Each week, this column will cover one film on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, covering my general thoughts on the film and whether or not I think it belongs on the list. You can also see my personal ranking here. This week’s film is #55 on the list: North by Northwest (1959).
One of the greatest cinematic pleasures I’ve ever had was seeing North by Northwest for the first time on a big screen. Not only is it one of the most bright and vibrant films in Hitchcock’s filmography, but it’s also his most grandiose, with the iconic action-packed finale taking place on Mount Rushmore (and that’s not even the film’s most iconic sequence!). It’s a staggering departure for a filmmaker who’s notorious for wringing tension out of single-location thrillers like Rear Window, Rope, and Dial M for Murder. On top of that, it also shows another side of Hitchcock, blending multiple genres into one: it’s a gripping spy thriller, a breathtaking action/adventure, a hilarious comedy of mistaken identity, and a romance featuring some of the best kissing in cinematic history. Especially after revisiting The Philadelphia Story last week, it’s invigorating to see a filmmaker take on so many different genres and perfectly mix them into one exciting, harmonious result. Cary Grant can’t help but exude charisma, but his scenes with Eva Marie Saint are some of the most commanding in his career. Typically a lengthy romantic introduction sequence, like the one on the train here, arriving 40 minutes into a fast-paced thriller would lose an audience’s attention, but Hitchcock manages to make their burgeoning romance feel just as engaging as the action scenes—it’s like an elegant waltz mixed with a tense standoff. In a career filled with hailed masterpieces, North by Northwest is a singular achievement.
Does It Belong on the List?
I’ve previously said yes for Rear Window and Psycho, and I still have Vertigo left to revisit, but even though it isn’t close to my favorite Hitchcock film, North by Northwest is definitely the best of the four on the list, and more importantly, it’s the most deserving of Hitchcock’s entire career, showcasing his awe-inspiring range as a filmmaker.