t usually associate the words “mussed” and “drunk” with Cary Grant, but here they are during the production of North by Northwest. Courtesy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“Have you planned your vacation yet? You’ve a choice between sand and sunburn or mountain-climbing and the Charlie-horse. I find it all very elevating, but we should all have some kind of holiday. So my suggestion is a quiet little tour, say, about 2000 miles. I have just made a motion picture, North By Northwest, to show you some of these delights. And the ideal place to start our holiday fun trip is New York, where Cary Grant can go places and do things. You don’t find a tasteful little murder on every guided tour, now do you? But this means we must leave Manhattan.” —A guided tour with Alfred Hitchcock

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Production still photographer: Kenny Bell © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Courtesy of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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  • Christopher Basile

    “…I find it all very *enervating*…” (not “elevating”) – love your website, thanks!!!