North by Northwest
North by Northwest is a 1959 MGM thriller by Alfred Hitchcock and is generally considered one of his best works. The film stars Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Leo G. Carroll, and Martin Landau. more...
The screenplay was written by Ernest Lehman, who wanted to write "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures". It is one of several Hitchcock movies with a film score by Bernard Herrmann. The film also features a famous title sequence by the graphic designer Saul Bass.
A Manhattan advertising man, Roger O. Thornhill (played by Cary Grant), is mistaken for a government agent and pursued by spies who want to kill him. Thornhill is framed for murder and forced to elude the police as well as the secret agents. The film has several plot twists and a sly sense of humor, as well as a number of famous scenes, including one in which Grant's character is chased by a crop duster, and another in which Grant and leading lady Eva Marie Saint clamber over the faces of Mount Rushmore in an attempt to evade their enemies.
John Russell Taylor's official biography of Hitchcock, Hitch (1978), suggests that the story originated after a spell of writer's block during the scripting of another movie 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 Deere by Hammond Innes. Composer Bernard Herrman 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 most of Hitchcock's ideas were no good. It was true that Lehman created the crop duster scene. 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.
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 Ortis C. Guernsey, a respected reporter who was inspired by a true story during World War II when a couple of British secretaries created a fictitious agent and watched as the Nazis wasted time following him around. Guernsey turned his idea into a story about an American travelling 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” 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 John Michael Hayes-Alfred Hitchcock collaboration. When Lehman came onboard, the travelling salesman - which had previously been suited to James Stewart - was adapted to a Madison Avenue advertising executive, a position which Lehman had formerly held. (It has also been speculated that Hitchcock felt Stewart was too old and this had hurt their previous collaboration Vertigo, but in fact Hitchcock had planned to reunite with Stewart on his next film “The Blind Man”.).
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