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North by Northwest (1959) - quotes

Quotations relating to North by Northwest (1959)...


Anyway, a writer called Hammond Innes had written a novel, "The Wreck of the Mary Deare", about a cargo boat that is sailing along the English Channel with only one man aboard who's stoking coal into the furnace. Two sailors from a salvage vessel that's passing by manage to board the ship. Anyway, you have a beautiful setup in that mystery ship with a single man on board. But as soon as you go into the explanations, the whole thing becomes very trite, and the public is apt to wonder why you didn't show the events that led up to this point. It's really like picking out the climax of a story and putting it at the beginning. Since I was committed to Metro to do that picture, I told them that the story wouldn't work out and suggested we do something else. So that's how, starting at zero, we went on to do "North by Northwest".

When you're involved in a project and you see it isn't going to work out, the wisest thing is to simply throw the whole thing away.

Alfred Hitchcock (1962)
keywords: Hammond Innes, MGM, North by Northwest (1959), The Wreck of the Mary Deare, pre-production, and screenplay

I thought up a scene for "North by Northwest", but we never actually made it. It occurred to me that we were moving in a northwesterly direction from New York, and one of the stops on the way was Detroit, where they make Ford automohiles. Have you ever seen an assembly line? They're absolutely fantastic. Anyway, I wanted to have a long dialogue scene between Cary Grant and one of the factory workers as they walk along the assembly line. They might, for instance, be talking about one of the foremen. Behind them a car is being assembled, piece by piece. Finally, the car they've seen being put together from a simple nut and bolt is complete, with gas and oil, and all ready to drive off the line. The two men look at it and say, "Isn't it wonderful!" Then they open the door to the car and out drops a corpse!

Where has the body come from? Not from the car, obviously, since they've seen it start at zero! The corpse falls out of nowhere, you see! And the body might be that of the foreman the two fellows had been discussing ... The real problem was that we couldn't integrate the idea into the story. Even a gratuitous scene must have some justification for being there, you know!

Alfred Hitchcock (1962)

Well, I went to [Hitchcock's] house every day for about three weeks, and I realized that every time I brought up the subject of Mary Deare, he would change the subject. So, I began to suspect that he didn't know any more about how to do the picture than I did. Finally, I went to his house one morning and said, "I've got bad news for you, Hitch. You'll have to get another writer. I don't know how to write this picture." And he said, "Don't be silly, Ernie. We'll do something else." And I said, "But what'll we tell MGM?" And he said, "We won't tell them a thing." And that's how it evolved.

Ernest Lehman (2000)

For some reason, Hitch wanted to do the longest dolly shot in cinema history. The idea was that the shot would begin with an assembly line, and then you'd gradually see the parts of the car added and assembled, and, all the while, the camera's dollying for miles along with the assembly line, and then eventually there's a completed car, all built, and it's driven off the assembly line, and there's a dead body in the backseat ... It was intriguing, but it had no place in the picture.

Ernest Lehman (2000)

Then Hitch told me another [idea for the screenplay]: there's a speech being made at the General Assembly of the United Nations, and the speaker suddenly stops. He's irritated, and he says he's not going to continue until the delegate from Brazil wakes up. So a UN page goes over to the man, taps him on the shoulder, and the delegate falls over dead. But he'd been doodling — and that's the only clue to the murder — and his doodling is a sketch of the antlers of moose. So I said, "Well, that's intriguing — now we've got the United Nations, and Detroit, and what might seem like a reference to northern Canada." And Hitch said that he'd always wanted to do a scene at Lake Louise where a family is having a reunion — a get-together — and a twelve-year-old girl takes a gun out of a baby carriage and shoots someone. I realize that all these ideas sound very peculiar and unrelated, but I took them all down and thought about them.

Ernest Lehman (2000)
Lehman describes some of the ideas Hitchcock came up with for the "North by Northwest"

Just like he'd said, "I always wanted to do a dolly shot in an auto factory," [Hitchcock] said, "I always wanted to do a chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore." And I thought, "Hey, I really like that idea." And that was the seed of the flower that took eleven months to grow. But I had to ask myself, "Who's chasing whom over the faces of Mount Rushmore?" and "How do they get there?" and "Why?" And that took quite a bit of doing on my part. I remember that I used to squeeze out a tiny bit of the screenplay every day, fully convinced that it would never actually become a movie. There were many nights when I would be driving home from the studio thinking that we were just kidding ourselves — and wondering how long the charade would go on.

