Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill, Madison Avenue ad man mistaken for an international spy
Mount Rushmore, Fall 1958
Film: North by Northwest
Release Date: July 28, 1959
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Wardrobe Department: Harry Kress
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Appropriately timed for Casual Friday, today’s post examines the off-the-rack casual duds that Cary Grant’s “mistaken man” Roger O. Thornhill wears during the climactic chase across Mount Rushmore during the film’s finale.
The brilliant final sequence of North by Northwest proves that Alfred Hitchcock, even six decades after the film was released, will forever be the true master of suspense.
What’d He Wear?
Cary Grant’s tailored suit has become legendary as one of the most iconic suits in movie history, but Roger Thornhill is forced to shed his “suit of armor” for the film’s final act. Thornhill spends the bulk of North by Northwest mistaken for a secret agent by Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and his henchmen, but it’s worth mentioning that, when Thornhill is actually acting like a spy, he dresses far less elegantly in his anonymous, off-the-rack casual wear. Perhaps this is Hitchcock’s statement on the duality of movie spies and real-life operatives?
Given the “witness protection” nature of the situation, it makes sense that The Professor (an avuncular Leo G. Carroll) would choose Thornhill’s anonymous and relatively ill-fitting new clothes, far from what one would expect to see on Cary Grant. Of course, this is Cary Grant so he still manages to look good even as his puffy sleeves make you wonder if he’ll be swinging in on a chandelier to ultimately save the day.
Nearly everything about this shirt is too big, a natural concession for an off-the-rack shirt that would still comfortably fit Grant’s famously large 17.5″ neck. Unlike the Bond movies, where 007 often falls back-asswards into perfectly fitting clothes, the ill-fitting duds that The Professor buys for Thornhill is a neat dose of reality.
The pale gray oxford shirt is from Brooks Brothers, with the traditional button-down collar that they introduced in 1896 after John E. Brooks noticed the fastened collars of polo players overseas. Even with Cary Grant’s slim frame, the shirt’s shoulders are broad enough that they look proportional to Grant even when the rest of the sleeve is so long that Thornhill is forced to half-fold back each of the shirt’s buttoned barrel cuffs.
Like his white dress shirt, this shirt has a front placket and no pocket. The fitted back has a high yoke and no darts or pleats…and certainly none of the shirring distinctively found on the back of his white dress shirt.
Thornhill’s charcoal wool slacks have double forward pleats that rise high to his natural waist. Since we watch him dressing, we see that the trousers have a long zipper fly and a straight gig line, although the gig line is disrupted by the belt that he receives from The Professor. It is a plain black leather belt with a small gold square single-prong buckle.
The bottoms of Thornhill’s trousers are plain-hemmed with a short break.
There is a straight pocket along each side seam and a jetted pocket on the right back side that comes in handy while scaling the side of Mount Rushmore.
The Professor also brings Thornhill a new pair of loafers, of which our hero seems initially wary to take delivery despite effectively coordinating with the casual nature of this outfit.
Thornhill’s new kicks are tassel loafers in dark burgundy cordovan leather with long tassels, an apron toe (or “moc toe” based on its resemblance to the classic moccasin), and low vamp.
Slip-on shoes had been an increasingly fashionable footwear option in the United States for decades, and the tasseled loafer was one of its most recent developments. In this month’s post about Frank Sinatra in High Society, we explored the first pair of tassel loafers, commissioned by actor Paul Lukas in 1948 from Alden.
As explained in this 1998 Cigar Aficionado article, Alden recognized the potential in Lukas’ commissioned shoe and introduced it into its production line two years later. Alden retained its foothold (get it?) on the tassel loafer for most of the decade until Brooks Brothers approached in 1957 with a request to market the shoe. As Alden rep Robert Clark explained to Cigar Aficianado: “Especially for them, Alden produced a tassel loafer with a distinctive decorative foxing at the back part of the shoe, which remains exclusive to Brooks Brothers.”
This distinctive foxing remains a fixture of the Brooks Brothers tassel loafer, as opposed to the plain heel cups of the Alden loafers. The raised stitching on each side of Grant’s heel cups identify his loafers as the Brooks Brothers model. Whether you’re in the market for an Alden loafer or the Brooks Brothers variant, you’ll still be paying upwards of $700.
Thornhill’s light gray socks are the only outer item that he retains from his previous outfit, and they get much more exposure here due to the shorter trouser break and lower shoe vamps. The soft material of the sock appears to be thin ribbed cashmere.
