James Stewart was very interested in starring in this movie, begging Alfred Hitchcock to let him play Thornhill. Hitchcock claimed that Vertigo's lack of financial success was because Stewart "looked too old". MGM wanted Gregory Peck, but Hitchcock instead cast Cary Grant, who, ironically, was actually 4 years Stewart's senior.
While filming Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock described some of the plot of this project to frequent Hitchcock leading man and "Vertigo" star James Stewart, who naturally assumed that Hitchcock meant to cast him in the Roger Thornhill role, and was eager to play it. Actually, Hitchcock wanted Cary Grant to play the role. By the time Hitchcock realized the misunderstanding, Stewart was so anxious to play Thornhill that rejecting him would have caused a great deal of disappointment. So Hitchcock delayed production on this film until Stewart was already safely committed to filming Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder before "officially" offering him the North by Northwest role. Stewart had no choice; he had to turn down the offer, allowing Hitchcock to cast Grant, the actor he had wanted all along.
It was journalist Otis L. Guernsey Jr. who suggested to Alfred Hitchcock the premise of a man mistaken for a nonexistent secret agent. He was inspired, he said, by a real-life case during WW II, known as Operation Mincemeat, in which British intelligence hoped to lure Italian and German forces away from Sicily, a planned invasion site. A cadaver was selected and given an identity and phony papers referring to invasions of Sardinia and Greece. A British film, The Man Who Never Was, recounted the operation.
Ernest Lehman became the film's scriptwriter following a lunchtime meeting with Alfred Hitchcock, arranged by their mutual friend, composer Bernard Herrmann. Hitchcock originally wanted him to work on his new project The Wreck of the Mary Deare (which was eventually made instead by Michael Anderson), but Lehman refused. Hitchcock was so keen to work with him that he suggested they work together on a different film using Mary Deare's budget (without MGM's approval) even though he had only three ideas to set Lehman on his way: mistaken identity, the United Nations building, and a chase scene across the faces of Mt. Rushmore.
The day before the scene where Thornhill is hidden in an upper berth was to be filmed, Cary Grant took a look at the set which had been built and told Alfred Hitchcock that it had been constructed sloppily and would not do for the film. Hitchcock trusted Grant's judgment so completely that he ordered the set rebuilt to better standards without ever checking the situation for himself.
Alfred Hitchcock planned to shoot a scene in the Ford automobile plant in Dearborn, MI. As Thornhill and a factory worker discussed a particular foreman at the plant, they would walk along the assembly line as a car was put together from the first bolt to the final panel. Then, as the car rolled off the line ready to drive, Thornhill would open the passenger door and out would roll the body of the foreman he had just been discussing. Hitchcock loved the idea of a body appearing out of nowhere, but he and screenwriter Ernest Lehman couldn't figure out a way to make the scene fit the story, so it never came to fruition.
The two actors who played the Chicago auctioneer and his assistant, Les Tremayne and Olan Soule, succeeded each other as the lead on the popular radio show "Mr. First Nighter," during the 1930s and 1940s.
Cary Grant got $450,000 for this movie - a substantial amount for the time - plus a percentage of the gross profits. He also received $315,000 in penalty fees for having to stay nine weeks past the time his contract called for.
During their escape, Roger says to Eve, "I see you've got the pumpkin," meaning Vandamm's statue containing microfilm. The line references the 1948 Alger Hiss case, in which Whittaker Chambers led federal agents to government microfilms, allegedly supplied to him by Hiss, that Chambers had hidden in a pumpkin on his farm.
In the video release version of the film, Eva Marie Saint says that Cary Grant's opening scene abduction from his hotel business lunch date was shot on a Hollywood sound stage. Actually it was shot on location in the famed Oak Room of New York's Plaza Hotel, where Grant retained a room during production there.
The New York Central 20th Century Limited railcar featured (number 10006) was built by Pullman-Standard in 1939 and was scrapped in 1968. It was named "Imperial State" and featured four double bedrooms, four single compartments and two drawing rooms. The interior of the car seen in the film is actually a set built by MGM studios. When Cary Grant shuts the door, the wall can clearly be seen to move since the whole thing was manufactured out of plywood panels and painted to simulate the look of metal (including small fake rivets).
