Todd McEwen discusses ‘by far the best suit in the movie, in the movies, perhaps the whole world.”
North By Northwest isn’t a film about what happens to Cary Grant, it’s about what happens to his suit. The suit has the adventures, a gorgeous New York suit threading its way through America. The title sequence in which the stark lines of a Madison Avenue office building are ‘woven’ together could be the construction of Cary in his suit right there—he gets knitted into his suit, into his job, before our very eyes. Indeed some of the popular ‘suitings’ of that time (‘windowpane’ or ‘glen plaid’) perfectly complemented office buildings. Cary’s suit reflects New York, identifies him as a thrusting exec, but also arms him, protects him: what else is a suit for? Reflects and Protects. a slogan Cary’s character, Roger Thornhill, might have come up with himself. ...
The suit, Cary inside it, strides with confidence into the Plaza Hotel. Nothing bad happens to it until one of the greasy henchmen grasps Cary by the shoulder. We’re already in love with this suit and it feels like a real violation. They’ve mistaken Roger Thornhill for a federal agent called George Kaplan. They bundle him into a cab and shoot out to Long Island, not much manhandling yet. In fact Martin Landau is impressed: ‘He’s a well-tailored one, isn’t he?’ He loves the suit. But next moment Cary tries to escape—there’s a real struggle, they force all that bourbon down his throat. (He later thinks they’ll find liquor stains on the sofa, but if there was that much violence why aren’t there any on the suit?) Cut to Cary being stuffed into the Mercedes-Benz—he’s managed to get completely pissed without even ‘mussing’ his hair. On his crazy drink-drive, the collar of his jacket is turned the wrong way round. That’s all. He gets arrested, jerked around by the cops, conks out on a table and appears before the judge next morning, and the suit and the shirt both look great. But this is the point in the picture where you start to worry about Cary’s personal hygiene. Start to ITCH. Cops aren’t generally too open-handed with showers.
It’s back to the bad guy’s house, then back to the Plaza, looking good. I always hope he’ll grab a quick shower in the hotel room—he keeps gravitating towards the bathroom. There’s a good suit moment when he tries on one belonging to Kaplan, the guy he’s looking for, who doesn’t exist. Kaplan’s suits are stodgy, old-fashioned, unbelievably heavy for a summer in New York—with turn-ups on the trousers. So much for the sartorial acumen of the US government. ‘I don’t think that one does anything for you,’ says Cary’s mom, and boy is she right. She also jokes that Kaplan maybe ‘has his suits mended by invisible weavers’, which is what happens to Cary’s suit throughout the picture! His suit is like a victim of repeated cartoon violence—in the next shot it’s always fine.
Off to the United Nations, where the Secretariat looks even more like Cary than his own office building. He sublimely matches a number of modern wall coverings and stone walls here and throughout the picture. He pulls a knife out of a guy, but doesn’t get any blood on himself. There’s a curious lack of blood in North By Northwest; it must be all to save the suit, though there must be ten or even twenty of them in reserve, no? Cary evades the bad guys again and scoots over to Grand Central Station, where they have, or had, showers, but he’s too busy.
This is what’s ingenious about this picture, at least as far as the SUIT goes—Cary’s able to travel all over the country in just this one beautiful suit because the weather has been planned for the suit by Ernest Lehman! It’s the perfect weather for an adventure in this suit, and that’s why it happens. At the same time, there’s a CREEPINESS about the whole escapade generated by our own fears that in some situation Cary will be inappropriately dressed (Cary GRANT?) and this will hinder him; or that the thin covering of civilization the suit provides him with will be pierced and here he is, thousands of miles from home, with not so much as a topcoat. Men ought to admit that they can experience suit-fear: the fear of suddenly being too cold in the suit you thought would do (in Glen Cove, Long Island, even on a summer night) or too hot (the prairie, to come). Exposed, vulnerable. Cary does have some money though, we know that, so he could buy something to wear if he had to, assuming his wallet isn’t destroyed along with the suit. But it would be too traumatic to see this suit getting totalled, that would be way beyond Hitchcock’s level of sadism. This feeling of exposure, the idea of having suddenly to make a desperate journey in just the clothes you have on, comes up in The Thirty-Nine Steps (book and movie): Richard Hannay is alone in a desolate landscape in inappropriate town clothes when a menacing autogiro spots him from the air.
In the suit are a number of subtle tools for Cary. It’s so well cut you can’t tell if he’s even carrying a wallet (turns out he is). Here’s what he’s got in that suit! He goes all the way from New York to Chicago to the face of Mount Rushmore with: a monogrammed book of matches, his wallet and some nickels, a pencil stub, a hanky, a newspaper clipping and his sunglasses—but these are shortly to be demolished when Eva Marie Saint folds him into the upper berth in her compartment. (Really this is a good thing, because Cary Grant in dark glasses looks appallingly GUILTY.) All this stuff fits into the pockets of the most wonderful suit in the world. Does the suit get crushed in the upper berth as his Ray-Bans are smashed? No. Cary keeps his jacket on in the make-out scene that follows. The suit defines him, he’s not going to take off that jacket. I know this feeling.
But, is it really a New York suit?
Richard Torregrossa, in Cary Grant and the Secrets of the Perfect Suit, also identifies a number of its points of excellence, but I was persuaded that he is wrong in identifying THE SUIT as having been tailored by Kilgour, French & Stanbury, an old Savile Row firm most familiar to Americans simply as a licensed label of Barney’s used on suits made domestically as one of their house brands from the 1980s to around 2000.
The answer? A subtle glen plaid, probably in 13 oz flannel or 10 oz fresco tropical weave, tailored by Quintino of Beverly Hills.
Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.