The Complete NY Filming Locations of North By Northwest

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.

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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.

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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.

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Today, 650 Madison is looking a little taller…

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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…

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Ditto this golden subway entrance, part of the IND Queensboro-8th Avenue line, known as the A-C-E today.

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Luckily, the next few shots bring us back to familiar territory: hurried commuters crossing at a busy intersection…

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…located at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, looking south toward the New York Public Library:

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Hordes of New Yorkers careen down a grand staircase…

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…found on the west side of Grand Central:

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Two women fight over a cab…

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The building on the left is the giveaway – Tiffany’s, on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue looking west:

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Hitchcock’s title credit appears over another busy intersection…

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Again, shot on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, looking north this time:

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Finally, we get the classic Hitchcock cameo as he rushes for a New York City bus…and doesn’t make it in time.

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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:

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The movie begins, and we pick up on advertising exec Roger Thornhill (Grant) walking through the lobby of 650 Madison:

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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:

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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):

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Again, this is all under renovation today:

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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:

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East 60th and Madison today:

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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:

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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:

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Thornhill and his secretary begin on East 60th Street heading west…

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They swing around the loop at the south-eastern end of the park…

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…and finally, turn right onto East 59th Street:

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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!

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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…

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…swinging fully around…

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…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:

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Thornhill pays the cabbie…

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…exits the cab…

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…and finally, heads into the Plaza:

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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…

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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:

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Thornhill swings a right and heads toward the Oak Room bar:

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He crosses the hallway (note that storefront on the left)…

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…and something doesn’t add up. The corridor is far too wide, and there definitely no store there today.

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As it turns out, not only is the hallway a set…

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So was the entire Oak Bar.

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It’s pretty close, right down to the Everett Shinn murals – but it’s fake.

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The real Oak Room today:

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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.

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There simply isn’t a place for that jewelry store. Did some research – it was a set.

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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.

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Click here for Part 2!

-SCOUT

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:

add22 Every NY locations book I looked in had this wrong (one said he was standing outside 650 Madison; another said the Plaza). Here’s how I figured it out:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

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Things that misled me:

  1. The two-way street: Must be Park Ave, right? Nope – Madison was two-way back in 1957. So was Fifth.
  2. 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
  3. That little sign: I think it says “Bernace.” Searched hard online for a store existing around 1957 – nothing.

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35 comments

  1. Fascinating! Can’t wait for the next installment. Great detective work, too!

  2. Wonderful! I happened to watch this movie this weekend, and a friend saw the tweet about this post. How fun to see your accomplishment! Can’t wait for the next part. :)

  3. Glad to know that there are others as obsessed with NXNW as me!

  4. I saw NORTH BY NORTHWEST–one of my very favorite movies–on a big screen for the first time in years last week and still have it on the brain, so this is an even more awesome post than usual. Thanks!

  5. Man, that is one lazy Cary Grant, taking a taxi two blocks!

    • His secretary asks if they should get a cab, he replies ‘to go two blocks?’, she says she’s tired (or something along those lines)

    • i believe his line was, “for 2 blocks? you know that’s your problem, you don’t eat right. you need to get more excercise.”

  6. Aww… I have the same sense of disappointment that the Oak Bar is a set and not the real thing. I’ve been there many times, and always felt that sense of satisfaction that I was having a drink where Cary Grant had been kidnapped.

    Oh well, it’s better to know the truth. Thanks for your research!

  7. Thanks for posting….this is awesome! Can’t wait for the sequel!

  8. Add my name to the list of people who have recreated Grant’s walk through the Plaza lobby and into the Oak bar for a drink under that particular painting. I, too, never noticed that that part was a set in the film. I was amused by the fact that Grant takes a long stroll through the hotel lobby to get to the Oak Bar when if the taxi had dropped him off just a few feet earlier he could have gone in the doorway that he winds up getting hustled out of by the two goons!

  9. Always amazing stuff, i need to go watch this movie now. Since clearly, i’m missing something good! Great work as always.

  10. Re the photo of the unknown location showing the subway entrance, it looks a lot like the entrance at south east corner of 53rd Street at 7th Avenue. The subway signage remains true today as that stop has the E going to Queens and the D going to the Bronx. The railing looks pretty the much the same today and the granite or Travertine wall in the background would be the Sheraton Hotel (once the Americana).

  11. Nick, you may be crazy but I think you are crazy like a fox. It is your attention to detail that make posts like this so much fun. I love the way you can break down a shot and show us the magic behind the scenes. I can hardly wait for part two.

  12. I wonder if the opening shot is really the CIT Bldg: the curtain wall looks somewhat different. When I firsat saw the picture I thought it was one of those Park Avenue numbers of the same generation.

  13. I worked in 650 Madison for many years. Today it’s home to (among other things) Ralph Lauren’s headquarters. And I think Dreamworks has offices there, too. The lobby as shown in the movie could not exist the way that building is today. I think the layout in the film would put elevator shafts in the middle of the Crate & Barrel that’s there now.

    Of course, another reason it’s geographically correct for Roger O. Thornhill to work on Madison Avenue is that he’s an advertising man after all.

  14. This being one of my favorite movies, I searched for months in the 1990s for the bldg in the opening credits. I’m pretty sure it’s actually 430 Park Avenue, btwn 55th & 56th, (renovated out of recognition with a new curtain wall system in 2001. The only view I could find online is here: http://wirednewyork.com/forum/showthread.php?t=21249&page=11 scroll down a ways.] There are a few hints: the rhythm of the spandrel vs vision glass; the projecting stainless steel mullions – the horizontal & verticals were on the same plane at 430 Park; the lack of the greenery-planted set-back at the second story of 650 Madison. Also, in the reflection of the windows in the movie, 4 lanes of traffic, with a divider btwn directions, are visible.

