North By Northwest might not be everyone's choice for best Alfred Hitchcock movie ever (Vertigo, Psycho and Rear Window are arguably more groundbreaking, and Notorious and Strangers On A Train are classics as well), but it almost certainly is his most fun (and funny) movie—and as the years go by, it remains one of my personal favorite films of all time, a hyperkinetic romp across the country filled with mistaken identities, unforgettable set pieces, and a purposefully-confusing, lovably silly plot. This was a movie, after all, that was almost titled The Man on Lincoln's Nose.
Part of the reason why I keep returning to this film, and finding such joy in it, has to do with the mix-and-match nature of its story. It's impossible to pin it down to one genre. Among other things, it's a spy-thriller with a complex series of mistaken identities, based on a story that originated from an American journalist who told Hitchcock about how the British made up a fake secret agent to trick the Germans during WWII. The movie is arguably the tonal keystone that led to the James Bond series (the crop duster scene was a direct inspiration for the helicopter chase in From Russia With Love, and the wise-cracking hero going on global missions isn't a far cry from North). It's also like a prototype for big-budget action movies such as the Mission Impossible and Fast & The Furious series, seeing as how Hitchcock envisioned the film's big set pieces first (particularly the United Nations assassination scene and the climactic Mount Rushmore one), then worked backwards to weave the intricate plot together.
If the move's plot feels like a shabby whirlwind at times (...why again is Thornhill being chased by a crop duster at a remote bus stop?), it's ingeniously reflected in Cary Grant's performance (and boy, is this the platonic ideal of Cary Grant performances): he is simultaneously effortlessly cool, completely in over-his-head, a romantic lead, a bumbling hero, and kind of a dick to everyone he meets. Grant told Hitchcock midway through filming that he couldn't keep up with the screenplay: "It's a terrible script. We've already done a third of the picture and I still can't make head or tail of it!"
This of course is just what Hitchcock wanted—the more confused Grant was, the most confused his character would be. It's all very purposeful, as Hitchcock was looking to make a lighter movie coming off Vertigo. So besides being a thriller, it's also something of a romcom (Hitchcock called the final shot of the film a "phallic symbol... probably one of the most impudent shots I ever made"), a proto-Feminist tale (Eva Marie Saint's Eve is the true secret agent, and she saves Thornhill three times throughout the movie), and a stylish romp (I see a lot of this film's influence in Steven Soderbergh's Oceans 11 films).
Hitchcock also has fun with many of his own tropes, such as the MacGuffin (which is the microfilm...but it's also the whole "George Kaplan" character, who literally doesn't exist), the oddly compelling bad guy (the great James Mason almost steals the movie as a gentleman rogue), and the title adds a wonderfully absurd touch: "It's a fantasy," Hitchcock said. "The whole film is epitomized in the title—there is no such thing as north-by-northwest on the compass."
And of course, there's no denying the thrill of seeing the authentic late-'50s NYC locations, including the midtown Manhattan skyscrapers in the opening, the train scene at Grand Central, the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel, and the aforementioned UN scene (Hitchcock got footage of the interior of the building using a hidden camera, then recreated the rooms on a soundstage later).
If you've never gotten a chance to see it before—or if you've never had the pleasure of seeing it on a big screen—then you're in luck, because the film is coming back to theaters for two days only this week as part of the TCM Big Screen Classics Series. On Sunday April 2nd and Wednesday April 5th, you can see it at more than 700 theaters nationwide, including Kips Bay 15 and Empire 25 in Times Square (both are showing the film at 2 and 7 p.m.)—you can find all participating theaters here.