While filming Vertigo (1958), Sir 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 movie until Stewart was already safely committed to filming Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (1959) before "officially" offering him the role in this movie. Stewart had no choice. He had to turn down the offer, allowing Hitchcock to cast Grant, the actor he had wanted all along.
This movie 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).
Sir 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.
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.
In the DVD documentary, Eva Marie Saint recounts how Sir 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.
The scene where the crop duster is chasing and shooting at Thornhill was filmed with a real airplane while the shot where the plane crashes into the fuel truck was done using large models of both truck and plane.
Cary Grant found the screenplay baffling, and midway through filming told Sir Alfred Hitchcock, "It's a terrible script. We've already done a third of the picture and I still can't make head nor tail of it!" Hitchcock knew this confusion would only help the movie after all, Grant's character had no idea what was going on, either. Grant thought the movie would be a flop right up until its premiere, where it was rapturously received.
Famed art director and special effects artist Albert Whitlock, who worked on several Hitchcock movies (not this one), painted a painting of Mount Rushmore and superimposed the face of Sir Alfred Hitchcock into the rock sculptures on the mountain as a joke. The painting exists in a private collection.
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 Sir Alfred Hitchcock that it had been constructed sloppily and would not do for the movie. Hitchcock trusted Grant's judgment so completely, that he ordered the set rebuilt to better standards without ever checking the situation for himself.
James Stewart was very interested in starring in this movie, begging Sir 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 four years older than Stewart.
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 two dollar 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.
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.
It was journalist Otis L. Guernsey, Jr. who suggested to Sir Alfred Hitchcock the premise of a man mistaken for a nonexistent secret agent. He was inspired, he said, by a real-life case during World War 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. The Man Who Never Was (1956) recounted the operation.
Vandamm remarks in the Rapid City, South Dakota house scene that the plane taking them out of the country should touch down in "ten minutes". It is exactly ten minutes in real-time when they see the plane landing on the landing strip.
Sir Alfred Hitchcock planned to shoot a scene in the Ford automobile plant in Dearborn, Michigan. 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. A similar scene is seen in Minority Report (2002).
Sir 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.
In François Truffaut's book-length interview, Hitchcock/Truffaut (1967), Sir Alfred Hitchcock said that MGM wanted this movie cut by fifteen minutes so its 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.
Cary Grant got $450,000 for this movie, a substantial amount for the time, plus a percentage of the profits. He also received $315,000 in penalty fees for having to stay nine weeks past the time for which his contract called.
In a Turner Classic Movies interview, according to screenwriter Ernest Lehman (who worked in close collaboration with Sir 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 Hitchcock 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 C.I.A. Story". So the creators thought the title was a meaningless placeholder. However, in fact Thornhill flew north from Chicago to South Dakota on Northwest Airlines, or "north by Northwest."
Ernest Lehman became the scriptwriter following a lunchtime meeting with Sir 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 movie 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.
MGM tried to persuade Sir 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 Pictures 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.
The house near the end of this movie was not real. Sir 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, California, where MGM's studios were located. House exteriors were matte paintings.
Sir Alfred Hitchcock needed more room just outside the Oak Room to dramatize Thornhill's kidnapping. The re-creation of the Oak Room as a set at MGM in Culver City, California was so convincing, and even though Eva Marie Saint confirmed this on the DVD commentary, people still swear it is the actual Oak Room.
In an interview, Sir Alfred Hitchcock's daughter, Patricia, revealed 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.
Cinematographer Robert Burks recalled how Sir Alfred Hitchcock, frustrated with the inefficiency and costliness of paying for police protection again and again when shooting on location, referred to New York City'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.
In numerous interviews, Martin Landau said that he made a decision on his own to play the character of Leonard as gay and in love with Phillip Vandamm (James Mason). In an October 2012 interview with Devin Faraci, Landau said that he was cast in this movie when Sir Alfred Hitchcock "saw me in a play called 'Middle of the Night', Paddy Chayefsky's first Broadway play, with Edward G. Robinson, which I toured with after the Broadway run. He was there opening night. I played a very macho guy, one hundred eighty degrees from Leonard, who I chose to play as a homosexual, very subtly. Because he wanted to get rid of Eva Marie Saint with such a vengeance. James Mason, to the day he died, he became a friend of mine, the most often asked question of James was whether Vandamm, his character, was bisexual. He said, 'No he wasn't, but Landau made a choice, and there's nothing I can do about it.' I actually caused him some grief. Everyone told me not to do that because it was my first big movie and people would think I was gay. I'm an actor. I said it wasn't going to be my last movie, and it certainly wasn't. I've never played a character like that since. I also felt it was something people would know or not know. It was very subtle. I thought, 'in Boise, Idaho they might not notice.'" Landau also said that after he made the decision to play Leonard as gay, Hitchcock and Screenwriter Ernest Lehman were very supportive of the idea. "Ernie Lehman added a line which was not in the script. 'Call it my woman's intuition' was not in the original script. It was a very daring line for the 1950s. Men didn't say things like that. Hitchcock loved what I did, and left me alone."
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 this movie was 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).
At the auction, Thornhill remarks that Vandamm, Kendall, and Leonard resemble a scene worthy of Charles Addams. Addams created the macabre, yet debonair, characters of the various Addams Family television series and movies.
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.
