The Real Star of North by Northwest is Cary Grant’s Suit

North by Northwest isn’t about what happens to Cary Grant, it’s about what happens to his suit. The suit has the adventures, a gorgeous New York suit threading its way through America. The title sequence in which the stark lines of a Madison Avenue office building are “woven” together could be the construction of Cary in his suit right there—he gets knitted into his suit before his adventure can begin.

Indeed some of the popular “suitings” of that time, “windowpane” or “glen plaid,” reflected, even perfectly complemented office buildings. Cary’s suit reflects New York, identifies him as a thrusting exec, but also protects him, what else is a suit for? Reflects and Protects … a slogan Roger Thornhill himself might have come up with.

The recent usage of calling a guy a “suit” if you don’t like him, consider him a flunky or a waste of space, applies to Cary at the beginning of the film: this suit comes barreling out of the elevator, yammering business trivialities at a mile a minute, with the energy of the entire building. The suit moves with its secretary into the hot evening sun where we can get a good look at it: it’s a real beaut, a perfectly-tailored, beautifully-falling lightweight dusty blue—it might be a gown, you know. I like thinking of it as “dusty” because of what befalls it later.

It’s by far the best suit in the movie: the villains, James Mason and Martin Landau, wear funereal, sinister (though pricy) black, while their greasy henchmen run around in off-the-peg crap. “The Professor,” head of Intelligence, bumbles about in pipe-smoked tweed.

In 1959 we were a white shirt and black suit nation: the revolution was ten years off. There’s a nice photograph of Ernest Lehman, who wrote this picture, sitting in Hitchcock’s office, a black and white office of 1957, natty in a white shirt and black trousers. Some could carry off this look, but if you were forced to dress this way, say if you worked for IBM, it contributed only to the general gloominess of the age. You wonder if life itself was conducted in color then—even the “summer of love” was largely photographed in black and white. Don’t let anyone kid you: the 60s were dreary.

Outside on Madison there, the white shirts blind you, but none of them is quite so white as Cary’s. (Even as someone with experience in theatrical make-up, I have no idea how they kept it off these white, white collars. It drives me nuts.) Non-streaky Cary’s daring and dashing in the most amazing suit in New York. His silk tie is exactly one shade darker than the suit, his socks exactly one shade lighter. In the cab he tells his secretary to remind him to “think thin,” which allows us to regard his suit, how it lies on his physique.

A friend of mine in politics said to me once, “I love wearing suits. They’re like pajamas. You can go around all day doing business in your pajamas.” It has to be said that his suits were pretty nice, particularly so for Boston; whether he meant that he did his business half-asleep only his constituents could say.

The suit strides with confidence into the Plaza Hotel. Nothing bad happens to it until one of the henchmen grasps Cary by the shoulder. We’re already in love with this suit and it feels like a real violation. They bundle him into a limousine and shoot out to Long Island, not much manhandling yet. In fact Martin Landau is impressed: “He’s a well-tailored one, isn’t he?” He loves this suit.

But next Cary tries to escape, there’s a real struggle, they force all that bourbon down his throat… (He later thinks they’ll find liquor stains on the sofa, but if there was that much violence why aren’t there any on the suit?) Cut to Cary being stuffed into the Mercedes-Benz—he’s managed to get completely pissed without even “mussing,” as they say in America, his hair. On his crazy drink-drive, the collar of his jacket is turned the wrong way round. That’s all. He gets arrested, jerked around by the cops, and appears before the judge next morning and the suit and the shirt both look great. But this is the point in the movie where you start to worry about Cary’s personal hygiene. Start to ITCH.

This suit comes barreling out of the elevator, yammering business trivialities at a mile a minute, with the energy of the entire building.

It’s back to the bad guy’s house, then back to the Plaza, looking good. I always hope he’ll grab a quick shower in George Kaplan’s hotel room—he keeps gravitating toward the bathroom. There’s a good suit moment when he tries on one belonging to Kaplan, the guy he’s looking for, who doesn’t exist. Since these suits have been planted by the US Government, they’re stodgy, old-fashioned, unbelievably heavy for a summer in New York, with cuffs on the trousers. “I don’t think that one does anything for you,” says Cary’s mom, and boy is she right. She also contributes the joke that Kaplan maybe “has his suits mended by invisible weavers,” which is what happens to Cary’s suit throughout the picture! His suit is like a mouse victim of repeated cartoon violence—in the next shot it’s always fine.