The truth is, even with all my experience, I really didn't know how to write the script. I'd never written a movie like that before, but gradually I eked it out — or, at least, the first sixty-five pages — and then Hitch went off to make "Vertigo". So I'd sit there in my lonely office, and many times I'd go home at night having written less than half a page, completely discouraged. And several times I tried to quit while he was away, but my agent wouldn't let me, saying, "You've already quit 'The Wreck of the Mary Deare', you can't quit this one too." So I was kind of trapped into doing it.

Ernest Lehman (2000)

Well, even though I'd traveled on the 20th Century when I was a New Yorker — and I certainly knew Grand Central Station and all that — I decided to take a trip on the 20th Century Limited just in case something useful stuck in my mind. So, I got off at the LaSalle Street Station in Chicago, went to the Ambassador East Hotel, and checked things out. Then, I took the bullet train to Rapid City, South Dakota, hired a forest ranger on his day off, and started climbing Mount Rushmore. I wanted to climb to the top and see what was up there. But it was an absolutely idiotic thing to do. Halfway up, I looked down and thought, "God, I'm just a screenwriter. What the hell am I doing up here? One slip and I'm dead!" So, I gave the Polaroid camera to the forest ranger, and I told him to go up to the top and take photos of everything.

Ernest Lehman (2000)
Lehman describes the two week long research trip he made whilst writing the screenplay

So I kept pressing forward, and Hitch, confident that I now knew what the hell I was doing, moved over to MGM from his home base at Universal, and started storyboarding the script with his art director, and casting the roles. And all the time, I'm sitting there in my office sweating the fact that I have no idea whatsoever why the hell they're all going to Mount Rushmore! Why were these people heading to South Dakota? I had no idea! So, the last act of the script was blank. Actual blank pages! Then Cary Grant came on the picture with some astronomical salary, and I was still sitting there in my office with nothing but a partially-completed script. So I called up Hitch, and I told him we were in big trouble. He came rushing over to my office, sat across from me, and the two of us stared at each other. Finally, he suggested that we call in some mystery novelist to help us kick around ideas, but I didn't like the idea. After all, I was getting paid by MGM to write the thing, and I felt that it would make me look pretty foolish. I kept saying, "God, what'll they say about me upstairs?" and Hitch would say, "Don't worry, I'll tell them it's all my fault. I'll tell them I should've been able to help you, but I couldn't — or something like that."

Then we went to his office — it was about six o'clock in the evening — and we kept talking about his idea, even discussing which mystery writer we should get, and, all the time, the right side of my brain was working, and suddenly, as I was listening to him — not really ignoring him — I said, "She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him." So where the hell did that come from? It just popped into my head. That's the way it works sometimes: you've got a problem and, no matter what else is going on around you, the right side of your brain keeps working on it and then, suddenly, it pops out of nowhere. And Hitch took it right in stride. Even though I'd completely changed the subject and suddenly blurted out, "She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him," he didn't miss a beat and responded, "Yes, the Polish Underground sometimes killed their own members, just to prove they weren't in the Underground." And I said, "Yes, but these are fake bullets. That'll convince Vandamm that he has to take her away with him. Now that she's a fugitive, he'll decide to take her on the plane." And, instantly, I had the whole last act.

Ernest Lehman (2000)
Lehman describes how he overcame his writer's block to finish the script

One day, Hitch said to me, "I've always wanted to do a scene in the middle of nowhere — where there's absolutely nothing. You're out in the open, and there's nothing all around you. The camera can turn around 360 degrees, and there's nothing there but this one man standing all alone — because the villains, who are out to kill him, have lured him out to this lonely spot." Then Hitch continued, "Suddenly, a tornado comes along and..." "But Hitch," I interrupted, "how do the villains create a tornado?" and he had no idea. So I wondered, "What if a plane comes out of the sky?" And he liked it immediately, and he said, "Yes, it's a crop duster. We can plant some crops nearby." So we planted a fake cornfield in Bakersfield and did the scene that way. And, like you said, it became a very famous sequence. As a matter of fact, that's how I knew that Cary Grant had died. Every channel on TV was showing that shot of Cary running away from the plane. It's strange, isn't it, that such a distinguished career should be remembered mostly for that one shot?

Ernest Lehman (2000)

Due to the objection of the government, we weren't allowed to have any of the figures on the faces, even in the interior studio shots ... We were told very definitely that we could only have the figures slide down between the heads of the presidents. They said that after all, this is the shrine to democracy.

Hitchcock talking about the Mount Rushmore sequence in "North by Northwest".