Thornhill’s other personal items that he retains from his suit remain unseen after he finishes dressing. He wears the same yellow cotton boxer shorts that had previously gotten some airtime when he removed his suit trousers in Eve’s hotel room.
In the entertaining and informative “Cary Grant, Style Icon” piece, The Retro Set explores the meaning of the thin gold necklace seen in several of his films. Evidently, the necklace was a personal item of Grant’s with a charm for each of his wives’ religious preferences.
In 1959, Grant was in the middle of his third marriage; thus, his necklace has three small gold pendants.
Another piece of Grant’s personal style shows up on screen in the form of his sleek Cartier Tank gold watch, strapped to his left wrist on a black leather band.
The Cartier Tank was introduced in 1919 as one of the first mass produced men’s wristwatches following its post-WWI popularity boom. It’s still produced nearly a century later in a variety of styles, although the closest to the one worn by Grant would be the $5,200 Cartier Tank Solo CRW5200004 in 18-karat yellow gold with a black alligator strap.
Go Big or Go Home
…and, either way, don’t go to Mount Rushmore unprepared!
Hooked on Houses has a great article exploring the iconic Atomic Age set design and architecture of North by Northwest with a special focus on the Modernist house owned by Phillip Vandamm. As many fans of the film know, not only did the house not exist atop Mount Rushmore, but it didn’t exist at all… instead, the wide shots of the exterior featured a matte painting of a house designed to evoke the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Check out Hooked on Houses and my previous post about Vandamm’s gray tweed suit to learn more.
Recognizing that Eve is in danger, Thornhill eventually infiltrates the
painting house, using Chekhov’s Matchbook to warn her of the predicament.
…Thornhill exclaims after Vandamm’s goons chase he and Eve from the landing strip. Of course, Hitchcock was unable to obtain permission from the U.S. Department of the Interior to film the criminal activity and attempted murder on a national monument.
There was also no way that the scene would be scrapped since the chase across Mount Rushmore was one of the concept seeds that led to the film itself; Hitchcock had only three elements in mind when pitching his story to screenwriter Ernest Lehman: a mistaken identity, the United Nations building, and a chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore. In fact, Hitchcock had conceptualized a scene of Thornhill sneezing inside Lincoln’s nose (and even considered the title The Man in Lincoln’s Nose) before both ideas were quashed by park officials.
So, Gutzon Borglum’s famous mountainside was recreated in a studio, and the end result was so effective that Hitchcock happily encouraged the rumor that the scene had been filmed on Mount Rushmore… to the point that the Department of the Interior requested that the credit thanking them for their cooperation be removed.
The final chapter of David Borgenicht and Joe Borgenicht’s outrageously entertaining The Action Hero’s Handbook is reserved for the very relatable situation of finding yourself trapped atop Mount Rushmore and needing to find the best path for descent. With tips from champion climbers Jason and Tiffany Campbell, the book outlines the ideal route:
- Work your way from Jefferson’s hair down to the left of his [right] ear
- Lower yourself slowly to Washington’s chin
- Traverse under Washington’s chin and across Jefferson’s neck
- Arrive between Roosevelt and Lincoln on the down slope just above the trees
Not only should this path safely deposit you on more level ground, but you’ll also avoid the wrath of the U.S. Department of Interior by steering clear of Lincoln’s nose (and any potential sneezing fits that could result inside.)
For more than 40 other tips that will perfectly prepare you for life as an action hero, check out the brothers Borgenicht’s book… recommended “for anyone who’s ever wanted to be as smooth as James Bond, as clever as Captain Kirk, or as tough as Charlie’s Angels.”
How to Get the Look
Although somewhat ill-fitting, Roger Thornhill’s quintessentially American casual wear provides a nice template for a subtle, dressed-down outfit with a touch of Ivy League influence.
- Pale gray oxford cotton Brooks Brothers shirt with button-down collar, front placket, and button cuffs
- Charcoal wool double froward-pleated high-rise trousers with belt loops, straight/on-seam side pockets, jetted back right pocket, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black leather belt with small gold square single-prong buckle
- Dark burgundy cordovan leather Brooks Brothers moc-toe tassel loafers
- Light gray ribbed cashmere socks
- Gold thin necklace with three gold religious pendants
- Cartier Tank wristwatch with yellow gold case and white square dial on black leather strap
- White cotton short-sleeve crew neck undershirt
- Pale yellow cotton boxers
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
Eve: What happened with your first two marriages?
Roger: My wives divorced me.
Roger: They said I led too dull a life.