North by Northwest is a spy thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, Leo G. Carroll, James Mason, Jessie Royce Landis, and Martin Landau.
Roger Thornhill (Grant) is an ad exec just living his life when he gets mistaken for "George Kaplan," a government agent being hunted by an enemy of state named Vandamm (Mason). He winds up falsely but credibly accused of murdering a diplomat, going on the run, hopping a train, bedding a beautiful woman named Eve (Saint) who happens to be in Vandamm's employ, and getting chased by a crop duster (that's the scene everyone knows).
As it happens, Kaplan doesn't exist - he's a decoy created by the US government to lead Vandamm astray while their actual agent, Eve, gathers intel on him. Since rescuing Thornhill would compromise their operation, their chief, "the Professor" (Carroll) just kinda says "screw it, let him twist," but Thornhill is clever and lucky enough to stay alive until it becomes more useful to use him to pretend to be Kaplan to cement Eve's cover.
So, that right there is a very succinct summary of the movie, and it doesn't touch on the last third of the film (which involves the climactic fight on Mount Rushmore, the MacGuffin, the gun loaded with blanks, or the film's famous ending shot symboling, um, bonin'). It's safe to say, though, that like most Hitchcock films, this movie is tight, not a shot is wasted, and it paved the way for the James Bond franchise in a lot of ways.
The chemistry between Grant and Saint is pretty amazing, but the performance that kinda stood out to me was Martin Landau as Leonard, Vandamm's henchman who makes Eve as a plant. He's loyal and clever, and is obviously not enjoying delivering bad news to his boss. It's a small thing, but I enjoyed that scene very much.
Also of note is Thornhill's weird relationship with his mother (Landis); he takes her along in his initial investigation of "Kaplan" (after he's been kidnapped, forcibly intoxicated, and then manages to escape his assailants), but bribes her to go get a key from Kaplan's hotel. Their relationship is oddly familiar and adversarial, and hints to Thornhill having a kind of roguish side (as does the mention that he can drink with the best of them).
All in all, there's a lot to see here even in what more or less amounts to an action movie, and honestly it kind of puts later spy movies to shame in a lot of ways. I don't want to be one of those "oh, movies were better back in the day" because that's not really what happens (what happens is that good movies stand the test of time no matter when they're made), but it's nice to see a spy thriller that takes its time and is still playful.
My Grade: A
Rewatch value: Medium
Next up: Now & Then