Alfred Hitchcock had just witnesses audiences and critics alike essentially reject one of his most personal films; a movie that defied easy categorization and explored (in an appropriately 1950s Hays Code-era way) themes related to sexual perversity, erotic obsession and both expectations and doubts concerning masculinity. The psychological darkness and narrative non-conformity that proved too unpalatable for audiences in 1958 not only served to ensure that Vertigo would be one of those movies ahead of its time that would need to be “rediscovered” by later generations, it would also prove instrumental in ensuring that Hitch’s next film would deliver all the standard conventions of a Hitchcock movie that his fans had been conditioned to expect. Not only does North by Northwest succeed in fulfilling every single expectation of the elements considered integral to earning the description Hitchcockian, it hits each expectation in an artistically satisfying way not seen since Strangers on a Train chugged out of cinemas eight years before.
Hitchcock was already looking ahead to his next movie during the making of Vertigo and a conversation about the plot convinced that film’s star Jimmy Stewart that he would be playing the main character, Roger Thornhill. In fact, Hitchcock not only was already envisioning another of his favorite actors, Cary Grant, for that plum role, but Vertigo was about to become the last time he and the director worked together after Hitchcock arrived at the conclusion that a significant amount of the blame for Vertigo’s failure was due to Stewart’s being too old.
The inescapable facts of the case are that much of the success of North by Northwest can be attributed to the casting of Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill. This was the only one of their collaborations in which Cary Grant was able to give full rein to his considerable comic talents and it is Grant’s quirky detachment from the events going on around him that almost verges into the sphere of the postmodern. Grant shifts Thornhill into ironic mode pretty quickly and only downshifts back into typical Hitchcockian wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time mode only during the film’s most intense thriller set pieces such as the famous crop duster attack and most of the climax on the faces of Mt. Rushmore. The sly and incredibly subtle meta-method acting Grant displays in such sequences as the opening restaurant scene, while on the train with Eva Marie Saint and, especially, the art auction is the good guy equivalent of the manner in which Robert Walker’s performance as Bruno lifts Strangers on a Train to an elevated level of artistry.
North by Northwest is also another of the many examples of how Alfred Hitchcock was at the vanguard in the long-running battle for acceptance and assimilation into the mainstream by homosexual. No other major director from the studio system era in Hollywood who was not himself gay featured so many homosexual characters. Of course, critics would quickly point out that most of the memorable characters who were coded as gay during a period when open homosexuality of such roles was not permitted in Hitch’s film were villains. An inescapably true point, but also worth pointing out is that none of the villainy of those characters had anything to do with their sexuality. The character portrayed by Martin Landau in North by Northwest is an excellent example of why Hitchcock should be considered a heroic figure in the war for diversity: without the coded homosexuality so subtle as to have flown right over the heads of much of middle America in 1958, Leonard would have been just another in a long line of forgettable goons hired by rich guys to do their dirtiest work. When you factor in the decision to implicitly suggest that Leonard happens to be in love with that rich guy (kind of like Smithers on The Simpsons) every scene Landau is in takes on a deeper level of meaning. Like Mrs. Danvers and Bruno Anthony before him, the truly remarkable achievement here is that Hitchcock was more revolutionary in the 1940s and 1950s on the issue of sexual diversity than such so-called revolutionary creative endeavors like Ellen and Will & Grace: Hitch’s characters are people first and their sexual nature is always subservient to their human nature rather than the other way around.
The recognition of what should come first permeates throughout North by Northwest which is, after all, a return to form for Hitchcock within the rigidly codified constraints of a thriller. Because he worked so well within those constraints, the American Film Institute would rank the movie as the 4th greatest thriller made in the first 100 years of American filmmaking, although in the ten years between the release of its lists of the 100 greatest American films of any genre during that first century of filmmaking North by Northwest would unceremoniously drop from 40th to 55th place.