When watching North by Northwest, one thing becomes abundantly clear: Changing the title to “The Man In Lincoln’s Nose” would help the movie not a single bit.
That was, of course, Hitchcock’s original title. For that matter, it’s his original pitch. Perhaps the studio thought the title was a little too on the nose, but Hitch really wanted to do an action movie on the face of Mount Rushmore, with a guy hiding out in Honest Abe’s sinus cavity. Die Hard in a schnoz, with Cary Grant as the titular booger man. There are worse places to stage an action sequence. Roosevelt’s nose, for instance, is too stuffy a location.
Let’s face it (good grief, enough with the puns!), watching movie stars crawl all over world landmarks is one of the main reasons we watch movies. It’s famous people we will never meet going into restricted areas we will never gain access to. When was the last time you wandered up the steps of the Great Pyramids, or BASE jumped the Eiffel tower? That’s because your name is not Cary Grant or Eve Marie Saint. I know this because Cary Grant is dead and Eve Marie Saint almost so. But also because if anyone not named Cary Grant or Eve Marie Saint tries to access the Great Pyramids (except in a Steve Carrell cartoon), they are shot on site. And if you try for the Eiffel Tower, they get Stephen Sommers to blow it up.
Maybe I’m belaboring the point, but if you’ve ever been to Mt. Rushmore, you can’t deny that it looks imminently adventurous (read: climbable). Massive monuments to gods and kings — staples of the adventure stories of the past — are few and far between in today’s world, and in America especially so. We don’t have the Colossus of Rhodes to go stage a gunfight on. For that matter, neither does Rhodes. The closest we have is Lincoln’s nose, and Hitchcock was wise to pick it. No director in the world could come up with a better statue climax.
North by Northwest may end in a giant nostril, but it begins with one of those timeless adventure story quests: pursuit of the secret microfilm. You could not make a spy movie in the 1950s and 60s without microfilm. It simply wasn’t done. Microfilm was the magic technology of the time. Only spies had access to it. You never saw anybody at the beach with microfilm cameras, but if you were a spy, it was the only thing you used. The pictures it produced were the size of your fingernail. It might look great hanging on some mouse’s wall, but if you were a normal sized human being, the only way to view it was with one of those awesome little jewelers glasses.
A microfilm camera must have been a devil to focus, and even more annoying to change the role, but for some reason, all the secrets of the world were stored on microfilm. If Moses had received the Ten Commandments in the 1950s, the Ark of the Covenant would still be carrying around smashed bits of microfilm. Obviously foreign powers love to get their hands on microfilm. You are nobody in the spy community if you aren’t stealing other people’s microfilm. I don’t think they even care what’s on it. They just like the idea of being the only people in the world with a thousand pictures in their pocket.
As fate would have it, there is no microfilm in North by Northwest. But all the characters think there is, and it informs all the mean things they do to Cary Grant, such as kidnapping, interrogation, double-crossing, and forcing him to travel by train (all great spy movies involve trains, because that’s clearly the most efficient way to travel). If you can’t keep track of all the double identities, don’t worry, Cary Grant can’t either. That’s what makes these kinds of movies so fun. It’s about keeping the hero in a constant state of distrust. That way you can ensure all kinds of tense action sequences involving trains, national monuments, and a scene in which the the bad guys try to kill the protagonist with a tornado.
This has to be one of my favorite Hitchcock anecdotes. So he’s brainstorming the story, right? And he’s got Cary Grant stranded in the middle of an Indiana cornfield, and the bad guys are after him. So Hitch (being Hitch) decides it would be great if the thugs sic a tornado on him, because how else are you going to kill somebody in Indiana? This really happened. At some point, some no-fun Captain Logic Man (probably the screenwriter) pointed out that this is a tad on the preposterous side, because tornados only go after blonde TV stars.
So instead we get the crop duster scene. You’ve probably seen it, and you’ve almost certainly heard of it. There’s a sinister crop duster that shows up and pursues Cary Grant across the cornfield. The plane is armed to the teeth, as most crop dusters are, so Cary decides to hide out in the corn. No matter, the plane simply bombs him with pesticide. Cary finally gets the best of the plane by luring it into a head-on collision with a gasoline tanker (like to see a tornado fall for that one). When passers-by stop to see why next fall’s harvest is going up in smoke, Cary steals their truck.
And so it goes. It’s probably one of the most famous action scenes in the history of movies, and its fame is well deserved. But I still wish Hitch had figured out a way for the bad guys to tame a tornado. Cary Grant might be able to outrun a plane, but ain’t no way he outruns an F5. I guess that’s what happens when you cast Eve Marie Saint instead of Halle Berry. Next up… ninety-seven.