James Mason as Phillip Vandamm, urbane spy and secret-trader
Mount Rushmore, Fall 1958
Film: North by Northwest
Release Date: July 28, 1959
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Wardrobe Department: Harry Kress
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
North by Northwest arguably set the tone for spy films in the following decade with its suave and well-suited hero, colorful settings, and elements of dangerous romance. James Mason’s urbane Phillip Vandamm is, in many ways, the archetypal James Bond villain: sinister and deadly but with the ability to be just as charming and debonair as the story’s protagonist.
Vandamm proves to be more sensitive and romantic than one would expect, and James Mason perfectly conveys just how badly Vandamm is stung by Eve’s betrayal. He zips through the Kübler-Ross model in record time, expressing denial (laughing off Leonard’s concerns), anger (punching Leonard), and acceptance (vindictively deciding Eve’s fate “from a great height…over water”) all within seconds of the same scene.
What’d He Wear?
With his dark gray tweed suit, regimental striped tie, and odd waistcoats, Phillip Vandamm looks every bit the dignified English gentleman as he makes his final arrangements to safely leave the country with a Purépecha sculpture full of secret microfilm. In fact, it could be argued that Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) looks more like the traditional “movie spy” in his sleekly tailored gray-blue glen check suit while Vandamm looks more like Q in his comfortable tweeds, regimental tie, and mannered disposition.
The daytime denouement that finds Thornhill taking a blank bullet finds all three men – Thornhill, Vandamm, and Leonard – outfitted in different variants of the stereotypical “gray flannel suit,” such a trope for businessmen during the era that both a 1955 novel and subsequent 1956 film adaptation called it out. (Interestingly, James Mason’s 8-year-old daughter Portland starred in the film as Gregory Peck’s daughter.) Here, it works as a disguise as the evil Vandamm and Leonard are camouflaged as “the common man” and, thus, an even more dangerous threat. (Leonard often does attempt to echo at least the sartorial sense of his admired boss.)
Hitchcock clearly defines his hero in the nighttime scenes for Thornhill has shed that oh-so-stylish suit that symbolized his less honest ad life, and he is now dressed humbly and casually in off-the-rack duds (Brooks Brothers, but still) that define him as the actual “common man”… a common hero worth rooting for.
Vandamm’s dark gray tweed suit jacket is single-breasted with edge-stitched notch lapels that end high above the three-button front. There is a welted breast pocket and straight hip pockets with slim flaps. Each sleeve ends with spaced two-button non-functioning cuffs.
A swelled seam down the center of the back ends above the short vent. In addition to the three-button front and the single vent, Vandamm’s suit sack jacket incorporates elements of traditional American tailoring such as the draped, full chest and soft padded shoulders with less structure than the classic English suit shoulder.
The full cut of Vandamm’s suit extends to his flat front trousers. His various waistcoats cover the waistline on screen, but a behind-the-scenes photo reveals belt loops, through which James Mason wears a slim black leather belt. The bottoms are cuffed with a full break.
On screen, Vandamm always wears this suit with a contrasting layer between his jacket and shirt, a classic staple in menswear that Gentleman’s Gazette nicely explored in this post about odd vests and waistcoats from December 2013.
For his daytime confrontation with Thornhill in the Mount Rushmore cafeteria, he wears an olive green wool single-breasted waistcoat with notch lapels and flapped hip pockets that slant backward. This vest closes with six silver-toned metal buttons down the front, with the lowest button appropriately left open over the notched bottom.
At home that evening, Vandamm has swapped out the green waistcoat for an even less threatening look, sporting a beige cardigan vest in a soft wool – possibly cashmere – with five brown-toned urea buttons fastened down to the straight-cut hem. Ribbing is continuous around the collar, down the placket, and around the them. It appears to have no pockets. (I drew the conclusion that it is a vest rather than a long-sleeved cardigan as the sleeves are not seen under the jacket cuffs.)
Like his adversary, Vandamm wears a white dress shirt with a soft turndown collar, although Vandamm’s collar has a slightly wider spread than Thornhill’s. The shirt has soft double cuffs, through which Vandamm wears ornate gold links.
Vandamm wears a regimental tie of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, noted by its wide dark green and navy blue stripes with a thin yellow stripe separating every other stripe between the bottom of the navy and the top of the green. However, the RHF stripes would follow the British scheme of left shoulder down to right hip; Vandamm’s tie stripes follow the Brooks Brothers-inspired American direction of right-down-to-left.
Although these and other regimental neckties are often showing up on eBay, you can also find them available to purchase at aptly-named sites like Regimental Shop and Scottish Regimental Store. Interestingly, the Royal Highland Fusiliers was only formed on January 20, 1959 (created by the amalgamation of the Royal Scots Fusiliers with the Highland Light Infantry) yet the scenes filmed at Mount Rushmore were shot in mid-September 1958.
