The innocent man on the run is, at this point, a staple of all but one Hitchcockian film I have seen. The 39 Steps, Vertigo and now North by Northwest tries its hand at the wrong place, wrong time storytelling technique. Here it doesn’t go as smoothly as I had heard it did, with a number of mismatched performances, uninteresting story expectations and above all a very poor standing for the Hitchcock thriller.
Cary Grant’s performance as Roger Thornhill goes from innocent and confused to an international super spy of charisma very quickly. This happened in The 39 Steps but the transition was more believable. In The 39 Steps, this drastic change was done in a desperate attempt to keep their own life, whereas in North by Northwest it happens rather randomly and out of the blue. North by Northwest does feel like a bigger budget version of The 39 Steps, and the only problem there is that it loses a lot of its meaning and enjoyability along the way.
With a supporting cast that don’t exactly do much other than support or threaten Grant, there’s no real room for character building or anything of the sort. With a handful of distressingly stupid sub-plots (Thornhill’s mother joins us briefly), North by Northwest often feels like it’s getting bogged down in its not so interesting characters. With a fair few of them being nothing more than disinteresting ploys of extending the running time or giving us a break from a quintessentially boring leading man.
Of course, there are some positives to North by Northwest though, with moments of inspiration spilling in from time to time. The iconic crop duster scene is a thoroughly strong piece of film and Grant’s delivery throughout these brief scenes is nothing short of extraordinary. But outside of these few scenes, it becomes an atypical Hitchcockian thriller with bits of romance littered throughout. Its close resemblance to The 39 Steps is a real struggle to get over, especially when The 39 Steps is so much better.
One of the weaker Hitchcock movies available, and that’s going to anger many of those who have a glazed layer of nostalgia for this movie, but it’s near boring with a loose story that revolves around a tired format that Hitchcock couldn’t break out of. Grant’s performance is solid enough, but his sudden change into the intense hero the audience was looking for is so predictably dull that it sets a tone for the rest of the movie.