North by Northwest (1959), written by Ernest Lehman, is a classic.
- Draft Read: 8-15-58
- Type: Shooting
- Page Count: 181
- Reading Speed: Slow
- Setting(s): NYC, Train, Chicago, Mount Rushmore
- Plot Structure: Linear, spanning multiple days
- Genre(s): Action/Adventure, Thriller, Love
- Theme(s): Love, Crime, Cold War, Mystery
- Protagonist Change: Moderate
This is an old-style script and reads like one: action paragraphs and cheeky dialogue. But it’s a fun read and has an excellent plot.
Why’s that? Perhaps it’s because we don’t have any idea what’s going on until page 59 (31% of the way through the script). That’s not entirely true, we know that Thornhill has been kidnapped and fled from his attackers, but we don’t know the why, i.e. why a well-to-do advertising executive was kidnapped. And that keeps us hooked.
The script combines beats from a few different genres, such as who-done-it, thriller and love story, and adventure, which together help keep the story moving forward. Hitchcock was
an the expert when it came to McGuffin, red herrings, etc. and they are used expertly here.
With that said, there are some plot holes and somewhat ridiculous scenes. For example, on page 63 Thornhill informs his mother that he can’t turn himself into the police, even though it would become clear after he spoke to the Long Island detectives that someone was impersonating Townsend. Small details, I know…
A marketing executive is kidnapped by a secretive organization that has mistaken him for someone else. The story gets deeper with many twists and turns. The plot is linear.
Roger Thornhill, Eve Kendall are well thought out. Some of the other characters are one-dimensional, such as Phillip Vandamm and Clara Thornhill. Then there are characters like Leonard whose overall purpose remains unclear to me.
Dialogue & Pacing
Cheeky dialogue. Here’s one example:
I’m a big girl.
THORNHILL (nibbling away)
In all the right places, too.
I presume that is the 1959 equivalent of an X-rated scene?
What’s wrong with men like me?
They don’t believe in marriage.
I’ve been married twice.
See what I mean?
There are a couple of other spots where the dialogue has more clear messages, such as commentary on the ridiculousness of the Cold War.
The pacing was quick too. The plot is a wild goose chase from NYC to Chicago, ending on Mount Rushmore. The action paragraphs could bog down the reading pace, but it read quickly overall.
I wouldn’t call it an impactful movie but a fun one. It doesn’t have the same staying power as some of Hitchcock’s other works, such as Psycho (1960) or Vertigo (1958). Why’s that? That’s a topic for someone far more familiar with pop culture and the business side of filmmaking than myself. But I would wager that the more primal fears expressed through the latter films have something to do with it.
Best Part of The Script
- Act 1 (until page 59) does a great job of establishing the stakes.
- The dialogue between Thornhill and Eve (see two examples above).
- The scene in the Chicago train station where Thornhill pretends to be a Porter.