In the DVD documentary, Eva Marie Saint recounts how Alfred Hitchcock, dissatisfied with the costumes the studio had designed for her, marched her to Bergdorf Goodman and personally picked out clothes for her to wear.
Roger Thornhill's mother tells him jokingly, "Pay the two dollars," after he futilely attempts to shed light on his kidnapping and be exonerated from his DWI charge. The line is a reference to a Depression-era Willie Howard vaudeville sketch written by Billy K. Wells. A man is in court to pay a $2 fine for spitting on the subway, but his lawyer insists on fighting the case. As the lawyer incurs greater and greater sentences, his defendant keeps pleading, "Pay the two dollars!" This sketch also appeared in Ziegfeld Follies with Edward Arnold portraying the attorney.
If the fictional Thornhill had plans, as he stated, to attend the Winter Garden Theatre when the movie opened in the U.S. in July of 1959 (when he was kidnapped from the Oak Room), his tickets would have been for "West Side Story." But Thornhill, possibly, implies it was "My Fair Lady" that he had tickets for when he started to sing, while drunk in the Mercedes, "I've grown accustomed to your bourbon..."
In an interview, Alfred Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia Hitchcock, reveals that her husband worked at the time of the filming for Magnum Oil. "Magnum Oil" is the name on the fuel truck in the famous crop duster/oil truck scene.
In a TCM interview, according to screenwriter Ernest Lehman (who worked in close collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock), the working title was "In A Northwesterly Direction." The head of the Story Department at MGM said, "Why don't you call it 'North by Northwest'?" Lehman says that he and Hitch adopted that as the new working title, always assuming that they'd come up with something better.
Famed art director/special effects artist Albert Whitlock who worked on several Hitchcock films (not this one) painted a painting of Mount Rushmore and superimposed the face of Alfred Hitchcock into the rock sculptures on the mountain as a joke. The painting exists in a private collection.
Technically, there is no compass direction named "North by Northwest." In the process of "boxing the compass" - naming the 32 points of the compass by their direction -- the points from West to North run: West, West by North, West-Northwest, Northwest by West, Northwest, Northwest by North, North-Northwest, North by West, North. There is a "North-Northwest," but not a "North by Northwest."
MGM tried to persuade Alfred Hitchcock to use their Ultra-Panavision system which utilized a 65mm negative with a slight anamorphic squeeze. When projected, the image would be free of grain and quite wide. Hitchcock reportedly balked at using this large format, and instead insisted on going with Vistavision which was the format used in several of his Paramount productions. Going with Ultra-Panavision would have meant Bernard Herrmann's score would have been heard in magnetic stereo. The Vistavision prints utilized optical mono sound. Ironic that the version shown now has an entirely new soundtrack mixed in stereo.
Alfred Hitchcock filmed Cary Grant's entrance into the United Nations building from across the street with a hidden camera. When he gets to the top of the stairs a man about to walk down does a double take upon seeing the movie star.
Although Sara Berner is credited in studio records as a Telephone Operator, only her voice is heard in the movie. She was omitted from the cast list due to IMDb policy: uncredited voice credits are not allowed.
This movie features two actors who would go on to head spy agencies in their own 1960s television series. Edward Platt would star as "Chief" in "Get Smart," and Leo G. Carroll would star as "Mr. Waverly" in "The Man From U.N.C.L.E" and its spin off, "The Girl from U.N.C.L.E."
While waiting for Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) at Mount Rushmore, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) says he doesn't like the way that Teddy Roosevelt is looking at him. In Arsenic and Old Lace, Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, whose brother thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The final chase scene was not shot on Mt. Rushmore; Alfred Hitchcock couldn't gain permission to shoot an attempted murder on a national monument. The scene was shot in the studio on a replica of Mt. Rushmore. Everything is shot carefully, so as to avoid associating the faces of the monument with the violence.
Alfred Hitchcock had planned a sequence where Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) hid in Abraham Lincoln's nose and had a sneezing fit. Park officials would not allow this to be filmed, but Hitchcock tried again and again. Finally, someone asked Hitchcock how he would feel if it were the other way around and Lincoln was having a sneezing fit in Cary Grant's nose. Hitchcock immediately understood and the scene was never filmed. However, "The Man in Lincoln's Nose" was used as a "gag" working title.