James Mason did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Phillip Vandamm in North By Northwest.
Mason would have naturally been perfect for a Bond villain since he moves so gently he almost seems to float in his initial meeting with Thornhill, as Vandamm asks him questions that are more confusing than anything. Mason does not raise his voice once in this interrogation yet he so effectively brings this understated menace in the way he examines Thornhill with his eyes, and in such a matter of fact fashion alludes that Thornhill is going to be killed if he does not cooperate. Mason brings the considerable confidence of a man who's been through this sort of thing so many times before, that it really is just standard procedure at this point, and merely just something that needs to be done. Mason is so wonderfully elegant while being so quietly sinister in his movements and his speech that you'd believe Thornhill would tell him everything, unfortunately Thornhill has nothing to tell. My favorite moment in the scene has to be when Vandamm decides to make it quick and simply presses Thornhill to tell him whether or not he will cooperate with a simple yes or no. Mason is great in his casual shrug when Thornhill says no, as though he's silently stating "Oh well I guess you'll have to die then" before walking off.
Mason makes a very memorable impression in this first scene making so you certainly remember him when he makes his short silent appearances about an hour in, as well as when he finally makes his second vocal appearance an hour and a half into the film. Thornhill next meeting with Vandamm comes due to his romantic entanglements with a mysterious woman Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who happens to be entangled in the same way with Vandamm. Mason is very good in this scene by bringing a bit more depth to the part of Vandamm as Thornhill makes pointed remarks about Eve's methods. Mason does well not to give it away too hard, after all he would not to show weakness to Thornhill or his men, but in an effective subtle fashion portrays the certain heartbreak in Vandamm as he realizes she was not as loyal to him as he would have wished. Mason takes it perhaps even a step further by playing it as Vandamm is falling upon his excessively calm villain act in order to cover upon any of his own desperation. Of course it works better than potentially fooling Thornhill, but the audience as well as again Mason is able to exude a considerable menace with such ease that's perfect for the character.
Of course Mason is also great in his interactions with Vandamm's most loyal man Leonard (Martin Landau). Landau is a terrific foil for Mason as he makes Leonard basically the darker and more direct member of their little organization. Landau plays his side with a creepy and distinct assurance about things always waiting and ready, while Mason's Vandamm takes his time with things. Leonard's loyalty seems to extend a bit past an employee who respects his boss, instead Landau suggests instead, while not overplaying it, that Leonard is bit in love with Vandamm. Mason in turn conveys quite well Vandamm's way of treating this infatuation as being mildly flattered although still only interested in what Leonard has to offer as a henchmen. This relationship has very little time devoted to it, but both actors manage to give it life nevertheless adding just something extra to the film. That's Mason whole performance in a nutshell though. Often times in Hitchcock's wrong man thrillers the villain isn't all that memorable. That is not the case in this film thanks to Mason's performance that so easily brings a certain sophistication to his character's shady dealings. Although Mason delivers depth to the part wherever available, the best part of his performance is the style and a charisma he brings to this relatively simple role. To watch Mason and Grant work the script so well is such a delight, and like Grant as the hero I simply could not see anyone else in this role other than Mason.