The main problem in the Mount Rushmore sequence was to make it believable that two people could climb down the face of Mount Rushmore — it couldn't be done, but we had to make it look believable. So, we went up to Mount Rushmore, climbed up the back and found that on the top of each one of the heads there was a huge iron ring, with a cable and bosun's chair... We then lowered down each face and photographed in every direction possible every 10 feet and those became the backgrounds.

Boyle describes the technical difficulties of the Mount Rushmore sequence in "North by Northwest".

I walked in one day and said: "I give up. You've got to get yourself a new writer. I don't know how to do this picture." He said, "Don't be silly. We get along so well together. We'll just do something else." I said, "Well, what do we tell MGM?" He said, "We won't tell them."

One day Hitch said to me: "I always wanted to do a chase across the faces of Mt. Rushmore." I said, "I like that", and I made some little notes on that. And then one day Hitch said: "I always wanted to do a scene where somebody is addressing the United Nations and says: 'I refuse to continue until the delegate from Peru wakes up.'" So an usher goes over and taps the delegate from Peru and he falls over. He's dead. And I sat in my office trying to construct a story which began at the United Nations and that was the genesis. I said, "I want to make the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures. Something that has wit sophistication glamour action and lots of changes of locale." That's when I started writing.

I created the first 65 pages of the screenplay sent them off to Hitch and I have a beautiful four-page handwritten letter from Hitchcock which is in my scrapbook telling me how much he liked the first 65 pages. That's priceless. So he went to the powers that be at MGM and spun about 20 percent of a movie, because that's about all we had. He looked at his watch and said: "Well, gentlemen, I have a meeting now, and I'll see you at the preview." They were thrilled. They felt they were gonna get two Hitchcock pictures instead of one. It was typical of him.

Lehman describes how "North by Northwest" came about

I had absolutely nothing for the final act of the picture. I found myself in the second week of not having written a single page. I said, "Hitch, we're in trouble". He said, "I'll be right down". I didn't know why we were in Mt. Rushmore, and I told him my dilemma. I suddenly heard myself saying: "She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him." Where did that come from? The right brain. The right brain keeps working all the time.

We were on "North By Northwest", and we weren't looking for the next one, particularly. And it wasn't until we finished shooting, and we were preparing for post-production... Hitchy would read the New York Times book section over the weekend or bring it into the office on Monday. We saw this very good review by Boucher on this book, "Psycho". So Hitch said, "Call Paramount and get coverage on it." Paramount hadn't covered it, and Hitch went over to England. As he was at the airport, he saw shelves of this book, "Psycho". He called me and said, "Haven't you got coverage from Paramount yet?" I said, "Paramount didn't cover it." He said, "All right." He got the book and read it going over. He called back from London to say, "I've got our next subject: 'Psycho.'"

Peggy Robertson (1997)


MGM suggested their contract player Cyd Charisse to play Eve Kendall but Hitchcock didn't think she was right for the part and suggested me. I had just starred in "Raintree County" for MGM who thought I was wrong for the role of the sexy double agent. Regardless, Hitchcock insisted, and I was hired.

Hitchcock saw me in a play "Middle of the Night", which I'd done on Broadway with Edward G. Robinson. Then I got a call from him, for a picture called "North by Northwest".

When I got the role, I had just given birth to my daughter Laurette Hayden. So, after I lost a few pounds, Hitch began the process of transforming me into Eve Kendall. He personally oversaw all of the details of Bill Tuttle's glamorous makeup designs and the sophisticated hairstyles of Sydney Guilaroff. But he wasn't so crazy about MGM's costumes for me. The studio designed a wardrobe for my character but Hitchcock didn't like it and threw out almost everything. Then he took me to Bergdorf Goodman in New York and we selected the rest of my wardrobe right off the models. I often joke that he was my one and only sugar daddy!

I loved playing Eve because it was so different from "On the Waterfront" or anything else I'd ever done before. Hitch said, "You don't have to cry in this one, Eva Marie. No more sink parts for you." Meaning the dowdy wife at the kitchen sink. Cary thought I should play nothing but glamorous leading ladies for the rest of my career. But, I wanted to do it all, the real and the unreal and I pretty much have.

The Production Process

We had an exact copy made up of the United Nations lobby. You see, someone had used that setting for a film called "The Glass Wall", and after that Dag Hammarskjold prohibited any shooting of fiction films on the premises.

Just the same, while the guards were looking for our equipment, we shot one scene of Cary Grant coming into the building by using a concealed camera. We'd been told we couldn't even do any photography, so we concealed the camera in the back of a truck and in that way we got enough footage for the background. Then we got a still photographer to get permission to take some colored stills inside, and I walked around with him, as if I was a visitor, whispering, "Take that shot from there. And now, another one from the roof down." We used those color photographs to reconstitute the settings in our studios.

