Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

North by Northwest (1959)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

North by Northwest (1959)

In Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece of mistaken identity - about a Manhattan advertising executive who was victimized, and then found himself on the run as an implicated murder suspect, pursued cross-country by a seeming conspiratorial group of spies, the police, and the FBI:

  • the memorable Saul Bass opening credits sequence set to Bernard Herrmann's lively score, beginning with an unnatural, pale green screen that was shot across with upper-right to lower-left diagonal lines and vertical lines - gridlines that appeared to make the green surface look like the gridwork of graph paper; the major credits sliced across the criss-cross pattern of lines, before the gridwork was soon transformed (or dissolved) into the side of a tall New York City skyscraper - a glass-surfaced building that diagonally filled the screen from the lower left to upper right at an angle; on the huge wall of glass were distorted reflections of midtown Manhattan from below, with yellow taxis at rush hour moving back and forth
Saul Bass' Opening Credits
  • the opening kidnapping scene when baffled New York adman Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), having lunch with his mother Clara (Jessie Royce Landis) at the Plaza Hotel Oak Room, when he answered the wrong page; he was mistaken for double agent 'Kaplan' - he was seized and driven to the Long Island (Glen Cove) country estate of 'Townsend' and strong-armed by two sinister-looking thugs; there he was questioned by a distinguished gentleman, presumably 'Lester Townsend' (a UN diplomat) and 'Townsend's' henchman, Leonard (Martin Landau) - in fact, Thornhill was duped and was actually talking to Philip Vandamm (James Mason) - a foreign spy dealing in American secrets
Innocent Roger Thornhill Mistaken as 'Kaplan'
Kidnapped and Taken to 'Townsend' Estate
Pursued in Elevator
  • the drunk-driving sequence when Thornhill was force-fed large quantities of bourbon and placed in the driver's seat of a Mercedes roadster convertible on a dark, winding ocean cliff road later that night, when he was expected to become the victim of a fatal, drunk-driving accident
  • the hotel elevator scene when Thornhill's doting, socialite mother Clara naively asked her son's enemy assassins in the crowded elevator space: "You gentlemen aren't really trying to kill my son, are you?"
  • the United Nations murder scene when Roger was speaking to the real Lester Townsend (Philip Ober) - not the phony Townsend at the estate - after pulling a knife out of Townsend's back, Roger was photographed holding the knife in mid-air ("He's got a knife, look out!"); Roger blurted out: "Listen to me. I had nothing to do with this"- but it was assumed by the crowd that Roger had killed the UN diplomat; in a panic after dropping the knife, he rushed out of the hall; he ran outside onto a long sidewalk and got into an awaiting cab (filmed from high above the UN, making him look like a tiny object being examined under a microscope)
  • the film's surprising revelation in a room full of agents - an intelligence agency chief, a paternalistic official named the Professor (Leo G. Carroll), described a covert government operation - Kaplan was an imaginary, fictional agent who didn't even exist, suggesting that the government do nothing and take advantage of their "good fortune" by continuing to use Thornhill as a decoy: "We didn't invent our non-existent man and give him the name of George Kaplan, establish elaborate behavior patterns for him, move his prop belongings in and out of hotel rooms for our own private amusement. We created George Kaplan and labored successfully to convince Vandamm that this was our own agent hot on his trail for a desperately important reason...If we make the slightest move to suggest that there is no such agent as George Kaplan, give any hint to Vandamm that he's pursuing a decoy instead of our own agent, then our agent working right under Vandamm's very nose will immediately face suspicion, exposure and assassination, like the two others who went before"
  • the seduction scene aboard a railroad car with cool, untrustworthy, mysterious, platinum blonde femme fatale Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), traveling cross-country with fugitive Thornhill on the Twentieth Century Limited from NYC to Chicago; she encouraged him in a playful manner to kiss her in the train car; she surrendered entirely to his hands around her head as they bantered together, even though he was basically a stranger to her; after a porter interrupted their seduction and made up the berth's one and only bed, she cautioned Thornhill: "It means you're going to sleep on the floor"
At Country Crossroads: The Famous Crop-Duster Plane Attack
  • one of the most famous and beloved set pieces ever filmed -- Thornhill's arrival by bus at a deserted Highway 41 crossroads (in neighboring Indiana) in the flat countryside where he had been lured by enemy spies on the pretext of meeting and connecting with the fabled Kaplan - his non-existent double; a stranger stood across the road from him (in widescreen) and strangely wondered about a nearby crop-dusting plane: "That plane's dustin' crops where there ain't no crops"
  • the famous seven minute pursuit-attack sequence by the deadly crop-dusting bi-plane in the open, flat and desolate Midwest cornfield as Thornhill sought protection in a cornfield; the dramatic editing heightened suspense when the strafing plane crashed into an approaching semi-trailer Magnum Oil truck
  • the crowded art auction scene at a chic, 1212 North Michigan Avenue address in Chicago - where Thornhill located Eve with her supposed lover - the fake 'Townsend' (Vandamm) and his henchman Leonard; they were bidding for a Pre-Columbian art object (to be used later to hide microfilmed secrets); Thornhill cleverly began to make erratic low bids, question the authenticity of the art works, and heckle the auctioneer so that the police would arrest him (and he could safely escape from the evil spies)
  • the shocking scene at the Mount Rushmore Monument cafeteria when Eve pulled out a gun (loaded with blanks) from her handbag and fired two shots at Thornhill - appearing to critically wound him, so that jealous lover Vandamm wouldn't suspect that she was working against him
  • afterwards, the romantic reunion between Thornhill and Eve in a cool forest setting filled with ponderosa pines, when they kissed passionately
  • the scenes of Thornhill's continued assertions to the Professor that he was an innocent man on the run, and then when told that George Kaplan never existed, and that he was only a decoy created by the American intelligence agency to divert attention away from a real CIA agent, he stressed: "I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders dependent upon me" - and then it was revealed that Eve was a double agent working undercover, and posing as Vandamm's moll/mistress (a case of sexual exploitation)
  • the cliff-dangling episode at Mount Rushmore near Rapid City, South Dakota, after Eve and Thornhill (now recruited to help the government and continue pretending he was Kaplan for 24 hours, to prevent Vandamm from taking microfilmed government secrets out of the country) were clinging for their lives from the carved rock with Presidential faces, and he quipped: "They (two previous wives) said I led too dull a life"
The Chase Across Mt. Rushmore, Including Cliff-Dangling
  • the final, clever transition as Thornhill tugged on Eve (hanging on the immense carved stone face) and - CUT - pulled her up into a berth in the interior of a Pullman sleeping car (that headed into a tunnel); the couple were last seen on their honeymoon as they bedded down for the night in their private double-bedded train compartment

UN Murder Scene - the Real Lester Townsend

Thornhill's Panic and Flight From UN (aerial view)

The Professor (Leo G. Carroll)

Cross-Country Train Romance with Enigmatic Eve Kendall

Art Auction Scene in Chicago

Faked Mt. Rushmore Shooting of Thornhill by Eve

Reunion in Forest

Thornhill to Professor: "I'm an advertising man, not a red herring"

Ending Transition to Train Bunk and Tunnel Entrance


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