A panel of fashion experts convened by GQ Magazine in 2006 said the gray suit worn by Cary Grant throughout almost the entire movie was the best suit in movie 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 recounted this movie's plot from the viewpoint of the suit.
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman took a two-week research trip through New York City, 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.
When the Professor is walking on the tarmac to the airplane with Thornhill, there are two airplane stairs behind them. The way they are placed, the one closest to the camera says Northwest. The one behind it, partially blocked, shows the word North, which shows to the left of the word Northwest. Hence, North by Northwest.
Sir Alfred Hitchcock planned this movie as a change of pace after his dark romantic thriller Vertigo (1958). 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."
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." However, since this is a fictional story, it doesn't matter.
The song that's playing in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel before Thornhill enters the Oak Bar is "It's a Most Unusual Day", which had previously been sung by Jane Powell in the MGM musical A Date with Judy (1948).
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 him before shooting even began.
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 this movie's action on Thanksgiving Day (which was Thursday, November 27 that year), although no mention of the holiday is ever made.
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. Sir Alfred Hitchcock placed replicas of square Indiana highway signs in the scene.
At Sir Alfred Hitchcock's insistence, this movie was made in Paramount Pictures' VistaVision widescreen process, making it one of only two VistaVision movies made at MGM. The other being High Society (1956).
Over dinner one night, Sir Alfred Hitchcock related to Ernest Lehman his giddy enthusiasm for what this movie 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 cropduster sequence, meant to take place in northern Indiana, was shot on location on Garces Highway (CA 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."
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 Station was actually a Southern Pacific car in Los Angeles, California painted to look like New York City's Imperial State, so as to match the LaSalle Street footage.
Technically, there is no compass direction named "North by Northwest." In the process of "boxing the compass", naming the thirty-two 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".
In the simple, cut-away shot of Thornhill of the front page of a newspaper, Sir Alfred Hitchcock included 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.
It is possible that Sir Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Lehman modelled The Professor, the head of the American Intelligence Agency, on John Foster Dulles (Secretary of State from 1953 to 1959) and his brother, Allen W. Dulles (head of the C.I.A. from 1953 to 1961).
Screenwriter 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. Sir Alfred Hitchcock ended his dilemma by recalling a story idea a New York City newspaperman had once given him at a cocktail party, an idea about some government agency creating a non-existent 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.
In 2014, a new fly species belonging to the genus "Prochyliza" was named "Prochyliza georgekaplani", which means "the Prochyliza of George Kaplan". The type specimens of this species, which had been found in Spain a few years before, had been wrongly identified as belonging to "Prochyliza nigricornis", a species described in Europe in the nineteenth century, and which was discovered to be a non-valid species name under taxonomical rules. As the Spanish specimens had been misidentified as a "non-existent species", they were renamed after George Kaplan, the non-existent spy from this movie. The description of the new species was published in the scientific journal "Zootaxa" (issue 3893, pgs. 277-292).
MGM hired Ernest Lehman to write the movie version of a novel called The Wreck of the Mary Deare, with Sir Alfred Hitchcock assigned to direct. But Lehman got stuck on the adaptation and told Hitchcock 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 movie from there, but neglected to tell MGM that they'd changed courses. When the studio bosses found out, they wisely let Hitchcock and Lehman do their own thing and reassigned The Wreck of the Mary Deare.
(At around forty-four minutes) There is a female train passenger who some fans think is Sir Alfred Hitchcock in disguise. It certainly does look like him. But while Hitchcock wasn't above dressing in drag for the sake of a joke, the person in question was Jesslyn Fax, a character actress who appeared in several other Hitchcock movies.
In the Mount Rushmore scenes, Sir Alfred Hitchcock had envisaged Thornhill sliding down Lincoln's nose and hiding in Lincoln's nostril, where he developed a sneezing fit. However, the Department of the Interior would not allow any action to take place on the Presidents' heads: instead, the chase had to take place between the heads.
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.
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.
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.
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 played Mortimer Brewster, whose brother thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt.
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.
In the night driving scene, one of the cars is an Edsel. The Edsel logotype and signature "horsecollar" grille are visible on its front end. The Edsel division was a resounding failure, losing Ford three hundred fifty million dollars from 1958 to 1960 (roughly 2.8 billion in adjusted 2013 dollars).
The title of the video game Norse by Norse West: The Return of the Lost Vikings (1997) is a reference to this movie. In it, one of the animal characters is continuously mistaken for another animal by the other characters.
During the intelligence agency meeting, the secretary ends the scene with a joke, "Goodbye Mr. Thornhill, wherever you are." This is taken directly from the standard farewell greeting of then-popular comedian Jimmy Durante.
The scenes of the bi-plane trying to run Cary Grant down are exactly the same as in the movie "The Shadow of the Eagle (1932) Chapter 1". In that movie a bi-plane is trying to run down John Wayne in the very same fashion on a deserted country road.
When Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) opens her black purse in the Chicago hotel room, one can see a Bergdorf Goodman label inside. Hitchcock rejected the wardrobe designed by Edith Head and selected all of Saint's clothes at Bergdorf's, while in New York.
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. Sir 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 movie without any further mention ever being made of him, or an explanation of his absence being given.
MGM put a great deal of pressure on Sir 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 one hundred 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 movie, regardless of production time or cost.
The final chase scene was not shot on Mt. Rushmore. Sir 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.
Sir 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."