Off to the United Nations, where the Secretariat looks even more like Cary than his own office building. He also sublimely matches a number of modern wall coverings and stone walls throughout the picture. He pulls a knife out of the guy the villain threw it at, but doesn’t get any blood on himself. There’s a curious lack of blood in North by Northwest; it must be all to save the suit, though they must have ten of them, no? He evades the bad guys again and he scoots over to Grand Central Station, where they have, or had, showers, but he’s probably too busy…

Cary’s wearing dark glasses here, probably not too suspicious given it’s summer. This is what’s ingenious about this picture, at least as far as the SUIT goes—he’s able to travel all over the country in just this one beautiful suit because the weather, the adventure itself, have been planned for the suit by Ernest Lehman! It’s the perfect weather for an adventure in this suit, and that’s why it happens.

At the same time, there’s an effective CREEPINESS about the whole escapade generated by your own fear that in some situation Cary will be inappropriately dressed (Cary GRANT?) and this will hinder him, or that the thin covering the suit provides him will be pierced and here he’s thousands of miles from home with not so much as a top coat. The fears one always has of being too cold in a suit (Glen Cove, Long Island, even on a summer night) or too hot (the prairie, to come). Exposed, vulnerable.

There’s a curious lack of blood in North by Northwest; it must be all to save the suit, though they must have ten of them, no?

He does have some money though, we know that, so he could buy something to wear if he had to, assuming his wallet hadn’t been destroyed if the suit had. But it would actually be too traumatic to see this suit getting totaled, way beyond Hitchcock’s level of sadism. This feeling of exposure, having suddenly to make a desperate journey in just what you have on, comes up earlier in The Thirty-Nine Steps (book and movie) where Richard Hannay is alone in a desolate landscape in inappropriate town clothes, an evil-looking “autogiro” spotting him from the air…

The suit holds for Cary a number of tools. It’s so well cut you can’t tell if he’s even carrying a wallet (turns out he is). He goes all the way from New York to Chicago to the face of Mt. Rushmore with: a monogrammed book of matches, his wallet and some nickels, a wrist watch, two cufflinks, a pencil stub, a hankie, a newspaper clipping, and his sunglasses (but these are shortly to be demolished when Eva Marie Saint squashes him into the upper berth in her compartment). All this stuff fits invisibly into the pockets of the most wonderful suit in the world.

Now he’s sitting in the dining car with Eva Marie. He looks even better groomed than ever. With his deeply tanned, artistically manicured hands, he lights her cigarette. She’s wearing a suit too, sober, fitting her “profession,” though with rather a low neckline.

Does the suit get crushed in the upper berth, even though his Ray Bans are smashed? No. Cary keeps his jacket on in the make-out scene that follows. The suit defines him, he’s not going to take off that jacket. You know this feeling.

When Cary and Eva walk from the train into the station in the morning, her dark suit, which was more like James Mason’s the day before, now matches Cary in a strange way: as he’s wearing a purloined red-cap’s outfit, open at the neck and showing a triangle of snowy white undershirt, she has the same white triangle peeping from under her jacket. Two little innocent white triangles who spent the night together on the train. There might be an opportunity here in Chicago for a shower, you itch, but it looks like he chooses merely to loosen his shirt and have a quick shave, with Eva Marie’s comically small razor.

The suit was temporarily stuffed into her luggage while he made his exit from the train disguised as a red-cap. Has the suit suffered? Has it hell, it looks like a million bucks, his shirt still glows. But now comes the suit’s greatest trial, the crop-dusting scene at “Prairie Stop.” This begins with a nice suit moment when he and the farmer eye up each other’s attire from across the hot highway. Cary gets covered in dust from giant trucks going by (a deliberate and somewhat comic attack on the suit), sweats like a pig (or should, we do), has to throw himself into the dirt, gets sprayed with DDT, then practically gets run over by a tanker, grappling with its greasy undercarriage and writhing around on the asphalt.

After all this and having fled the scene in a stolen pick-up truck, Cary has only his hankie with which to make himself presentable at the Chicago hotel where he thinks “Kaplan” is staying. Still, he’s done a pretty good job—rather than all that stuff that happened to him it looks more like he’s been teaching school all afternoon—just a bit chalky. His tie is still pressed and the shirt is white, even the collar and cuffs. You cannot violate the white shirt of America. You can kill me but you will never kill this shirt.

