North by Northwest

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

31 October

Mount Rushmore completed, 1941

On this day in 1941, the sculpture of four US presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln – was finished on a granite face near Keystone, South Dakota. Sculpted from a mountain known to the Lakota Sioux as the Six Grandfathers, the depiction of the four presidents was masterminded by Gutzon Borglum and carved (after dynamiting to remove the big stuff) by up to 400 workers, each head measuring around 60 feet (18 metres). The gigantic frieze was conceived and created for reasons of promoting tourism, rather than overarching patriotism, and the Rushmore site was chosen because of its good supply of stable granite and its south-easterly orientation, which meant it got a full belt of sunshine. The cost of the project was borne by the federal government, after a campaign spearheaded by Senator Peter Norbeck, of South Dakota, was endorsed by presidents Calvin Coolidge and Franklin D Roosevelt. Gutzon Borglum started carving in 1927 and on his death in March 1941 his son took over. The original plan, for head-to-waist sculptures, was never completed due to a diversion of funds into the war effort after the United States entered the Second World War.

North by Northwest (1959, dir: Alfred Hitchcock)

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular films, both at the time and ever since, North by Northwest is also one of the most famous films to star Cary Grant. It is very similar in storyline to Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps – innocent man on the run from a shadowy spy organisation, forced into the company of an attractive woman who at first does not believe he is what he says he is (an advertising executive in this case). Of the films many achievements, not least of which is the way Hitchcock endows Grant with iconic blue hair and clashing orange skin, is its succession of standout set pieces, also iconic – the United Nations, the cropdusting sequence, Grand Central Station in New York to Mount Rushmore for the finale. Hitchcock wasn’t allowed to film there, and it’s obvious that this big finish is all being concocted back in the studio. Which is a great pity because it throws a wet blanket over what should be a great film’s showstopper. It is said that the original idea for North by Northwest arose from a conversation Hitchcock had with writer Ernest Lehman – who had proposed to him “the ultimate Hitchcock film”, which drew out of Hitchcock the response that he’d always fancied a finale on Mount Rushmore. And here it is.

Why Watch?

  • Saul Bass’s opening titles – first use of kinetic graphics
  • Bernard Herrmann’s pulsing score
  • Was it ever really going to be called “The Man in Lincoln’s Nose”?
  • A smooth James Mason and a villainous Martin Landau

North by Northwest – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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