If you've seen any of Alfred Hitchcock's films, the basic plot of this films should hardly be new to you: everyday sales executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is just going about a normal day and taking care of a business deal when two thugs mistake him for a government agent named George Kaplan. Subsequently Thornhill is kidnapped and brought by force to a mansion apparently belonging a man who identifies himself as Mr. Townsend (played by James Mason) who stubbornly resists all of Thornhill's attempts to explain who he is.
Things only escalate from here as poor Thornhill just barely escapes a murder attempt only to be charged with drunk driving, framed for murder, and eventually ends up travelling across the country trying to escape both the police and the crooks all while trying to clear his name and find the man he has been mistaken for (who doesn't exist). The only person he can turn to for help is a young woman named Eve Kendell (Eva Marie Saint), who he may or may not be able to trust. Oh, and Alfred Hitchcock makes a cameo as a guy who misses the bus. So pretty much a typical day in his movies.
Cary Grant is a lot of fun in the role of Thornhill, providing the right mix of emotions; charm, confusion, fear, concern, determination. He does get to show a more humorous side in this case as well, something helped by the fact that the film never seems to take itself too seriously while at the same time never getting too crazy or over-the-top. It's a difficult balance but one that they manage rather well.
Naturally, this being a film from 1959, there are some social differences, but nothing too serious. The biggest concern I could bring up is that Grant does adopt the sort of "alpha male" persona I have criticized in the past (amusingly, Grant's reputation as the "ideal American male" by the standards of the time was a pure fabrication by Hollywood; in real life he was exactly the opposite). Fortunately, unlike say... James Bond, Roger Thornhill is able to control his sexual urges enough to make that aspect of his character tolerable.
James Mason is also great, as always. His performance as the villain provides a strange balance of acting like a gentleman and persistently scheming to kill the protagonist. (Fun fact: this was only the third film I saw James Mason act in, and the first that was not adapted from a Jules Verne novel; having previously been introduced to him through the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth and the earlier 1954 Disney film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Meanwhile, Eva Marie Saint provides an interesting spin on the classical "femme fatale", bringing in a few strange twists and turns to her character.
Still, since this is a spy-themed blogathon let's look at North By Northwest as a spy film. It certainly becomes one by the end, even if it might not seem to be at first. The story goes from an ordinary man trying to clear his name to a love story to a desperate race against time to stop an internationally operating criminal. Roger Thornhill starts off as an everyday man but he has to assume the identity of a spy named George Kaplan for most of the film, which forces him to sometimes get really creative when the bad guys seem to have him cornered (one of the best scenes in the film is when he is stuck in an auction, with all obvious exits being guarded... so he deliberately causes enough trouble to warrant the staff calling the police to escort him out).
North By Northwest is a compelling and interesting variation on the spy genre, and Roger Thornhill is worthy to join the ranks of some of cinema's greatest spies, even if he never wanted to be one in the first place. This is a guy who stumbled into an international criminal syndicate thanks to a slight misunderstanding and on his own managed not only to constantly remain one step ahead of experienced killers but also went on to play a crucial role in finally taking them down.