The place where the man is stabbed in the back is in the delegates' lounge, but to maintain the prestige of the United Nations, we called it the "public lounge" in the picture, and this also explains how the man with the knife could get in there. Anyway, the locale was very accurately reconstructed. I'm very concerned about the authenticity of settings and furnishings. When we can't shoot in the actual settings, I'm for taking research photographs of everything.

Alfred Hitchcock (1962)

The house that's used at the end of "North by Northwest" is the miniature of a house by Frank Lloyd Wright that's shown from a distance. We built part of it for the scene in which Cary Grant circles around it.

Alfred Hitchcock (1962)

Planting the camera in the countryside to shoot a passing train would merely give us the viewpoint of a cow watching a train go by. I tried to keep the public inside the train, with the train. Whenever it went into a curve, we took a longshot from one of the train windows. The way we did that was to put three cameras on the rear platform of the Twentieth Century Limited, and we went over the exact journey of the film at the same time of the day. One of our cameras was used for the long shots of the train in the curves, while the two others were used for background footage.

Alfred Hitchcock (1962)

I'd be standing on Madison Avenue watching Hitch shoot the opening scene of the picture and a movie critic named Hollis Alpert came along. He said, "Ernie, what are you doing here watching Alfred Hitchcock shoot his picture?" I said, "He isn't shooting his picture. He's shooting my picture."

As a director, Hitch was mostly concerned with the technical aspects of getting his vision on-screen. "Your hand goes here. You're looking up there." He wasn't like Kazan who would whisper wonderful intimate direction in your ear. Hitch gave me three basic pieces of direction: First, lower your voice. Second, don't use your hands, and third always look directly into Cary's eyes. One of his greatest gifts was that he made you feel you were the only perfect person for the role and this gave you incredible confidence in playing the part. And then, he'd leave you to your own devices. It was really a wonderful set to work on.

Hitch shut down the picture for a whole day because he couldn't figure out something I had written for which there was no explanation. There's a raking shot in the LaSalle Street Station of phone booths. In one of them is Leonard and the camera slowly dollies over to another phone booth and there's Eve on the other phone and he's obviously giving her instructions. It suddenly dawned on him "how did he know the telephone number?" "Where's Ernie?" "In Europe." And he shut down until somehow he came up with an answer that satisfied him and he continued shooting.

Way off in the distance you could see a town. So that became a matte shot. I said: "I've never handled a matte shot from a crane. It'll be unsteady." Well, what we did is, we took four cables and we tied it off four ways and then lifted the crane a little so everything was tight. It worked.

Nothing happens for almost eight minutes and it still holds your attention.

Lehman describing the crop duster scene

Even though it was early October, the climate was like a sweltering desert. This was one of the only times Hitch wore short sleeves on the set. For three days, poor Cary ran with a stunt plane swooping down at him or so it would seem. As nobody would think of putting Cary Grant in the position of getting decapitated by a plane some trick photography was used. I feel like a traitor telling you this but first the crew shot a swooping plane from a ditch and then, later, Cary was shot on a sound stage jumping into a fake ditch with the plane footage on a process screen behind him.

Cary Grant rushes into the cornfield and ducks down on the ground and the plane loosens this poisonous crop-dusting powder all over him and he's gasping for breath and he rushes towards a car which is coming from afar and the camera follows him as he goes toward the car and he waves and the car refuses to stop. The next day, Hitch discovered that Peggy Robertson his script supervisor had forgotten to make sure that Cary was covered with crop dust in the shot where he runs across the field toward the car. And she burst into tears. She was hysterical. Hitch had to shoot the whole scene over again.

When we were doing the auction scene, he whispered something to Cary, he whispered something to James, he whispered something to Eva Marie and he passed me by. And I walked up to him. I said: "Is there anything you want to tell me?" I was a young actor, eager, you know. They were getting direction. He said, "Martin, I'll only tell you if I don't like what you're doing. You're projecting very well." I said, "Well, okay. That's nice." But I did feel left out. Hitchcock said, "Actors are cattle". He never said that. He said, "You must treat actors like cattle."

The [Mount Rushmore] set was largely a very safe place, but once the man who was to catch me if anything happened looked away as I slipped and fell several feet, scraping my arm badly — an injury we used in the final film. I hung from a cliff that appeared to be miles high but was only a few yards from a scaffold below. Cary saved me from a ledge that appeared to drop straight down. Actually, it was on a 45-degree angle. I couldn't have fallen if I wanted to. It looks dangerous, but really it was just a lot of fun.