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'North by Northwest' still full of thrills and chills

The Hitchcock film keeps viewers on the edge 50 years on. The AFI Fest is having a screening, and a DVD will be released.

November 02, 2009|Susan King

Who can forget those images -- Cary Grant on a deserted highway being chased by a crop dusting plane? Grant and Eva Marie Saint scampering over the president's noses on Mt. Rushmore as they are pursued by a group of nefarious spies?

Then there's the pulsating score by Bernard Herrmann, one of the great screen composer's most evocative works.

In fact, Alfred Hitchcock's romantic thriller "North by Northwest" is so viscerally entertaining, it's hard to believe the classic is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The AFI Fest and Warner Home Video are marking this anniversary with a screening tonight of a newly remastered digital print made from original VistaVision elements at the Mann Chinese Theatre I with stars Saint and Martin Landau on hand. On Tuesday, Warner Home Video is releasing a 50th-anniversary edition of the film on Blu-ray and DVD.

(Before the screening of "North by Northwest," there will be a screening of the documentary "Something's Gonna Live," which examines such veteran production designers as 100-year-old Robert Boyle, who designed the Hitchcock masterwork.).

Saint and Landau

Penned by Ernest Lehman, "North by Northwest" stars Grant as a "Mad Men" type (even Don Draper didn't look that good in a suit) who is mistaken for an international spy. He finds himself being chased by some truly bad guys (played by James Mason and Landau) and the authorities, who believe he committed a murder. Saint is on hand as the cool blond love interest.

Saint had just given birth to a daughter when she received the script to "North by Northwest." An Oscar winner for 1954's "On the Waterfront," she recalls that when she read the script she was a bit surprised that her character didn't make her entrance until after Grant's, Mason's and Landau's. But her husband changed her mind. "He read it and said it's a wonderful script."

"Little did I know," Saint says, laughing.

Landau, who won an Oscar playing Bela Lugosi in 1994's "Ed Wood," appeared in "North by Northwest" as the henchman Leonard.

Hitchcock had caught him on opening night in Los Angeles in Paddy Chayefsky's play "Middle of the Night," in which he played a macho musician.

Hitchcock, perfectionist

"The next thing I knew I got a call saying Mr. Hitchcock wanted to meet with me at MGM," Landau says. "He greeted me nicely and took me on a tour of several offices because he had all the storyboards on the walls."

The actor was surprised he chose him to play Leonard.

"That character in the play was 180 degrees from the character of Leonard. He said, 'Marty, you have a circus going on inside of you. If you can play that part in the theater you can do this little trinket.' I remember he called it a 'trinket,' which was an odd choice of words."

Landau says that he chose to play Leonard as a homosexual "because he wanted to get rid of Eva Marie with such a vengeance," he says.

"Ernest Lehman actually added a line after he saw some of the dailies which was kind of a brave line in 1958 when we shot it -- my character says, 'call it my woman's intuition.' "

Though Hitchcock was quoted as saying directors should treat actors like cattle, Saint and Landau say that wasn't true.

"He was so dear," says Saint. "When I was in my black dress with the red embossed roses for a scene, I was getting coffee in a Styrofoam cup. He said, 'I can't have my leading lady drinking from a Styrofoam cup. Get her coffee in a china cup and a saucer."

But Hitchcock did live up to his reputation as a perfectionist. "The dresses, the jewels, every hair on my head he examined before he did the scene."

Landau recalls that Hitchcock never gave him any direction.

"If anything, I felt a little left out because he would whisper stuff to Cary or James or Eva Marie. I would say, 'Is there anything you want to tell me?' and he said, 'Martin, I will only tell you if I don't like what you are doing.' Then he would walk away."

For information on the screening to go www.afifest.bside.com.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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