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13 Monumental Facts About North by Northwest

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From a murder at the United Nations to a climactic battle on the giant stone faces of four U.S. presidents, North by Northwest has been thrilling audiences with its improbable but highly entertaining story for nearly 60 years. Released in 1959, it was one of a string of hits for Alfred Hitchcock, who had just scored with The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo and would next strike gold with Psycho. Watch out for that crop duster and enjoy these behind-the-scenes facts about an enduring classic. 

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED WHILE ITS WRITER AND DIRECTOR WERE SUPPOSED TO BE WORKING ON SOMETHING ELSE.

MGM hired Ernest Lehman (Sweet Smell of Success) to write the movie version of a novel called The Wreck of the Mary Deare, with Alfred Hitchcock assigned to direct. But Lehman got stuck on the adaptation and told Hitch he needed to find a new writer. Hitchcock, who liked working with Lehman, said, "I have this other idea ..." He'd been working on a story where a man is mistaken for a spy (who turns out not to exist), and about doing a chase sequence across Mount Rushmore. Hitchcock and Lehman developed North by Northwest from there, but neglected to tell MGM that they'd changed courses. When the studio bosses found out, they wisely let Hitch and Lehman do their own thing and reassigned The Wreck of the Mary Deare, which came out a few months after North by Northwest.

2. THE MOVIE WOULDN'T HAVE HAPPENED WITHOUT BERNARD HERRMANN.

The legendary film composer, a Hitchcock collaborator since 1955's The Trouble with Harry, is the one who introduced Hitchcock to Ernest Lehman, thinking they'd hit it off. They did. 

3. JAMES STEWART WANTED TO PLAY THE LEAD.

Stewart had been in four Hitchcock movies at this point, and he wanted North by Northwest to be the fifth. But while Hitch loved him, he didn't think he was right for the glibly debonair Roger Thornhill. He wanted Cary Grant for the part. Not wanting to hurt Stewart's feelings, Hitchcock waited until Stewart was committed to another film (Bell, Book and Candle) before casting the role. 

4. CARY GRANT HAD NO IDEA WHAT WAS GOING ON.

The star found the screenplay baffling, and midway through filming told Hitchcock, "It's a terrible script. We've already done a third of the picture and I still can't make head or tail of it!” Hitchcock knew this confusion would only help the film—after all, Grant's character had no idea what was going on, either. Grant thought the film would be a flop right up until its premiere, where it was rapturously received. 

5. PART OF IT WAS SHOT SECRETLY.

You wouldn't expect Hitchcock to have to sneak around, but even the Master of Suspense was no match for the United Nations, which did not allow filming at its New York headquarters, not even in the plaza outside. So to get the shot where Grant walks into the building, Hitchcock hid a camera in a nondescript truck and filmed in secret from across the street. 

6. ALFRED HITCHCOCK OFFENDED THE POLICE.

Cinematographer Robert Burks recalled how the director, frustrated with the inefficiency and costliness of paying for police protection again and again when shooting on location, referred to New York's finest as "New York's worst" in an interview. Well, when the crew arrived at their next location, The Plaza Hotel, there was no police protection. That's what you get, Hitch.

7. ONE LINE OF DIALOGUE WAS CENSORED.

During Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint's first meeting on the train, she says, "I never discuss love on an empty stomach." But as you can see pretty easily if you watch her mouth, what she actually said was, "I never make love on an empty stomach." This was considered too saucy for a respectable movie, and Saint re-dubbed the line.

8. DON'T WORRY—GRANT WAS NOWHERE NEAR ANY CROP DUSTERS.

The crop duster plane was filmed separately (out near Bakersfield, California, not Indiana). Then Grant was filmed on a studio set diving into a fake ditch while the plane footage unspooled on a screen behind him. Hollywood magic! (No crops were harmed.)

9. THE INFAMOUS INNUENDO AT THE END WAS ALL HITCHCOCK.

One of the things North by Northwest is famous for is its concluding shot of a train entering a tunnel, which serves as a visual pun for the main characters' planned night of romance. Hitchcock considered it one of his finest, naughtiest achievements. And he gets all the credit, too: Lehman's screenplay just ended with "the train heads off into the distance," or words to that effect. "There's no way I can take credit for [the tunnel]," Lehman said, adding: "Dammit."