  15. Tremendous! Especially the shots from inside the cab. I love posts like this. Look forward to part II.

  16. Great post. I don’t think I ever paid very close attention to the New York scenes in NBNW. I’ll have to do so next time.

    Your enhanced backgrounds on the cab scenes make me wonder whether Hitch would ever have wanted to follow the George Lucas model of periodically updating his movies using CGI.

  17. Love this post!

    Another guess at the unknown subway station- it looks like the entrance at the northeast corner of 53rd and 5th. The bottom of the building has been refaced (and Google Streetview shows the station boarded up) but if you look up at the building, the top half seems to match.

  18. The fact that Hitchcock features a real route to get to the Plaza as a backdrop is absolutely fascinating.
    As much as I love HBO’s ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and ‘Girls’, as a New Yorker it’s distracting to see the characters go from one iconic place to another in just seconds (like a lobby downtown leading to an uptown street). So thanks, Hitchcock for keepin’ it real.

    BTW if you haven’t seen this link already, this NY “detective” seems to do similar work to yours! This one’s about a Dylan album cover http://www.popspotsnyc.com/satevepost/

  19. As usual, an impeccable post for New York City fanatics. This was the New York I grew up in and it is literally like going back in time to see the city in these movies. It was all too brief in this one.

    Did you notice the absence of any women in the Oak Room Bar? Until 1968, women were banned from the Oak Room between the hours of noon and three. The Plaza changed the policy after a demonstration there that winter, staged by feminists, including Betty Friedan.

    Your post inspired me to watch the movie again, which I hadn’t seen in many years. I didn’t remember loving it and find I still don’t. There were some great, classic Hitchcock suspense scenes, but too little James Mason and I couldn’t buy the whole instant-romance-Eva Marie Saint thing. It really felt like a vehicle, a lot of great ideas kind of mushed together. I know that is probably sacrilege for North by Northwest aficionados!! So don’t take me too seriously. What do I know? :)

    Thanks again, Scout, for your wonderful blog!!

  20. You outdid yourself with this one Scout! Having grown up in NYC I know
    every spot in these pictures. Incredible matching them with the movie.
    One final comment, as a cab driver paying my way through college, I picked up Hitchcock. Didn’t say much except telling me I had no idea
    where I was going. ( I think he was right. )
    Mack

  21. Awesome!! One question: why do the blocks in the walls of Grand Central look multi-colored in the movie?

  22. Thank you for the wonderful insight on a favorite movie. A few years ago I took a tour of the Phipps Mansion at Old Westbury Gardens. In the front foyer, the guide mentioned that scenes from North by Northwest had been filmed there. I suddenly realized what space we had crossed a few moments before and slapped my forehead and blurted out “Of course, the drive to the Townsend mansion!” to the dismay of the rest of the tourists (but an understanding smile from my wife, who also loves the movie. Only the front driveway appeared in the film, but it was nearly unchanged.

  23. I live on 54th St between 7th and Broadway. When I have time I’ll walk over to the Sheraton and look at the stairway. I used the D and E a lot, but always the entrance by Broadway…

  24. Unbelievable work. Just great. Best of luck with your picture.

  25. This is some really nice research and I bet it takes lots of time. Just saw the movie like an hour ago for the first time on TCM here in Belgium. It has has an nice 50`s atmosphere to it. Love the scenario, the acting, locations etc
    Definitely way ahead of its time and for me personally this is the first Bond movie. I will visit NY at the end of the year and for sure I will use your site to find all of these locations. Awesome!

  26. That hallway outside the Oak Room did, in fact, have a jewelry store with windows displaying some of it. I miss the old Plaza Hotel. I hate the new Plaza Hotel.

  27. Not to be annoying with my own hair-brained idea of where that subway entrance was shot, but did you investigate the SW entrance on 43rd and 8th? Assuming that the storefront was added later, the brick seems to match, including the slight indentation in the facade of the building about 3-4 feet back from the top of the stairs.

    Feel free to use disparaging or belittling words in your response.

  28. I loved this post! Sadly though it reminds me of how much the Plaza has changed since the recent renovations.

  29. Thanks for this. I went to the Oak Room last night. Just to have a martini in the same spot as Cary Grant. I was disappointed. They have shrunk it down, it’s not a bar anymore but where they have cabaret night sometimes… The rest of the time it sits empty.

  30. Whoops! I went to the Oak Room at the Algonquin hotel in mid-town, not the Oak Room Bar at the Plaza

  31. My dad worked for the Telly, the World Telegram and Sun and so when I watch this movie I get a thrill out of seeing Cary Grant grab a Telly and read it in the cab. The Telly had a lighthouse on its masthead, the symbol of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. It was an afternoon paper so it makes sense he reads it on the way to drinks.

  32. I agree with Benjamin’s post of Oct. 2 re the building behind the credits. I also reached this conclusion a couple of years ago after noticing Park Avenue in the reflection and close-to-sure recognizing the building, which until recently featured a modest F.Lloyd Wright-designed auto showroom at the SW corner of 56th and Park (may have just been removed or renovated, lot of construction).

    I always thought the people leaving the doors in the mystery location early in the article, were leaving Grand Central on 42nd St. I looked on google street view, I was thinking of the easternmost exit/entrance that is directly on 42nd, but not sure about this one.

  33. My dad was a nys state trooper in 1959. He was patrolling the Hyde Park NY train station when the movie was filming there. He was asked to be in a scene sitting in his patrol car.

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