While filming Vertigo (1958), 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 (1959) before "officially" offering him the North by Northwest (1959) role. Stewart had no choice; he had to turn down the offer, allowing Hitchcock to cast Grant, the actor he had wanted all along.
Eva Marie Saint had to re-dub a particular line during post-production, to satisfy censors. The original line was "I never make love on an empty stomach", but was changed to "I never discuss love on an empty stomach". Yet the final scene, after she and Cary Grant are embracing on the upper berth, shows a train entering a tunnel.
James Stewart was very interested in starring in this movie, begging Alfred Hitchcock to let him play Thornhill. Hitchcock claimed that Vertigo (1958)'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.
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.
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 (1956), recounted the operation.
The scenes where the crop duster is chasing and shooting at Thornhill were filmed with a real airplane while the scene where the plane crashes into the fuel truck was done using large models of both truck and plane.
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 (1945) with Edward Arnold portraying the attorney.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cary Grant found the screenplay baffling, and midway through filming told Alfred Hitchcock, "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!" Hitchcock knew this confusion would only help the film-after all, Grant's character had no idea what was going on, either. Grant thought the film would be a flop right up until its premiere, where it was rapturously received.
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.
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 (1959) (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.
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. Hitchcock also jokingly wanted to call it "The Man in Lincoln's Nose", but claimed the idea was vetoed by the Park Commissioner. Other working titles included "Breathless", "In a North West Direction" and "The CIA Story".
The film has been referred to as "the first James Bond film" due to its similarities with splashily colourful settings, secret agents, and an elegant, daring, wisecracking leading man opposite a sinister yet strangely charming villain. The crop duster scene inspired the helicopter chase in From Russia with Love (1963).
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 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.
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..."
Cinematographer Robert Burks recalled how Alfred Hitchcock, frustrated with the inefficiency and costliness of paying for police protection again and again when shooting on location, referred to New York's finest as "New York's worst" in an interview. When the crew arrived at their next location, The Plaza Hotel, there was no police protection.
Alfred Hitchcock needed more room just outside the Oak Room to dramatize Thornhill's kidnapping. The recreation of the Oak Room as a set at MGM in Culver City was so convincing, and even though Eva Marie Saint confirmed this on the DVD commentary, people still swear it is the actual Oak Room.
Ernest Lehman took a two-week research trip through New York, the United Nations, Glen Cove, Long Island, the 20th Century Limited, Chicago, the Ambassador East Hotel, and Mount Rushmore in order to convincingly plot his narrative.
The August 2016 issue of Trains Magazine has a good article that explains the filming of the 20th Century Limited scenes. One tidbit is that the New York Central set out some passenger cars for the LaSalle Street Station scenes, including "Imperial State." The "Imperial State" seen at Grand Central was actually a Southern Pacific car in Los Angeles painted to look like NYC's Imperial State so as to match the LaSalle Street footage.
Roger Thornhill is saved three times on his journey by Eve. He hides in a toilet on the train while she sends the police in the other direction, she hides him in her bunk bed in her cabin, and she gives him her shaving kit to disguise his face in the station bathroom. In Greek mythology the hero, often on a journey, is always saved three times.
The date on the newspaper shown being read at the United States Intelligence Agency is shown as Tuesday, November 25, 1958. This would place at least some of the film's action on Thanksgiving Day (which was Thursday, November 27 that year), although no mention of the holiday is ever made.
In François Truffaut's book-length interview, Hitchcock/Truffaut (1967), Alfred Hitchcock said that MGM wanted North by Northwest cut by 15 minutes so the film's length would run under two hours. Hitchcock had his agent check his contract, learned that he had absolute control over the final cut, and refused.
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."
The house near the end of the film was not real. Alfred Hitchcock asked the set designers to make the set resemble a house by Frank Lloyd Wright, the most popular architect in America at the time, using the materials, form and interiors associated with him. The set was built in Culver City, where MGM's studios were located. House exteriors were matte paintings.
Over dinner one night, Alfred Hitchcock related to Ernest Lehman his giddy enthusiasm for what North By Northwest is really about. He said, "Ernie, do you realize what we're doing in this picture? The audience is like a giant organ that you and I are playing. At one moment we play this note on them and get this reaction, and then we play that chord and they react that way. And someday we won't even have to make a movie---there'll be electrodes implanted in their brains, and we'll just press different buttons and they'll go 'ooooh' and 'aaaah'' and we'll frighten them, and make them laugh. Won't that be wonderful?"
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.
Alfred Hitchcock planned the film as a change of pace after his dark romantic thriller Vertigo a year earlier. In his book-length interview Hitchcock/Truffaut (1967) with François Truffaut, Hitchcock said that he wanted to do "something fun, light-hearted, and generally free of the symbolism permeating his other movies."
The aircraft seen flying in the scene is a Naval Aircraft Factory N3N Canary, a World War II Navy pilot trainer sometimes converted for cropdusting. The aircraft that hits the truck and explodes is a wartime Stearman (Boeing Model 75) trainer. Like its N3N lookalike, many were used for agricultural purposes through the 1970s. The plane was piloted by Bob Coe, a local cropduster from Wasco. Alfred Hitchcock placed replicas of square Indiana highway signs in the scene.
A panel of fashion experts convened by GQ in 2006 said the gray suit worn by Cary Grant throughout almost the entire film was the best suit in film history, and the most influential on men's style, stating that it has since been copied for Tom Cruise's character in Collateral (2004) and Ben Affleck's character in Paycheck (2003). This sentiment has been echoed by writer Todd McEwen, who called it "gorgeous," and wrote a short story "Cary Grant's Suit" which recounts the film's plot from the viewpoint of the suit.
