“In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie, there’s only the expedient exaggeration.” So says Madison Avenue ad exec Roger Thornhill (the always debonair Cary Grant) at the beginning of the classic 1959 thriller “North by Northwest.” That sentiment doesn’t hold true in the world of movie-making, though, because the striking house that figures at the center of the film’s climax is, in fact, a lie. Easily one of the most famous screen residences of all time, in a sad irony the perilously cantilevered hilltop residence belonging to bad-guy spy Philip Vandamm (James Mason) isn’t actually a residence at all, but an artfully – and deceptively – crafted set that only ever existed inside of a soundstage.
“North by Northwest” (streaming now on HBO Max) has been called “the quintessential Alfred Hitchcock thriller” and it is no stretch to say that Vandamm’s pad is the quintessential villain’s lair. Though it doesn’t make an appearance until an hour and 57 minutes into the flick, the property, purported to abut the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, struck a chord with audiences and remains one of the most talked-about, researched and pursued movie dwellings more than 60 years after the film’s original release.
Born from a singular idea the Master of Suspense pitched to screenwriter Ernest Lehman involving a chase scene taking place across the presidential faces at Mount Rushmore, “North by Northwest“ tells the story of the hapless Thornhill who falls victim to an unfortunate case of mistaken identity at the hands of the villainous Vandamm and his goons. The ensuing complications lead Roger on a thrilling game of cat and mouse played across the U.S., during which he meets and falls in love with mysterious double agent Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). Tantalizing and timeless, the movie effortlessly holds up today, though its seemingly nonsensical title has been a source of constant consternation. Of it, Hitchcock explained, “It’s a fantasy. The whole film is epitomized in the title – there is no such thing as north-by-northwest on the compass.”