Screening Log #51: North by Northwest (1959)

Written by Ernest Lehman
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and James Mason

 

 

 

To an extent, society never wants to co-operate with our own ideas of ourselves. There are many points in time where the self that we perceive does not mesh compatibly with the self that society has carved out of itself for us. Roles and identities are thrust onto individuals, prescribed by a larger external whole, some abstract communal will that envisions the individual as a thing it is not in order to fill a hole somewhere in its fabric. This misconstruction of identity, then, naturally is able to permeate interpersonal relationships between individuals; the identity ascribed to one by an other is almost always at odds, at least minorly, with the self-reflexive identity of the individual. This tension between perceived identities can generate social anxiety, distend relationships, and lead to situations in which the causality of events is obscured, if not entirely unavailable, to individuals. See: nearly any story by Franz Kafka.

The tensions and anxieties inherent in this Kafkaesque scenario are manifested in potentially fatal physical form in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Manhattan Madison Avenue advertiser – and potentially proto-Don Draper – Roger Thornhill, Cary Grant, is abducted by some toughs, during a business lunch with some colleagues. The toughs mistake Thornhill for a US government agent known as George Kaplan and take him before Philip Vandamm, James Mason, posing, at the time, as United Nations speaker Lester Townsend. Vandamm is convinced that Thornhill is Kaplan and, as such, requires elimination before he gets too close to convicting him for his ambiguously illegal activities. Thornhill is filled with booze and narrowly escapes death by not-so-accidental drunk driving and finds, after spending the night in the drunk tank, that the entire previous evening was covered up by Vandamm and his men.

This all leads to Thornhill seeking out the actual Townsend at the U.N., who is assassinated, falling into Roger’s arms and implicating him as the murderer. The noose of mistaken identity tightens; Kafka rubs his hands together gleefully. Thornhill sets out to find this Kaplan, thinking him the key to setting this all right. He follows Kaplan’s itinerary onto a train to Chicago where he meets Eve Kendall, Eva Marie Saint, a young woman who is very helpful in Roger’s ducking of the train conductor and the police who are searching for him. Kendall arranges a meeting with Kaplan for Thornhill, however, this meeting, the audience knows, portends bad happenings for Thornhill – the viewer has been informed of both a connection between Kendall and Vandamm’s men, as well as of the fact that Kaplan is a non-person created by the US government agencies following Vandamm’s activity.

Thornhill has simply been unfortunate enough to have been mistaken for a man who does not exist, speaking to the power of society and perception to abstract identity from an individual. The US government has created the vacuum of an empty identity that Thornhill happens to physically manifest – despite being a larger man, suit-wise. That this information is withheld from Thornhill contributes to the tension that Hitchcock builds; the explosive bomb is not merely under the seat that Roger sits on, it is lurking in his own identity. This strange balance, between who Thornhill is and who he thinks he is, is visually articulated in Hitchcock’s decision to have him consistently wearing a grey suit. Thornhill is neither black nor white, neither himself nor Kaplan, but rather some combination of the two men, ambiguous and unknown even to himself for much of the film.

As with any good thriller, there are plot twists and character revelations that inflect the proceedings. The plans of both parties involved become complicated by these twists and revelations, and the film ends with a tried and true visual metaphor for the consummation of a marriage. Populated by several of Hitchcock’s most iconic set pieces – the crop duster sequence, and the finale atop Mt. Rushmore – North by Northwest stands alone as a stylish and supremely Hitchcockian thriller – replete with a strange relationship between the protagonist and his mother.

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