James Mason as Philip Vandamm.

When you think of a villain, a number of images come to mind. Maleficent cackling in Sleeping Beauty. The awful society snobs in All that Heaven Allows. Basil Rathbone in, well, lots of things. Villains come in all shapes and sizes, but perhaps my favorite kind of dastardly antagonist is the perfect gentleman. With manicured hands, dashing looks, beautiful suits, and impeccable manners, this villain exposes the corruption and wickedness that can hide behind the well-maintained facade. Sometimes the effect can be devastating, but other times it can just be plain fun.

As the expert at uncovering the evil underneath the quotidian, Alfred Hitchcock had some villains that were matchless. The qualifications were usually as follows: suave, sophisticated, witty... More often than not, being British helped too, as did executing the best arched eyebrow. From Herbert Marshall to Robert Walker, Hitchcock's antagonists were fascinating to watch. No one proves that more than James Mason as Philip Vandamm in North by Northwest.

The motif of doubles runs throughout Hitchcock's work. Think of Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train or Uncle Charlie and his niece Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt. Vandamm and Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) are a continuation of this -- they're both urbane British men who can banter like nobody's business.
However, while Roger is out diving from crop dusters and hiding from cops on trains, Vandamm is giving out orders and enjoying a comfortable lifestyle. Lackeys like Leonard (Martin Landau) can do the dirty work. You can tell that this has made Vandamm a little soft when he punches Leonard and clutches his hand in pain. During a scene at an auction, Vandamm doesn't even lift his own hand to make a bid -- he has Leonard raise his!

Like Cary Grant, James Mason was a romantic figure, a man that ladies could swoon over and men could admire. Unlike Grant, though, Mason explored darker characters and proved he could excel at portraying brooding loners, struggling alcoholics, and mysterious rogues. Fun fact/side tangent: Grant was offered the role of Norman Maine in A Star is Born (1954) and he read the part for George Cukor. To my utter dismay, Grant turned it down, despite Cukor's complete delight with his performance. While it's a tragedy, I think we can all agree that James Mason was sublime as Norman Maine.

Of course, he also made for a supreme Vandamm. He may let his goons take care of nuisances, but there is an edge to him that lets you know this is a guy you don't really want to cross. It can be easy to overlook -- after all, he practically purrs as he dishes out quips and threats. As played by the very handsome Mr. Mason, Vandamm is the absolute picture of charm and elegance. The man could actually wear a sweater vest with a suit and still look menacing. Is it any wonder how Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) fell for him? Thanks to Mason, audiences easily fall for him, too.


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This post is my entry to the Great Villain Blogathon. Check out the incredible roster here.

Comments

  1. Oh yes, James Mason as Philip Vandamm is everything you say he is – urbane, witty, suave. These qualities make him especially chilling, in my opinion.

    I laughed when you said Vandamm looks menacing even in a sweater vest. So true!!

    Thanks for the early posting of this wonderful Philip V. tribute! :) I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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    1. I think it's because of Vandamm's attractive qualities that we can forget that this is the guy who ordered the death of Cary Grant and then within seconds of learning about Eve's deception, he plots her demise too.

      Thanks! I love this blogathon, but this was the first time I was able to contribute -- can't wait to read the other entries!

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  2. Yesterday afternoon I shared North by Northwest with my daughter for the first time. It was a delight to see these characters and the plot through a newbies eyes. It is also a delight to have the opportunity to sit back and enjoy your insights on a character so fresh in my mind. You have truly captured Vandamm's perfidy and Mason's layered performance. A villain for the ages.

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    1. Thank you! I hope your daughter loved it. (I mean, what's not to love?) Just a few weeks ago, I gave a presentation in my Hitchcock class recommending North by Northwest. I found an original trailer where Hitch was trying to entice audiences to go see it and his comments were so wry and silly. After I played the clip, I heard one of my classmates say "That's the best trailer I've ever seen." Although I had nothing to do with it, I still felt some pride.

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  3. Mason is perfect as Vandamm. Of course the film is perfect!

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  4. Terrific post. James Mason was always one of my favorites and Mason and Grant in one movie is almost too much for a woman to bear - but we persevere. :) I love your line about the ability to look villainous while wearing a sweater vest with a suit. HA!

    I think if the villainy is bone deep then anything the character wears should become a welcome part of the effect - here it tells me that Vandamm (and what a great name for a villain) seeks warmth to cover his cold murderous notions. (Too deep?) But that reveal of personality doesn't always happen.

    I also love your story about Cary Grant reading for Norman Maine. He would have made a great one. But Mason was top notch in the part - heart-breakingly so.

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    1. When I was taking screenshots for this post, I realized Mason was wearing a sweater vest and it amused me to no end. I think your theory holds water. :)

      I constantly lament the roles Cary Grant didn't take, even if I love the people who took the part (Greg Peck in Roman Holiday, Bogie in Sabrina...). Grant would have been an amazing Norman Maine, but that doesn't diminish Mason's beautiful performance.

      Thanks for reading!

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  5. I've been watching through a lot of Hitchcock lately, and loved North by Northwest. Vandamm was a great antagonist, and the template for the very best Bond villains.

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    1. Yes, I forgot to mention the connection to the Bond films. Although Ian Fleming started his Bond stories before North by Northwest, you can definitely see the film's influence on the Bond movie series, including Vandamm.

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  6. Wonderful post on a marvelous film. Mr. Mason does indeed make an elegant villain--which makes him the perfect nemesis for the super suave Mr. Grant. And even though Grant would have been a terrific Norman Maine, I thank him for turning down the film and giving Mason his greatest leading role.

    I can watch this classic Hitchcock a thousand times!!
    - Chris

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    1. Thanks! You really can't go wrong with Mason as Norman Maine. He is pitch-perfect. Actually, I can't think of a time when Mason wasn't pitch-perfect!

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  7. North by Northwest is one of my favorite Hitchcock movies. Vandamm is evil personified and oddly charming at the same time.

    I invite you to add your post to this week's The Classic Movie Marathon Link Party. http://classicmovietreasures.com/the-classic-movie-marathon-link-party-5/

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    1. Thanks! It's definitely my second favorite Hitchcock film, right after Rear Window. Vandamm might be my favorite Hitchcock villain, though. He's just so much fun to watch.

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  8. What a great pick -- Vandamn was thoroughly villainous . . . but so smooth! I greatly enjoyed your post; it made me appreciate Vandamn (and James Mason) even more. "Practically purrs . . ." I love it! Thanks so much for joining the blogathon!

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    1. Thanks! James Mason adored cats (he even wrote a book about them!), so it only seemed natural that he purred as well. :)

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  9. Good pick, good job. Vandamn is one of those smooth Hitchcock villains that project the image of smooth respectability on the outside, but who are demonic underneath. I don't think Mason gets enough credit for his performance in "North By Northwest." It's always about Grant and Saint, and they're great, but if they didn't have such a fine villain in the person of Mason, they're performances wouldn't be as good.

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    1. Thank you! It does seem like Grant and Saint get more attention, doesn't it? Mason plays a total enigma. We don't know how he got in that photo in the hotel room. Leo G. Carroll only tells us that he "imports and exports" government secrets. By the end of the movie, you realize that Vandamm is still a mystery and I think that really works in his favor. We don't need his backstory -- we just need to know he's the bad guy and Mason certainly makes that clear.

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