Production costs were seriously escalated when a delay in filming put Cary Grant into the penalty phase of his contract, resulting in an additional $5,000 per day in fees for the actor, before shooting even began.
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 (1944), Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, whose brother thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt.
MGM hired Ernest Lehman to write the movie version of a novel called The Wreck of the Mary Deare, with Alfred Hitchcock assigned to direct. But Lehman got stuck on the adaptation and told Hitch he needed to find a new writer. Hitchcock, who liked working with Lehman, said, "I have this other idea ..." He'd been working on a story where a man is mistaken for a spy (who turns out not to exist), and about doing a chase sequence across Mount Rushmore. Hitchcock and Lehman developed the film from there, but neglected to tell MGM that they'd changed courses. When the studio bosses found out, they wisely let Hitch and Lehman do their own thing and reassigned The Wreck of the Mary Deare.
The cropduster sequence, meant to take place in northern Indiana, was shot on location on Garces Highway (155) near the towns of Wasco and Delano, north of Bakersfield in Kern County, California. Years later, in a show at the Pompidou Center called "Hitchcock and Art: Fatal Coincidences", an aerial shot of Cary Grant in the cornfield, with a "road cutting straight through the cornrows to the edge of the screen", was said to draw on Léon Spilliaert's "Le Paquebot ou L'Estran", which features "alternating strips of sand and ocean blue bands stretch[ed] to the edge of the canvas."
Alfred Hitchcock came up with the ending innuendo of the train entering the tunnel. He considered it one of his finest, naughtiest achievements. Ernest Lehman's screenplay just ended with "the train heads off into the distance," or words to that effect. "There's no way I can take credit for [the tunnel]," Lehman said, adding: "Dammit."
Some 44 minutes into the movie, there is a female train passenger who some fans think is Alfred Hitchcock in disguise. It certainly does look like him. But while Hitch wasn't above dressing in drag for the sake of a joke, he was more rotund than this woman, who seems to have merely been endowed with his face.
Ernest Lehman knew he wanted his hero to be an innocent man, possibly a sports announcer, a newspaperman, an advertising executive, or even a Frank Sinatra-type entertainer, but he couldn't figure out how the hero gets into trouble. Alfred Hitchcock ended his dilemma by recalling a story idea a New York newspaperman had once given him at a cocktail party - an idea about some government agency creating a nonexistent decoy agent to throw the villains off the trail of a real government agent. It did not take Lehman and Hitchcock long to concoct a similar phantom agent for their plot purposes.
The Northwest Airlines logotype is visible in the airport scene with The Professor. The airline operated as an independent corporation from 1926 to 2010, when its merger with Delta airlines was completed.
In the night driving scene, one of the cars is a Ford Edsel. The Edsel logotype and signature "horsecollar" grille are visible in its front end. The Edsel division was a resounding failure, losing Ford $350 million from 1958 to 1960 (roughly $2.8 billion in adjusted 2013 dollars).
It is interesting to note that two future heads of TV show spy agencies are included in the cast of North by Northwest, itself a spy thriller. Leo G. Carroll played "Alexander Waverly", the man from whom Napoleon Solo received his orders, in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964). 'Edward Platt', was the "Chief" in Get Smart (1965) to whom Maxwell Smart apologized weekly for his ineptness.
In the simple, cut-away shot of Thornhill of the front page of a newspaper, Hitchcock includes two in-jokes. The photo of Roger Thornhill is above - or North - of a news story about a "blaze in the NorthWest". Just for some added smiles, the story to the left - or West - of the photograph talks about the West staying in Berlin. Even the name of the newspaper, The Evening Star, suggests something in the West.
There is some disagreement as to who tailored Cary Grant's suit; according to Vanity Fair magazine, it was Norton & Sons of London, although according to The Independent it was Quintino of Beverly Hills.
It is possible that Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman modeled The Professor, the head of the American Intelligence Agency, on John Foster Dulles (Secretary of State from 1953-1959) and his brother, Allen W. Dulles (head of the CIA from 1953-1961).
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The crop dusting biplane which crashes and burns while attempting to kill Roger as he's waiting to meet the mythical 'Mr. Kaplan' at the desolate Prairie Stop is supposedly flown by Vandamm's henchman, Licht. Alfred Hitchcock knew that it would be much more menacing if the pilot were never actually seen, and if Roger was threatened by a faceless, impersonal machine. The plane gets destroyed, and Licht is killed, while his character simply disappears from the rest of film without any further mention ever being made of him, or an explanation of his absence being given.
Alfred Hitchcock had planned a sequence where Roger Thornhill 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.
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.
At the auction, Thornhill remarks that Van Damme, Kendall, and Leonard resemble a scene worthy of Charles Addams. Addams created the macabre yet debonair characters of the various Addams Family TV series and movies.
MGM put a great deal of pressure on Alfred Hitchcock to eliminate the scene in the woods, after Eve shoots Roger. MGM felt that it was an unnecessary scene that incurred the needless expense of building the set on a soundstage using 100 ponderosa pines. Hitchcock, however, felt that it was an indispensable scene because it's the first meeting between Roger and Eva since he learned she was a double agent. Hitchcock won out in the end, thanks to his contract that gave him complete artistic control of the picture, regardless of production time or cost.
In the auction scene, Thornhill says that Kendall's performance is worthy of The Actors' Studio. This is a well-known professional organization for actors, theater directors, and playwrights located in New York City. The studio emphasizes the development and practice of method acting.