10. THE PEOPLE IN CHARGE OF MOUNT RUSHMORE WERE NOT AMUSED.

The U.S. Department of the Interior was (and is) very careful about preserving the sanctity of the Mount Rushmore monument in South Dakota. Hitchcock was given permission to film on site, but only if he promised not to depict any acts of violence taking place on the presidents' faces, or to let his actors run around disrespectfully on the heads. Well, just before the Mount Rushmore shoot was scheduled to begin, Hitchcock described his intentions to a local newspaper reporter in a way that suggested he was going to let his cast frolic on Lincoln's face after all. Learning of this, the Interior Department yanked Hitchcock's permit on the grounds of "patent desecration."

Hitch and company spent a day filming in the parking lot and in the memorial's cafeteria (where Eva Marie Saint "shoots" Cary Grant), and got plenty of footage of the memorial (without actors) from various angles. The bulk of the climactic scene was shot on a very realistic mock-up of Mount Rushmore in Los Angeles—but this proved problematic as well, as Hitchcock's team did such a good job that people believed the climax really had been filmed on Mount Rushmore (a misconception that Hitch happily encouraged). To counter this, the Interior Department demanded that MGM remove the credit at the end of the film thanking them for their cooperation, since, in fact, nearly everything Hitchcock had done had been against their wishes. 

11. THE MOVIE TOOK LONGER THAN EXPECTED TO MAKE, BUT GRANT DIDN'T MIND.

That's because in addition to his $450,000 salary ($3.7 million in 2016 dollars) and a share of the profits, Grant was paid $5000 (adjusted for inflation: $41,000) per day for every day the production ran over schedule. And it ran way over schedule: shooting hadn't even begun yet when Grant's seven weeks were up and the daily bonuses started kicking in. This lasted for 78 days, or $390,000 worth (adjusted for inflation: $3.2 million).

12. THE TITLE DOESN'T REALLY MEAN ANYTHING.

Some people have assumed "north by northwest" is a reference to a line from Hamlet: "I am but mad north-northwest: when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw." But Hitchcock and Lehman said it had nothing to do with that. By Lehman's account, it was much simpler: he noticed that the action started in New York, then moved to Chicago, South Dakota, and (in an earlier draft) Alaska—a northwesterly direction. "North by northwest" isn't a real compass direction (though northwest by north is); it is therefore symbolic of the film's improbable, unpredictable plot. 

13. SOME PEOPLE THINK HITCHCOCK HAS A SECOND CAMEO—IN DRAG.

The director's trademark cameo is at the beginning of the film, as he tries to board a bus just as its doors are closing. But some 44 minutes into the movie, there is a female train passenger who some fans think is Hitchcock in disguise. It certainly does look like him. But while Hitch wasn't above dressing in drag for the sake of a joke, he was more rotund than this woman, who seems to have merely been endowed with his face. 

Additional sources:
DVD bonus materials
American Film Institute

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The 10 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix Right Now
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Disney/Marvel

If you’re in the mood for some speculative fiction and your pile of Arthur C. Clarke books has been exhausted, you could do worse than to tune in to Netflix. The streaming service is constantly acquiring new films in the sci-fi and fantasy genres that should satisfy most fans of alternative futures. Here are five of the best sci-fi movies on Netflix right now.

1. CUBE (1997)

This low-budget independent film may have helped inspire the current "escape room" attraction fad. Six strangers wake up in a strange room that leads only to other rooms—all of them equipped with increasingly sadistic ways of murdering occupants.

2. METROPOLIS (1927)

Inspiring everything from Star Wars to Lady Gaga, Fritz Lang’s silent epic about a revolt among the oppressed people who help power an upper-class city remains just as visually impressive today as it did nearly 100 years ago.

3. TROLL HUNTER (2010)

A Norwegian fairy tale with bite, Troll Hunter follows college-aged filmmakers who convince a bear trapper to take them along on his exploits. But the trapper fails to disclose one crucial detail: He hunts towering, aggressive trolls.

