North By Northwest spends only one-third of its 2 hour 16 minute running time in New York. So why devote an entire New York, You’ve Changed column to it? Because in just 45 minutes, Hitchcock gave the city one of its most iconic starring rolls of all time – and still had Chicago and Mount Rushmore to go.
The movie opens with Saul Bass’s fantastic opening credits. Symbolic of transportation? Invoking a sense of connectivity, or perhaps being caged? Interpret as you will, or just let them wash over you – either way, they perfectly set the tone for what is to come.
The graphics dissolve into a shot of a modern skyscraper, a New York avenue reflected in its windows. This is 650 Madison Ave (formerly the CIT Building), featured in the movie as Cary Grant’s office building.
Today, 650 Madison is looking a little taller…
This is actually the same building – in fact, the ground floor retail space is very much the same. In 1987, 650 Madison underwent a massive reconstruction, with the addition of 19 stories and a completely reworked facade. Sadly, the windows no longer match up to the opening credits.
As the credits continue, we’re treated to various shots of New York commuters frantically moving about the city. Though many of you shared my deja vu with this one, its location remains a mystery…
Ditto this golden subway entrance, part of the IND Queensboro-8th Avenue line, known as the A-C-E today.
Luckily, the next few shots bring us back to familiar territory: hurried commuters crossing at a busy intersection…
…located at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, looking south toward the New York Public Library:
Hordes of New Yorkers careen down a grand staircase…
…found on the west side of Grand Central:
Two women fight over a cab…
The building on the left is the giveaway – Tiffany’s, on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue looking west:
Hitchcock’s title credit appears over another busy intersection…
Again, shot on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, looking north this time:
Finally, we get the classic Hitchcock cameo as he rushes for a New York City bus…and doesn’t make it in time.
This one took FOREVER to figure out (see the PS for details), but Alfred Hitchcock missed his bus on Madison Avenue between 44th Street and 45th Street. There’s not a lot to go on since the bus is blocking the shot, and quite a lot has changed in the ensuing years, but the slanted skyscrapers in the background match up perfectly:
The movie begins, and we pick up on advertising exec Roger Thornhill (Grant) walking through the lobby of 650 Madison:
This was shot on a set (ha, just watch the elevators carefully for proof). But even if it was based on the real 650 Madison lobby, there’s not much left to see there today: it’s currently going through a second major renovation:
Thornhill and his secretary step magically from the soundstage onto the streets of New York and head north on Madison (note the “650” behind Grant’s head):
Again, this is all under renovation today:
Nothing pleases me more than movie geography that makes sense. Here, Thornhill catches a cab at 60th Street and Madison, right on the corner and in the correct direction to go to the Plaza Hotel:
East 60th and Madison today:
Note that in the film still above, you can see lettering on the building to the far left. The actual raised lettering is long gone, but the imprint remains:
Thornhill takes the cab to the Plaza, and I always assumed the projected backdrop was just a few random New York streets. After all, who would seriously be looking to make sure the route made sense? Well, shame on me for doubting Hitchcock – as I studied it closely, I realized that the drive absolutely makes sense:
Thornhill and his secretary begin on East 60th Street heading west…
They swing around the loop at the south-eastern end of the park…
…and finally, turn right onto East 59th Street:
Wait a minute! If Thornhill is heading west on East 59th Street, how the heck does he end up parking in front of the Plaza – on the opposite side of the street? Surely Hitch must have cheated the shot!
Nope! Again: never doubt the master. You would never notice unless you were looking for it, but if you pay attention, the cab suddenly begins making an insane u-turn on 59th Street…
…swinging fully around…
…and finally parking directly in front of the Plaza. How did they manage it? You can see the police officer just behind Cary Grant’s head holding back three lanes of (presumably pissed off) traffic:
Thornhill pays the cabbie…
…exits the cab…
…and finally, heads into the Plaza:
Continuing to respect the geography of New York, this is actually the door we just saw Thornhill go through (you have no idea how often this would be cheated). He walks past the Plaza’s check-in desk…
Today, things are a bit different around the Plaza. Hotel guests now check-in in a different room altogether, with the original lobby reserved for residents. The old desk is looking pretty bare:
Thornhill swings a right and heads toward the Oak Room bar:
He crosses the hallway (note that storefront on the left)…
…and something doesn’t add up. The corridor is far too wide, and there definitely no store there today.
As it turns out, not only is the hallway a set…
So was the entire Oak Bar.
It’s pretty close, right down to the Everett Shinn murals – but it’s fake.
The real Oak Room today:
I have to admit, right up until when I started writing this article, I’d always assumed they filmed on location in the Oak Room. Hell, I think I even had a drink once where Cary Grant sits in the movie just to say I had. But I first started scratching my head at the shot of the two goons watching Thornhill.
There simply isn’t a place for that jewelry store. Did some research – it was a set.
Mistakenly standing up when a “George Kaplan” is paged, Thornhill is grabbed by the thugs – and returned to the streets of New York for his abduction.
PS – People have written to ask how I find the locations in these features. A lot of times, it’s either obvious, or there’s one dead give-away, like a street sign, or a store name, or an easily identifiable intersection. Other times, it seems impossible, as was the case with the Hitchcock cameo:
- There’s a street sign. It’s not readable, but you can tell it’s short enough to represent a numbered street – meaning Hitch is on an avenue
- The shadows. This HAS to be facing north. The way the sun passes over New York would not allow for this to be facing south
- The filming location pattern: every exterior shot so far has taken place between Fifth and Madison, 42nd Street and 60th Street. It’s unlikely (though possible) that they went somewhere totally random for this.
- The skyscrapers: the answer came from the two skyscrapers farther up the block. The first is blue, the second white, and both feature a sort-of step-up design. It took a few trips up the avenues, but I eventually found it:
Things that misled me:
- The two-way street: Must be Park Ave, right? Nope – Madison was two-way back in 1957. So was Fifth.
- Defunct buildings: the bay window on the left and the buildings on the right would be helpful, except they’re long gone. Spent a long time looking for that bay window
- That little sign: I think it says “Bernace.” Searched hard online for a store existing around 1957 – nothing.
I’m clearly insane. But if you enjoy this sort of insanity, maybe think about donating a few dollars to my film fund?
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