Monday, January 23, 2012

Garage Tale: Creating “North by Northwest”*

At the behest of my wife, I’m slowly wending my way through our ridiculously over-crowded garage, exploring box after box of six decades of never throwing anything out.
The other day, I discovered 20 pages of photo-copied notes from the legendary screenwriter Ernest Lehman (1915-2005) regarding “North by Northwest,” the classic 1959 thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason.
I received the notes years ago from a prominent member of the cast (no name-dropping here) who loved the fact that I was a bit fanatical about the film, having copped to a dozen viewings, owning both the script and the soundtrack, and a belief that “NbN” is Hitchcock’s most entertaining movie and one of his greatest. More than a bit fanatical, I guess.
It’s difficult to recap the movie’s amusing, intricate plot, but here we go: Roger Thornhill (Grant), a slick New York advertising exec, is mistaken for George Kaplan, a U.S. agent on the trail of Phillip Vandamm (Mason), a broker in government secrets. Thornhill escapes from Vandamm and his men, but later is wrongfully accused of murder. Thornhill sneaks on to the 20th Century Limited bound for Chicago, where he believes Kaplan has gone. On the train, Thornhill meets the alluring Eve Kendall (Saint).
In Chicago, Eve allegedly calls Kaplan, and then gives Thornhill directions to meet Kaplan by taking a Greyhound bus to a barren area 90 minutes south of the city. There, a crop-dusting biplane armed with a machine-gun attempts to kill Thornhill, who gets away. He suspects Eve has betrayed him and is in cahoots with Vandamm.
Eventually, Thornhill learns that Eve is a double agent and George Kaplan never existed, a chimera invited by U.S. intelligence to smoke out Vandamm. Thornhill, now assisting the U.S. government, flies to Rapid City, South Dakota, where Vandamm plans to board a small plane near his home close to Mt. Rushmore and fly off with his secrets. Thornhill participates in a charade, pretending that Eve has shot him dead in the Mt. Rushmore cafeteria
Thornhill eventually helps Eve escape, and they thwart Vandamm’s plans, but only after narrowly eluding death along the façade of Mt. Rushmore.
Eighteen pages of Lehman’s notes are single-spaced and primarily concerned with the last act of the movie, notably the scenes in which Eve “shoots” Thornhill in the cafeteria, their escape from the Frank Lloyd Wright-like house owned by the suavely villainous Vandamm and the cliff-hanging (literally) climax.
The notes reveal a writer riffing on various possible scenes and bits of dialogue, some making it into the film, most not. Some highlights:

*The first page is written in Lehman’s hand:
Here are additional notes made during the creating of “North by Northwest.” The “heavy” was called “Tomlinson” because a certain Mr. Tomlinson was then waging a proxy battle against the president of MGM for control of the company. In the picture, we changed his named to Vandamm.
“George Rosen” in the notes became “George Kaplan” in the picture when we recalled that George Rosen was my good friend, the radio & TV editor of weekly Variety.
Ernest Lehman

*“To their surprise (AND OURS) they [Thornhill and Eve] discover that they have arrived at the BACKS OF THE HEADS OF THE MT. RUSHMORE MONUMENT . . . ‘Come on. Looks like we’re going to have to slide down Lincoln’s nose.’”
Thornhill never says that, although a whimsical working title of the movie was “The Man On Lincoln’s Nose.”

*There are references to the MacGuffin (Hitchcock’s name for the thing that motivates the action) as a painting Tomlinson/Vandamm has won at auction and secured microfilm under the frame or canvas. In the movie, Vandamm bids for a pre-Columbian statuette in which he hides the microfilm. At movie’s end, Eve grabs the statuette, thus setting off the famous chase along Mr. Rushmore.

*Lehman speculates that Tomlinson/Vandamm might have kidnapped an important scientist or the scientist’s child, a plot device obviously abandoned, perhaps because Hitchcock’s two versions of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” relied on a child’s kidnapping.

*In one possible ending, Tomlinson/Vandamm gets away in a waiting plane, but without the MacGuffin (still the painting at this point).
Thornhill: “There goes your erstwhile playmate.”
Eve: “Yes—but without his precious painting . . .”
Thornhill: “He’ll find another wherever he’s going.”
Eve: “Not like this one. You haven’t seen it under Ultra-violet light.”
Thornhill: “Secret formulas?”
Eve: “None of your business, Mr. Thornhill.”
Thornhill: “I bet you’d tell me if my head was a pumpkin.”
I’m guessing “pumpkin” is a reference to the Alger Hiss case. In the film, Vandamm gets caught, yet even in custody retains a wryness when he disapproves of the shooting of a trusted lieutenant: “Rather unsporting, don’t you think . . . using real bullets?”

*Lehman devotes a full page of notes justifying the staged-shooting of Thornhill in the cafeteria, its purpose to draw suspicion away from Eve. In the film, when he and Eve briefly reunite, Eve simply tells Thornhill that as a result of their subterfuge she is “much safer now, thanks to you, my darling decoy”—a demonstration how one line of dialogue can encapsulate a screenwriter’s concern over motivation.
Lehman deservedly received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay, but lost to the writers of “Pillow Talk,” a frothy Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedy.
I like “Pillow Talk,” but Ernest Lehman wuz robbed.
*A version of this originally appeared in the New York Daily News book blog, Page Views.


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