4. NEXT (2007)

Nic Cage stars a a magician who can see a few minutes into the future. He's looking to profit with the skill: the FBI and others are looking to exploit it.

5. THE HOST (2006)

A slow-burn monster movie from South Korea, The Host has plenty of tense scenes coupled with a message about environmental action: The river-dwelling beast who stalks a waterfront town is the product of chemical dumping.  

6. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOLUME 2 (2017)

Marvel's tale of a misfit band of space jockeys was a surprise hit in 2014. The sequel offers more Groot, more Rocket Raccoon, and the addition of Kurt Russell as a human manifestation of an entire sentient planet.

7. STARDUST (2007)

Director Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel features Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro as supporting players in the tale of a man (a pre-Daredevil Charlie Cox) in search of a fallen star to gift to his love.

8. KING KONG (2005)

Director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) set his considerable sights on a remake of the 1933 classic, with the title gorilla pestered and exploited by opportunistic humans.

9. DONNIE DARKO (2001)

What will a teenage mope do when a giant rabbit tells him the world is about to end? The answer comes in this critical and cult hit, which drew attention for its moody cinematography and an arresting performance by a then-unknown Jake Gyllenhaal.  

10. ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

Soon we'll have a movie for every single major or minor incident ever depicted in the Star Wars universe. For now, we'll have to settle for this one-off that explains how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on the plans for the Death Star.

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9 False Rumors With Real-Life Consequences
King Louis XV of France
King Louis XV of France
Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Don’t believe everything you read—or everything you hear. Unverified but plausible-sounding rumors have been the basis for violent death and destruction throughout history, whether or not the stories had anything to do with the truth.

In their book A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall describe rumors as “stories of perceived importance that lack substantiating evidence.” They also note that the sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani describes rumors as “improvised news,” which tends to spread when the demand for information exceeds supply. Such an information deficit most often occurs during wars and other crises, which might explain why some rumors have had such dramatic results. Here’s a selection of some of the most interesting rumors with real-life results collected in Bartholomew and Hassall’s book.

1. KING LOUIS XV WAS KIDNAPPING CHILDREN.

In 1750, children began disappearing from the streets of Paris. No one seemed to know why, and worried parents began rioting in the streets. In the midst of the panic, a rumor broke out that King Louis XV had become a leper and was kidnapping children so that he could bathe in their blood (at the time, bathing in the blood of children was thought by some to be an effective leprosy cure).

The rumor did have a tiny kernel of truth: Authorities were taking children away, but not to the king’s palace. A recently enacted series of ordinances designed to clear the streets of “undesirables” had led some policemen—who were paid per arrest—to overstep their authority and take any children they found on the streets to houses of detention. Fortunately, most were eventually reunited with their parents, and rumors of the king’s gruesome bathing rituals were put to rest.

2. LONDON WAS GOING TO BE DESTROYED BY AN EARTHQUAKE.

Two small earthquakes struck London at the beginning of 1761, leading to rumors that the city was due for “the big one” on April 5, 1761. Supposedly, a psychic had predicted the catastrophe. Much of the populace grew so panicked that they fled town for the day, with those who couldn’t afford fancier lodgings camping out in the fields. One soldier was so convinced of the impending doom that he ran through the streets shouting news of London’s imminent destruction; sadly, he ended up in an insane asylum a few months later.

3. JEWS WERE POISONING WELLS.

A deep well
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Reports that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children were not uncommon during the Middle Ages, but things took a particularly terrible turn during the spread of the Black Plague. In the 14th century, thousands of Jews were killed in response to rumors that Satan was protecting them from the plague in exchange for poisoning the wells of Christians. In 1321 in Guienne, France alone, an estimated 5000 Jews were burned alive for supposedly poisoning wells. Other communities expelled the Jews, or burned entire settlements to the ground. Brandenburg, Germany, even passed a law denouncing Jews for poisoning wells—which of course they weren't.

