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Railroads in movies: North by Northwest

By David Lustig | November 14, 2022

Movie location crews did a great job showing the 20th Century Limited as one of the classiest trains of its time

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black and white train on tracks

North by Northwest

people walking past train
Passengers dressed to the nines walk past the observation car of New York Central’s 20th Century Limited at Grand Central Terminal in New York City in 1962. New York Central

North by Northwest is a true cinema classic and is considered one of the best of its genre. Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, this American spy thriller film stars Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, and the New York Central Railroad. It takes place in 1959 in Manhattan. The main character, Roger O. Thornhill, happens to be a Madison Avenue businessman who gets thrust into a case of mistaken identity.

While he is an advocate of the three-martini lunch, Russian agents believe him to be a master American spy that they must eliminate. Thornhill attempts to escape, they chase him, and he boards the New York Central’s 20th Century Limited at Grand Central Terminal; destination Chicago.

This first part of the film sets the stage for evading police, the Russians, going to Chicago, then sprinting across the county. The climax occurs at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. While Chicago is the end – almost – for train fans, it’s definitely worth watching.

Not that anyone needs to be coaxed into watching North by Northwest, but the real treat for fans is the many train sequences between New York City and Chicago.

As part of the production, movie crews painstakingly captured much of the first part of the route from Grand Central Terminal to Albany, N.Y., including multiple open Dutch-door shots of the train skirting the Hudson River. The extra effort lends an air of authenticity seen only occasionally from Hollywood. Even the railroad’s LaSalle Street Station in Chicago gets its due.

In general, North by Northwest gives today’s audience a view of New York City from more than 60 years ago. As a special treat, you will notice one of the finest railroads North America ever had demonstrating how to treat passengers to the best rail service possible.

Now remember Chicago was “almost” the last of the train sequences? At the very end of the movie, romance is in the air as the good guys – and gals — are again aboard what we presume to be the 20th Century Limited. However, the production needed a closing shot of the train.

Presumably not wanting to go back on location in New York, the studio rented a passenger train from Southern Pacific and filmed it plunging into a tunnel in Chatsworth, Calif. The lettering on the locomotives was painted over, but the purists will recognize this oft-used tunnel in Hollywood movies.

On a scale of one to ten choo-choos, the movie is a 9½ and the train scenes are a 10.

train emerging from tunnel
Southern Pacific 4-8-4 No. 4452 emerges from a tunnel near Chatsworth, Calif., on Jan. 13, 1949. Donald Sims

4 thoughts on “Railroads in movies: North by Northwest

  1. When you look at White Christmas, there is a scene on board a train where the characters are traveling from Florida to Maine. This is bookended by two exterior shots of a passing train. Look closely. The two shots are of two different railroads, neither of which operated on the Atlantic seaboard.

  2. I wonder if this is the same “High Sierra” tunnel used in the train-robbery sequence at the beginning of the 1949 movie, “White Heat”, starring James Cagney and Edmond O’Brien?
    Always enjoy the authenticity of the train sequence in what is my favorite Hitchcock movie.

  3. Hi Kevin…yes, it’s the same tunnel. Although it looks like it’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s on the outskirts of Chatsworth. Hollywood used it for a number of location shots. Northbound trains (such as the Sims shot with the 4452), it’s about to travel through the Santa Susana Mountains, go through two more tunnels and end up in the Simi Valley.

  4. Interestingly, the film producer rented a 4-4-2 Pullman which the NYC parked at GCT for the stationary interior shots.

    Wonder if the feds who boarded the “Century” en route to ALB stopped to have the Dover Sole in the twin unit diner..?

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