By the way, Eva Marie enters this scene in a really luxurious dress—a side of her decadent double life with James Mason—and it’s all pretty uncomfortable because now Cary is a DIRTY MAN loose in civilization, too easily spotted… But the suit gets rescued here! Eva Marie tells Cary she’ll have dinner with him if he’ll let the valet clean it! Cary tells her then when he was a kid he wouldn’t let his mother undress him. Eva Marie says, “You’re big boy now.” In one sense Cary’s growing up, from an essentially childish, meaningless New York executive and, you suppose, a playboy, into a man taking charge of sorting his life out. He grows into his suit over the course of the adventure.

In another sense, though, he maybe has a BONER—he’s been sniffing round Eva Marie and suggesting a skirmish. This is all very good, totally neurotic movie dialogue—I don’t know who suffered more, the writer, the actors or the audience in those days.

So Cary takes off the suit, goes into the shower, she gives it to the valet, and she splits! The suit is not there, so Cary is not there. We get to see that he wears yellow boxers, another sign that he’s a daring guy in a “creative” profession—whew! (In the shower he whistles. Long time ago, huh?)

Once Cary gets to the auction gallery, the suit is perfectly restored—that valet is some little “sponger and presser.” He gets in a fist fight (no blood), is arrested, taken to the airport, put on a plane to Rapid City… The next day it’s hot as blazes at Mount Rushmore, but the shirt is clean, the suit’s fantastically smooth, a hot breeze rustles it a little. The monument itself is wearing a rock-like suit in deference to Cary. He’s turning into a rock, too (ignore what I said up there).

Eva Marie arrives in mourning, essentially—black and gray; James Mason is in some kind of weird English country gent get-up, to suggest I guess he’s never been one of us, he’s not long for these shores now. She “shoots” Cary: no blood, of course, as it’s a charade, but wouldn’t you think the CIA would use fake blood? How else are they going to put this over on James Mason? He’s not an idiot. But you can’t do this to the suit or Cary Grant or the audience.

He grows into his suit over the course of the adventure.

Now the suit is in the woods for the “reconciliation” scene with Eva Marie. This suit doesn’t look too bad in the woods, and you reflect that Mt. Rushmore seems a formal national park, there were a lot of people dressed up in the cafeteria, paying their respects… it’s 1959, remember. Cary gets punched out for trying to interfere between the Professor and Eva Marie, AND WHEN HE WAKES UP THE SUIT HAS BEEN CONFISCATED! The Professor has locked him in a hospital room with only a TOWEL to wear (though you feel a lot of relief that he’s had his second shower of the picture). He’s not going anywhere! This then is the real act of cruelty: the Professor brings CARY GRANT a set of hideous clothes from some awful “menswear shop” in Rapid City, you can just imagine the smell of it, Ban-Lon shirts and cheap belts: he gives him an off-white white shirt, a pair of black trousers, white socks and icky black slip-ons.

You get the creeps and realize this whole thing is about insecurity, exposure, clothing anxiety. When Cary escapes out to the window ledge he’s inching his way along in a pair of brand new slip ons which may not fit! Your feet and hands start to sweat at this moment and they don’t stop. But make no mistake: Cary is now in black and white: everything is CLEAR to him, and he acts decisively OUTSIDE the suit, in order to be able to win it back. For us there’s the confusion and disgrace of a badly-dressed Cary: the situation is now a real emergency.

Now he crawls up the stone wall of James Mason’s millionaire’s hideaway, which looks so like the face of the office building in the beginning, the rectangles of a snazzy suit. And in this white shirt with no jacket, Cary is a sitting duck in the bright moonlight! A New Yorker without a jacket on. It is too frightening.

Delightful to discover that in the end, when Cary and Eva Marie are on the train back to New York (she in virginal white nightie), he’s got his suit back. He’s not wearing the jacket (woo-hoo!) but he has a nice clean white shirt and those are definitely the suit’s trousers and his original shoes and the gorgeous socks. Now he knows how to wear that suit.

I managed to acquire a pair of trousers several years ago that were somewhat like Cary’s. They weren’t tailor-made, and weren’t the same quality of material of course, but the color was really close and the hang of them wasn’t bad. And they turned out to be Lucky Trousers, very very Lucky. Until I burned a hole in them. The veneer of civilization is thin, boys. Exceeding thin.


Excerpted from Cary Grant’s Suit: Nine Movies that Made Me the Wreck I Am Today, by Todd McEwen. Copyright, 2023. Published by Notting Hill Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.