The Grey Suit Chronicles – Why North by Northwest is still so much fun today

Cary Grant in a scene from "North by Northwest" Margaret Herrick Library photo
Cary Grant in a scene from “North by Northwest”
Margaret Herrick Library photo

North by Northwest” screens tonight in the Sunken Gardens as part of UCSB Arts & Lectures free Hitchcock screenings, and even if you have seen this classic before, it’s always worth the revisit.

Just think: after Alfred Hitchcock delivered his finest, most psychologically dense film, “Vertigo,” he decided to return to the chase, the travelogue in essence, to go back to “The 39 Steps” with this film. “North by Northwest” features a lot of familiar themes from Hitchcock: the innocent man accused, a blonde femme fatale, and familiar landmarks like the United Nations building and Mount Rushmore. This is why video essayist Thom Anderson called Hitchcock a “high tourist” director, for his love of such.

So instead of a review — what are we going to say? — five stars? a must-see? Here are some things to look out for and learn about the film.

It’s all about the grey suit: Cary Grant’s suit takes a lickin’ during the film, but nothing compared to what modern, action-film hero outfits do these days. It survives all sorts of things, including diving headfirst into the dirt in an Indiana cornfield. There’s debate about who actually tailored and designed the suit — either Norton & Sons of London or Quintino’s of Beverly Hills — but it went on to influence men’s fashion afterwards. But back up a year: didn’t Kim Novak sport a feminine equivalent of this suit most of the way through “Vertigo”?

Talking about grey, it certainly is the most prominent color in this Technicolor film. Apart from wood-grain, a majority of the interiors in “North by -” have a grey look to them, well lit by typical Hollywood lighting of the era. It culminates in a shootout over the granite walls of Mt. Rushmore — Grant’s suit turned into landscape.

If you think that the crop-duster scene looks more like California than Indiana (where it supposedly is set), you’re right: the crossroads is located on Garces Highway, near Wasco, north (but not northwest) of Bakersfield. A quick look at Google Maps shows that it looks exactly the same today.

The film is also a lovely example of the lost art of matte painting. The dramatic shot from the roof of the U.N. Building, the one that looks like a Kandinsky painting? That’s a matte shot. The Frank Lloyd Wright-looking building at the top of Mount Rushmore? A matte. There are plenty more examples. The painter was Matthew Yuricich.

Though the phrase, “North by Northwest,” has its origins in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” there’s a bit of product placement in the second half of the film that alludes to the title. It’s pretty cheeky.

Cary Grant walking nonchalantly away from the exploding oil tanker may be one of the first examples of this action-hero trope. It’s certainly one of the most stylish.

James Stewart and Cyd Charisse were originally considered for the two main roles.

How saucy are Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant’s seduction scenes? Both are good to go in what surely made original audiences blush. Hitchcock had to tone down a few lines: “I never make love on an empty stomach” got changed in post. But the naughtiest and most Freudian shot is the last one of the film, one of those shots that make you wonder, “How did they get away with that?”

‘North by Northwest’
When: 8:30 p.m. tonight
Where: Courthouse Sunken Gardens, 1100 Anacapa St.
Cost: Free
Information: www.artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu

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