The year was 1959, and Alfred Hitchcock was just coming off the dark, brooding, near-box-office failure of "Vertigo," released the year before. "Vertigo" is now considered one of the greatest movies of all time, but in 1958, critics found it slow and long, and fans were displeased with Hitchcock's departure from his usual romantic thrillers. But Hitchcock returned to his crowd-pleasing ways with the far-less-psychological "North by Northwest," an action movie that ended up being one of his most commercially successful films.

Madison Avenue advertising executive Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) stumbles into a top-secret government case when he is mistaken for a fake spy. The CIA has created "Mr. Kaplan," a nonexistent agent to throw foreign powers off the trail of their actual undercover agents. Those same foreign secret agents believe Thornhill to be Kaplan, sending him running off across the country in an effort to prove that he isn't actually a spy. He falls in love with the devastatingly sexy Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint, who had just come off a hit with Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront"), who turns out to be an undercover secret agent for the CIA posing as Phillip Vandamm's (James Mason) mistress. Vandamm is the evil mastermind running the microfilm-smuggling gang that sells its stolen national secrets to the highest bidder, and now pursues Thornhill. Hitchcock drops hints that these spies are Russian, reflecting the heavy Cold War fear and paranoia of the late '50s.

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But despite the seemingly heady political surroundings, "North by Northwest" comes across as a light-hearted thriller. Cary Grant's snappy advertising man is aways ready with a quick-witted one-liner in the face of danger, managing, in the midst of a paranoid era, to provide a light touch to such serious matters as foreign agents selling American secrets.

Hitchcock both plays to and assuages his audience's fear by ending his thrilling chase scene atop Mount Rushmore. In this scene, the optimistic Thornhill becomes as much an emblem of America as the famous stone faces of presidents, embodying the ability of the average Joe to master whatever problems the world may pose.

Despite all the symbolism, "North by Northwest" never feels heavy-handed, thanks to a fun and fast-paced plot where Thornhill proves his innocence, beats the bad guys, gets the girl, and allows Hitchcock to return to the revered style of his earlier films.

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