The Style of North By Northwest
North by Northwest is looked at as one of the greatest films of all time. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, this movie came out in in 1959 and captured the public's attention immediately. Its two leads played by Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint go up against the cunning antagonists played by Martin Landau and James Mason. The film is filled with spies, romance, adventure, criminal empires, and daring escapes – consequently the style is certainly something worth taking a look at.
While much has been written about Eva Marie Saint's style in the film, we're going to focus on the costuming choices surrounding Cary Grant, Martin Landau, and James Mason. As a men's lifestyle brand we're a bit more qualified to talk about their suits than Eva Marie Saint's (admittedly stunning) wardrobe.
Saint is recorded saying this about the fashion in the film:
“Hitchcock made everybody in the picture dress in a classic style… He didn’t want the picture to date because of the clothes. There’s not one outfit I couldn’t wear today with a few minor adjustments and not look stylish.” (3)
Classic is right. So much about this film's approach to fashion has gone on to influence subsequent generations of filmmakers. Even today, a man dressed like Cary Grant's character would be looked at as well dressed. The style of North by Northwest is timeless and will forever be remembered as iconic.
First let's take a look at Martin Landau. While he would go on to have an incredible career, North by Northwest was one of Landau's first films. He plays Leonard like such a experienced actor that it's hard to believe he was still new to the business during this performance. His character is the main antagonist's right hand man (and according to Landau in love with his boss). His character is an intimidating and dangerous man whose wardrobe may be just as lethal as his personality.
The suits he wears in the film are impeccably made and tailored. The range of grey tones and subtle textures are classic and suit his character perfectly. According to Landau, Hitchcock took him to Grant's tailor in Beverly Hills (without Grant's knowledge) to have his suits made. Upon arriving to the set in one of said suits Landau was approached by Grant's valet/assistant, Ray Austin.
"'Excuse me, Mr Grant would like to know where you got that suit.’ I said, 'I beg your pardon?’ He repeated the question, adding, 'Only two people in the world make a suit like that, one’s in Beverly Hills, the other is in Hong Kong.’ . . . I suggested that he had better have this conversation with Mr Hitchcock. He said, 'Oh! Are you in the film?’" (1)
Apparently Cary Grant had noticed the stand out suit in a crowd of onlookers and sent Austin over to investigate. This says a lot about the character Leonard's level of taste. In the film Leonard is meticulous and dedicated so it makes sense that he would dress well and invest in his own image. This is proven in Grant's acknowledgment of Landau's wardrobe. Cary Grant was a notoriously well dressed man and could spot good taste a mile away. For him to pick Landau out of a crowd because of the suit he was wearing says a lot about Leonard's style game.
One could also argue that because of his hidden infatuation with his boss, Leonard is attempting to dress in a way that the sophisticated Vandamm would approve of. While he never makes any move on Vandamm (who is obviously straight) his clothing choices might be considered a silent cry for attention.
Next we'll have a look at James Mason playing the deviously elegant Phillip Vandamm. Mason plays the quintessential debonair and charming villain with relish. As an enemy spy he is both ruthless and capable of civilized conversation. His banter with Grant's character is unexpectedly delightful and his shock at Eve's betrayal shows he's much more than his profession. He has a vein of romanticism which distinguishes his antagonist from the majority of film's baddies.
The fact that he's a character who prefers to command others into action instead of acting himself is reflected in his wardrobe. He dresses stylishly in an array of tweeds, making him seem more like an english gentleman than someone truly evil. His delightful diction and suave style contrasts with his underhanded motives to create a truly fascinating character.
Just look at his outfit for the confrontation between himself and Cary Grant's character in the Mount Rushmore cafeteria. His olive waist coat with silver buttons serves to create an extra layer of comfort while elevating his style. In fact, the character of Vandamm seems to consistently dress in classy coziness when possible. The more dangerous he is in that moment, the more relaxed his fashion. This doesn't mean he's lounging in sweatpants and a tee shirt, rather he embraces a style of leisure typical of the upper classes.
When he dresses to make his getaway, Vandamm goes as far as to wear a cardigan under his suit jacket. His luxurious looking sweater softens his look and once again creates a dichotomy between how he presents himself and how he acts.
It's also been pointed out that Vandamm's tie is a reference to the Royal Highland Fusiliers, a possible hint to the character having some sort of military background (2). Though given his own preference to delegate the dirty work, it's possible Vandamm's service was focused in strategy or some other non-front lines function. It's also possible that his own arrogance has caused him to lapse in training, believing himself safe as the commander of an admittedly dastardly coterie of spies.
The suit Cary Grant's character, Roger Thornhill, wears in the movie is deceptively simple. While it is in the general vein of what many ad men were wearing at the time, there have been a series of custom modifications made at the request of Grant himself. The seemingly average style plays to the fact that Thronhill is essentially an average man caught up in a high stakes conspiracy by accident. The small tailoring changes hint at his character's hidden potential for heroism.
Grant had the vents in his suit extended beyond the typical amount. This combined with his use of matching grey socks and no belt create the illusion of lean lines. the grey of his suit compliments his greying hair, proving once again that Cary Grant is a man who cares about the details. This illusion of height and slimness serves to make Thronhill appear more graceful and confident, so it's really no surprise his adversaries initially mistake him for a spy.
His otherwise greyscale ensemble is contrasted by his rich brown derby shoes and matching sunglasses. The sunglasses serve to direct the audience's attention to both his face and his attempt at traveling incognito. The shoes ground the overall image so his figure isn't blended into the floor or background.
Cary Grant's meticulous approach to style wasn't lost on those around him either. Eva Marie Saint is documented in saying:
“I can’t think of him without thinking of him in a beautiful suit, shirt and tie. I never saw him in jogging clothes or t-shirts; that was such an important part of his image. It was so smart of him. I don’t know any other actor who could do that.” (3)
At the end of the day North by Northwest is one of the truly iconic films in history. While the styling of it's characters weren't solely responsible for the success of the movie, they added an extra layer to the characters. Style in film is about much more than looking good, it's about building a character. It infuses the past that isn't referenced in the film, it references the personality of the wearer, and it establishes the visual tone of the actor on screen. North by Northwest is an example of this philosophy being executed masterfully and taking the time to appreciate it is no hardship.
What did you think of the style in North by Northwest? Were we missing anything? Let us know in the comments below or on social media!