In the 1950’s, there were a string of suspenseful thrillers by the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock. Starting in 1950, he released “Stage Fright,” followed by “Strangers on a Train” the next year. Then came “I Confess” (1953), “Rear Window” (1954), “Dial M for Murder” (1954), “To Catch a Thief” (1955), “The Wrong Man” (1956), “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956), “Vertigo” (1958), and finally “North by Northwest” in 1959. All of these films have elements of suspense within them, while some lean more towards being strictly in the murder mystery/thriller genre.
The latter serves the suspense genre well. A simple logline for “North by Northwest” is given from the Internet Movie Database (IMDB): A New York advertising executive is mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies, and is pursued across the country while he looks for a way to survive.
The plot tells the story about Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) who must unravel the mystery of why he is being mistaken as a man named Kaplan. Grant has a charm about him. His physique seems remarkable for a man in his 50’s and plays Thornhill as kind of an action hero in this particular film, which seems to sort of contrast the look of today’s contemporary action hero like John McClane (Bruce Willis) in the “Die Hard” films. Through this journey, he meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who appears to be a pleasant woman he meets on a train, then turns out to be someone else, who turns out to be someone else. All the while, not knowing if Thornhill should trust her. Grant and Saint have chemistry together and work well as she joins his quest to unravel the mystery to his mistaken identity.
The cinematography work so well in this film and add to the story from grand hotels and estates to the United Nations, and from a train ride across the country to a corn field fleeing from a mysterious plane out to kill him to the climactic scene on Mount Rushmore. Hitchcock’s use of sound in this film (and all of his films), also adds to the thrilling suspense and action as depicted by the musical score or by the simple silence used as Thornhill stands on the side of the road as he waits for the mysterious Kaplan. The only sound comes from a few passing vehicles and another car on the other side of the highway. A man steps out and waits as the car speeds away. Thornhill crosses to him and strikes a conversation. He is not Kaplan, just a man waiting for the bus. He notices a plane in the distance dusting crops and states, before he boards the bus, “That plane’s dusting crops where there ain’t no crops.” Thornhill then notices the plane getting closer and closer and lower, thus leading to the iconic sequence as he runs and ducks from the plane.
Hitchcock weaves the story elements, character and plot of the script by Ernest Lehman into an engaging suspenseful yarn as he tells his story, revealing little by little until the climactic ending with single camera shots. He focuses on objects, people, and things to tell the story of this masterful tale. It did seem the story slowed in places but quickly picked up in another exciting chase or dramatic action. I believe Hitchcock skillfully paces the film as to keep the audience entertained and informed about the story and plot while not revealing too much at one time.