Vandamm wears a pair of black leather cap-toe balmoral-type oxford shoes with black socks.
The tank watch on Vandamm’s left wrist is possibly James Mason’s own timepiece, although I can’t find any conclusive information about the type of watch Mason favored in real life. The North by Northwest watch appears to have a stainless steel squared case, a white square dial, and a black leather strap.
North by Northwest is set during the fall – specifically late November – when average temperatures in Rapid City, South Dakota fall to an average high of 47 °F and a below-freezing low of 22 °F. The characters still dress a bit warmly for this climate (especially considering Grant’s nighttime scaling of buildings in only his shirt sleeves and trousers!), but Vandamm’s outerwear would certainly be appropriate for a well-layered gentleman making a dignified nighttime getaway.
Vandamm’s overcoat is black and white herringbone wool with a single-breasted 3-button front. The notch lapels have swelled edges and a buttonhole through the left lapel. The shoulders are well-padded with roping present on the set-in sleeve heads. The three external pockets are a welted breast pocket and a straight flapped pocket on each hip. Each cuff appears to have a very small tab on the edge with an adjuster button.
The villain’s villain, Vandamm literally tops off his look with a black felt homburg with a black grosgrain ribbon.
Go Big or Go Home
…to a house inspired by the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. Vandamm’s über modern sense of home decor could be his single redeeming trait… but the house itself didn’t even exist in real life!
Indeed, Hitchcock asked his set designers to create a set resembling Wright’s work. Fallingwater, the modernist cantilevered home that he designed in 1935 for Edgar J. Kaufmann in the Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania comes to mind.
Given Wright’s fee and the firm prohibition on even temporary buildings constructed on top of Mount Rushmore, Hitchcock tasked his design team – Robert Boyle, Henry Grace, William A. Horning, Frank McKelvey, and Merrill Pye – with creating full-scale sets to be used as the interior, all to be filmed in Culver City. Most of the exteriors were matte paintings with certain areas, like the bedroom wing, partially built into the exterior for more realistic shots looking out or in. As Sandy McLendon explained at Hooked on Houses: “The interiors were masterpieces of deception: nearly nothing was what it appeared. The limestone walls were mostly plaster, real limestone was used in a few places where the camera would be very close. The expanses of window were mostly without glass; glass reflects camera crews and lights.”
Constructing the house used nearly half of the more than $50,000 spent on the Mount Rushmore sets with the other portion going to Gutzon Borglum’s recreation of the famous monument.
How to Get the Look
Phillip Vandamm’s dignified, professorial attire serves him well, creating a non-threatening and warm appearance while also literally keeping him warm during the chilly fall weather on Mount Rushmore.
- Dark gray tweed full-cut sack suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted 3-button jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 2-button cuffs, and short single vent
- Flat front trousers with belt loops, side pockets, and turn-ups/cuffs
- Olive green wool single-breasted vest with notch lapels, 6 silver-toned metal buttons, slanted flapped hip pockets, and notched bottom
- White poplin dress shirt with soft semi-spread collar and soft double/French cuffs
- Royal Highland Fusiliers regimental striped tie with wide dark green and navy blue stripes and thin yellow stripes
- Black leather cap-toe balmorals/oxford shoes
- Black dress socks
- Black felt homburg with black grosgrain ribbon
- Black-and-white herringbone wool single-breasted 3-button overcoat with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 1-button cuffs, and single vent
- Steel tank watch with white square dial on black leather strap
For homier or more intimate settings, a soft beige cardigan sweater vest would also work in place of the green odd vest.
“That wasn’t very sporting, using real bullets,” Vandamm demurely says after a deputy ends Leonard’s threat to Roger and Eva with a well-placed rifle shot. Of course, in Vandamm’s world of deception, it’s the smaller, concealable handguns that are most fatal.
Leonard himself tried to melodramatically prove a point to Vandamm by firing a shot at him from Eve’s pistol, a Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket. Of course, the shot was a blank and Vandamm’s shock is transferred to a pained sense of betrayal by Eve.
Introduced in 1908, as its name suggests, the Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket was Colt’s version of the earlier FN Model 1905 (later redesigned as the “Baby Browning”), also based on a John Browning design and arguably the first subcompact semi-automatic pistol. Chambered for the anemic .25 ACP cartridge, the Model 1908 Vest Pocket carried six rounds in a detachable magazine and differed from the FN model by the addition of an external safety latch that would lock the slide on the left side.
Though not a powerful weapon, the Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket enjoyed a 40-year-long production span until it was phased out in 1948. It certainly looked like a spy’s weapon with its streamlined hammerless aesthetic and easy concealability, and Hitchcock armed many of North by Northwest‘s stylish operatives with one. In addition to Eve Kendall, Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket pistols were carried by Vandamm’s henchmen Valerian and Licht.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
This matter is best disposed of from a great height… over water.