When I interviewed Eva Marie Saint for The New York Daily News in 1999, memories of Alfred Hitchcock, who directed her in "North By Northwest," were still vivid in her mind. And so were memories of other movie men in her life, such as Cary Grant, Montgomery Clift and, especially, “that doll” Marlon Brando. --GUY FLATLEY

“The first day on the set, Cary said to me, ‘Eva Marie, you don’t have to cry in this movie. You’re just going to have fun.’ And he was so right. There we were climbing all over the mountain, just having fun!”

Now, 40 years later, a new generation of moviegoers can experience the nerve-shredding fun of watching Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint dodge villains and dangle from Mount Rushmore, thanks to Film Forum’s two-week revival of “North by Northwest.”

In town from Los Angeles for the occasion and for a Hitchcock symposium at New York University, the vibrant 75-year-old actress – soon to be seen as Kim Basinger’s mother in “I Dreamed of Africa” – recalls her initial encounter with the master.

Known chiefly for her gritty, tearful emoting in Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” (for which she won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress of 1954) and Fred Zinnemann’s “A Hatful of Rain” (in which she played a junkie’s long-suffering wife), she was astonished when Hitchcock (shown at right with Saint) invited her to lunch at his Bel Air estate to discuss the role of Eve Kendall.

“We didn’t talk business at all, but by the time the lunch was over, I was Eve Kendall,” says Saint, still mystified by the casting decision. “I was very shy in those days, and I remember sitting in the dining room, which overlooked the Bel Air golf course, and asking Hitch and his dear wife, Alma, ‘Don’t you get a lot of balls coming through the window?’ To this day, I’m fascinated that he saw me as a sexy spy-lady.”

Cineastes speculate that it was Hitchcock’s scheme to make Saint over into his favorite blonde, Grace Kelly. “Oh, I never thought that,” she says, “but he did seem to like the blonde look. The leading ladies who had worked with him gathered last year at a conference, and it was as if we’d all been married to the same guy. But each had a different story to tell. I mean, look at how he tried to overpower Tippi Hedren – not only in her career, but in her life. He never did that with me.”

No sexual hanky-panky?

“Omigod, no! Hitch was just very protective of me. And he knew exactly what he wanted. ‘North by Northwest’ was intended as entertainment. Hitch himself was always together, and what he liked to do was take other people who were well put-together – as Cary was, and I was when I met him on the train – and then place them in jeopardy and watch them topple and scrounge around for stability. Maybe the movie has a profound subtext, but you’d have to go into Hitch’s psyche to find it!” (To read Guy Flatley's 1972 interview with Alfred Hitchcock, click here; for Guy's 1973 interview with Cary Grant, click here.)

Nor does Saint dwell on the dark side of her screen lovers, a lineup that includes Grant, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Gregory Peck, Paul Newman, Warren Beatty and Richard Burton.

“I’ve worked with wonderful actors, but never with anyone as sensitive and vulnerable as Marlon Brando in ‘On the Waterfront.’ If you were doing a scene with him and you changed an inflection from the take before, he would always adjust to it. Nothing ever came out quite the same, and that kept you on your toes. My God, Marlon was a doll!”

Montgomery Clift, torn between Saint and Elizabeth Taylor in 1957’s “Raintree County,” was also a doll. “Monty was very shy, and in those days, when I was with someone shy, I became even more shy. We made a lunch date, and when we sat down, we had absolutely nothing to say. Then we went on the set and played a love scene – which was fine, because we had the words. He didn’t give many pieces away. But he was always sweet and kind. And he had Elizabeth, who was very dear to him, so he didn’t need me.”

One director Saint has worked with repeatedly on theater and TV projects is Jeffrey Hayden, who also has been her husband for the last 48 years.

“In the middle of the night, if I have an idea, I can wake Jeffrey up and we can discuss it. It’s fun sleeping with your director!”