4. BRIGANDS WERE TERRORIZING THE FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE.

In July 1789, amid the widespread fear and instability on the eve of the French revolution, rumors spread that the anti-revolutionary nobility had planted brigands (robbers) to terrorize the peasants and steal their stores of food. Lights from furnaces, bonfires, and even the reflection of the setting sun were sometimes taken to be signs of brigands, with panic as the predictable result. Provincial towns and villages formed militias in response to the rumors, even though, as historian Georges Lefebvre put it, “the populace scared themselves.” In one typical incident, near Troyes on July 24, 1789, a group of brigands were supposedly spotted heading into some woods; an alarm was sounded and 3000 men gave chase. The “brigands” turned out to be a herd of cattle.

5. GERMAN-AMERICANS WERE PLOTTING SNEAK ATTACKS ON CANADA.

Officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police marching in a Canada Day parade
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Canada entered World War I in 1914, three years before the United States did. During the gap period, rumors circulated that German-Americans sympathetic to their country of origin were planning surprise attacks on Canada. One of the worst offenders of such rumor-mongering, according to authors Bartholomew and Hassall, was British consul-general Sir Courtenay Bennett, then stationed in New York. In the early months of 1915, Bennett made “several sensational claims about a plan in which as many as 80,000 well-armed, highly trained Germans who had been drilling in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York, were planning to invade Canada from northwestern New York state.” Bizarre as it may sound, there was so much anxiety and suspicion during the period that Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden requested a report on the story, which the Canadian police commissioner determined to be without any foundation whatsoever.

6. THE INDONESIAN GOVERNMENT WAS HUNTING HEADS FOR CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS.

In certain parts of Indonesia, locals reportedly believe—or once did—that large-scale construction projects require human heads to keep the structures from crumbling. In 1937, one island was home to a spate of rumors saying that a tjoelik (government-sanctioned headhunter) was looking for a head to place near a local jetty construction project. Locals reported strange noises and sights, houses pelted with stones, and attacks from tjoelik wielding nooses or cowboy lassos. Similar rumors surfaced in 1979 in Indonesian Borneo, when government agents were supposedly seeking a head for a new bridge project, and in 1981 in Southern Borneo, when the government headhunters supposedly needed heads to stabilize malfunctioning equipment in nearby oil fields. Terrified townspeople began curtailing their activities so as not to be in public any longer than necessary, although the rumors eventually died down.

7. POWERFUL APHRODISIAC GUM WENT ON SALE IN THE MIDDLE EAST.

An assortment of sticks of pink bubble gum
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In the mid-1990s, the Middle East was home to some alarming rumors about aphrodisiacal gum. In 1996 in Mansoura, Egypt, stories began spreading that students at the town’s university had purchased gum deliberately spiked with an aphrodisiac and were having orgies as a result. One local member of parliament said the gum had been distributed by the Israeli government as part of a plot to corrupt Egyptian youth. Mosque loudspeakers began warning people to avoid the gum, which was supposedly sold under the names “Aroma” or “Splay.” Authorities closed down some shops and made arrests, but never did find any tainted gum. Similar rumors cropped up the following year in the Gaza Strip, this time featuring a strawberry gum that turned women into prostitutes—supposedly, the better to convince them to become Shin Bet informants for the Israeli military.

8. SORCERERS WERE PLAGUING INDONESIA.

In the fall of 1998, a sorcerer scare in East Java, Indonesia, resulted in the deaths of several villagers. The country was in crisis, and while protests raged in major cities, some in the rural area of Banyuwangi began agitating for restitution for past wrongs allegedly committed by sorcerers. The head of the local district ordered authorities to move the suspected sorcerers to a safe location, a process that included a check-in at the local police station. Unfortunately, villagers took the suspects’ visits to police stations as proof of their sorcery and began killing them. Anthropologists who studied the incident said the stories of supposed sorcery—making neighbors fall sick, etc.—were based entirely on rumor and gossip.

9. OBAMA WAS INJURED BY A WHITE HOUSE EXPLOSION.

These days, rumors have advanced technology to help them travel. On April 23, 2013, a fake tweet from a hacked Associated Press account claimed that explosions at the White House had injured Barack Obama. That lone tweet caused instability on world financial markets, and the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index lost $130 billion in a short period. Fortunately, it quickly recovered. (Eagle-eyed journalists were suspicious of the tweet from the beginning, since it didn’t follow AP style of referring to the president with his title and capitalizing the word breaking.)

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.

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