Summer Under the Stars: North by Northwest (1959)

TCM’s star of the day is Eva Marie Saint, and my film pick for the actress is North by Northwest, which airs today at 8:00 P.M. (EST).

This espionage thriller follows New York City advertising man Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) in a case of mistaken identity when a gang of spies led by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) believes him to be a government agent named George Kaplan. After a series of misadventures that include his own kidnapping and then being framed for murder, Roger finds himself on the run from both the law and his captors. Along his cross-country journey, he meets the alluring Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who helps him evade the authorities, but he soon learns she has motives of her own.

In an iconic career that boasted classic thrillers across six decades, North by Northwest is among the very top of Alfred Hitchcock’s most well-regarded films. In fact, when the famed director made this film, he had just finished Vertigo, a film now seen as one of the greatest of all time, and just on the horizon was Psycho, the film he is best remembered for in the pop culture zeitgeist. Hitchcock made North by Northwest as a change of pace from the darker elements found in Vertigo, and it follows similar territory he explored in previous films such as The 39 Steps and Saboteur with an innocent everyman suddenly finding himself on the run from authorities. The director enlisted Ernest Lehman to write the screenplay based on the recommendation of their mutual friend, composer Bernard Herrmann. Lehman said he wanted to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures”, and he incorporated many of the elements associated with the Master of Suspense, though both he and Hitchcock wanted to create something much lighter than the director’s usual fare. North by Northwest became the ninth highest-grossing film of 1959 and earned three Oscar nominations, including one for Best Original Screenplay for Lehman. But of course, the right stars were needed to elevate the material, and Hitchcock found them in his favorite leading man, Cary Grant, and an actress who was seen as atypical for the part, Eva Marie Saint.

Alfred Hitchcock had worked with Cary Grant on three other films before their final collaboration on this film: Suspicion and Notorious in the 1940s, and To Catch a Thief just four years prior to North by Northwest. Grant was the actor Hitchcock wanted for the role from the start, though his other frequent leading man James Stewart had expressed interest in the part while they were making Vertigo. For the role of his signature blonde leading lady, Hitchcock insisted on casting Eva Marie Saint, despite her being primarily known for more dramatic roles in On the Waterfront and A Hatful of Rain. MGM, on the other hand, wanted Cyd Charisse for the part, but the director stood by his choice and ultimately prevailed. His instincts proved him right, and Saint conveyed a glamorous screen persona that impressed critics and audiences alike, as it was a side of the actress that had not been seen from her before. As he often did in his films, Hitchcock also worked closely in creating his star’s image in his films, and he ended up rejecting the studio’s costumes for Saint, taking her instead to Bergdorf Goodman in New York to select a wardrobe that better suited her character. Saint’s role in North by Northwest has become the most well-known of her career, alongside her Oscar-winning turn in her debut film, On the Waterfront.

Before making her big-screen debut, Eva Marie Saint started her acting career in television in the mid-1940s, first working as an NBC page before appearing in several variety shows. In 1949, she was featured in an article of Life magazine, which highlighted the struggles of a young actress trying to find work in New York City. But despite the challenges, Saint continued making a living in TV and radio, while also attending classes at the famed Actors Studio and the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. In 1953, she was cast in the live television production of The Trip to Bountiful alongside Lillian Gish, and both reprised their parts on Broadway later that year. This led to her ultimately winning the role of Edie Doyle in Elia Kazan’s 1954 film On the Waterfront, in which she shared many scenes with star Marlon Brando. She made such an impression in her film debut, she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her sensitive performance (and she received the Oscar just days before her first child was born; you can watch her adorable acceptance speech in which she references her pregnancy here). Saint received similar critical acclaim three years later for the drug-addiction drama A Hatful of Rain, and a Golden Globe nomination was among the awards recognition she received for her work in the film. Following her two acclaimed performances and a couple of other movies, she propelled to stardom with her seductive turn in North by Northwest. Though her career reached promising new heights because of Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Saint chose to limit her projects to spend valuable time with her two children and her husband, TV director Jeffrey Hayden, to who she was married for 65 years until his passing in 2016. Still, throughout the 1960s, she appeared in several high-profile projects as well as more offbeat pictures. Her movie career slowed down by the early 1970s, but she continued working in television, earning five Emmy nominations throughout her career, winning one of them in 1990 for People Like Us. She reemerged on the big screen in the 2000s, appearing in a few movies in supporting parts, including in the role of Martha Kent in Superman Returns. She’s still with us today and is one of the last surviving stars from the classic Hollywood era, and she’s now the oldest living Oscar winner, having just turned 96 on July 4th.

North by Northwest was just the fifth movie in Eva Marie Saint’s career, but it showed she could do much more than playing the dowdy love interest in dramas, as she was starting to become known for. She starred alongside some of the most talented and attractive leading men of the period before and after, from Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront to Paul Newman in Exodus, but her chemistry with Cary Grant here just sizzles off of the screen. Of all the legendary actresses to star in an Alfred Hitchcock film as his famed blonde, she’s my top favorite to play the archetype, and she adds more to the role than meets the eye, holding her own opposite veteran actors such as Grant and James Mason. It’s a movie I rank among my very top favorites, and much of that is due to her captivating presence.

I wrote this as a part of the 2020 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, where bloggers are celebrating the channel’s honorees and movies playing throughout the month. Click the image below to read more posts!

One thought on “Summer Under the Stars: North by Northwest (1959)

  1. One of my favorite Hitchcocks (it always rotates with Rear Window and Notorious as my #1), and both Saint and Grant were a whole mess of fun. This was the first film I rented when I wanted to delve into more Hitchcock, after seeing those re-releases in the theater back in the early ’80s. Though it has nothing to do with the film, it was interesting to learn that Saint is now the oldest living Oscar winner. Neat in a way, but sad.

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