Fifty years on, you could say that Hitchcock’s sleek, wry, paranoid thriller caught the zeitgeist perfectly: Cold War shadiness, secret agents of power, urbane modernism, the ant-like bustle of city life, and a hint of dread behind the sharp suits of affluence. Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill, the film’s sharply dressed ad exec who is sucked into a vortex of mistaken identity, certainly wouldn’t be out of place in ‘Mad Men’. But there’s nothing dated about this perfect storm of talent, from Hitchcock and Grant to writer Ernest Lehman (‘Sweet Smell of Success’), co-stars James Mason and Eva Marie Saint, composer Bernard Herrmann and even designer Saul Bass, whose opening-credits sequence still manages to send a shiver down the spine.
Hitchcock breezes through a tongue-in-cheek, nightmarish plot with a lightness of touch that’s equalled by a charming performance from Grant (below), who copes effortlessly with the script’s dash between claustrophobia and intrigue on one hand and romance and comedy on the other. The story is a pass-the-parcel of escalating threats, all of them interior fears turned inside-out: doubting mothers, untrustworthy lovers, vague government handlers, corrupt cops. Within minutes of the film’s opening, shady strangers in a hotel lobby mistake Thornhill for a ‘George Caplin’ and from there we sprint from country house to the United Nations, from the ticket hall of Grand Central Station to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Thornhill’s ignorance of his fate and complete lack of control offer Hitchcock a brilliant blank canvas on which to experiment with a story that would sound ludicrous on paper, yet it feels like anything’s possible in Lehman’s playful script. ‘I’m an advertising man, not a red herring,’ says Thornhill. He couldn’t be more mistaken.
Cast and crew
Eva Marie Saint
Leo G Carroll
Jessie Royce Landis