North by Northwest (1959)

Right from the geometric simplicity of this film’s opening credits, I had fallen completely under Hitchcock’s spell. Though I didn’t know it, this sequence of rapidly moving lines and objects that metamorphose into other likenesses were giving me a taste of the rapidly shifting identities and locations of North By Northwest’s story.

The opening credits of North By Northwest are a mesmerising optical delight
The opening credits, designed by Saul Bass

Once the mesmerising pattern of blue lines and green squares transforms into a modernist skyscraper, we are soon transported to its foyer, where lift doors open and set free a mixed bag of suits and their secretaries. It felt familiar—but then again, anything set in mid-century Manhattan has lately conjured feelings of Mad Men. It wasn’t until Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is revealed to be an ad man – and a pretty smooth one at that, with two ex-wives to boot – that I began to wonder whether Matthew Wiener wasn’t a little inspired by Hitchcock’s 1959 film, at least aesthetically.

North By Northwest's opening scenes - more than a little inspiring for Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner?
A scene from Mad Men, season 3 episode 1, that felt surprisingly familiar while watching North By Northwest‘s opening

But while Don Draper assumes someone else’s identity to escape what he sees as a shameful past, Hitchcock’s protagonist Thornhill is trying to shake off a mistaken identity, that of George Kaplan. It’s this man’s name that stalks him throughout the film and upends his life.

The crux of the story is that George Kaplan doesn’t exist: his identity is a decoy, invented by the CIA to throw spy Philip Vandamm (James Mason) off the scent of their real agent in the field, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who is romantically involved with Vandamm. Thornhill’s life is being put on hold by a ghost of a man, a phantom hotel guest who has suits laundered and messages left for him, but is never seen.

The mess starts when Thornhill gets the attention of a Plaza Hotel bus boy at exactly the wrong moment. The bus boy is calling out Kaplan’s name, trying to locate him (why is never explained) when Thornhill gestures at him. Two of Phillip Vandamm’s goons are watching and they nab Thornhill when he leaves the bar.

Thornhill’s initial frustration at this incursion into his otherwise straightforward bachelor’s life is thankfully short-lived. His pleas, bluster and invoking of mother’s wrath re: the theatre felt a bit hammy and came off like a bratty boy’s antics.

Don Draper was a far more shrewd character, who seemed to instinctively understand that identities and stories can be fluid things, interchangeable according to the circumstances and end goal. Thornhill only achieves this realisation in crisis. After he becomes a wanted man, wrongly accused of the murder of a diplomat at the United Nations, the identity of Kaplan becomes a refuge from the authorities for Thornhill.

The scenes at the United Nations headquarters in New York—the first of many memorable locations—are my favourite in the whole film. The aerial shot as Thornhill flees the building looks like an abstract painting with its strong lines and blocks of colour. The utter isolation of the individual, particularly in a time of panic and siege, is also beautifully conveyed by Thornhill’s stick-like figure running across the huge expanse of the building’s forecourt.

An aerial shot of the UN forecourt is one of the most memorable pieces of photography in the film
Roger Thornhill’s lone figure is seen outside the UN Headquarters, racing toward a taxi after he is wrongly embroiled in the murder of a diplomat

Meanwhile Vandamm and co. are still hot on the trail, with the quick-talking, head-turning Eve Kendall now in tow. The undercover CIA agent soon becomes Thornhill’s ally on his train journey from New York to Chicago as he evades the police.

The pair share several scenes of such great chat that you can imagine yourself there with tingling skin and knots in your stomach as you play along with the game. I was momentarily dismayed when it appears that Eve is in cahoots with Vandamm. A more hardened film-watcher would probably know better than to be sucked in by witty romantic interests but I—along with Thornhill—was completely charmed.

But, the film’s real love interest is with location. Hitchcock easily shifts from big city madness to staid country wealth to utterly ordinary farming plains much as we can criss-cross countries or continents on a whim today. I think there is a preoccupation with American power in his choice of setting. The engine room of global politics, the bustling corporate atmosphere of Madison Avenue, and the bounty of produce associated with the north-west all speak to common notions of American (N.B. masculine) success.

Mount Rushmore's rock face looms against a bright blue sky
Mount Rushmore is just one of many of Hitchcock’s ingenious locations

The film’s climax is played out in the fabulously extraordinary grounds of Mount Rushmore. The ginormous stone busts loom over North By Northwest’s final scenes, where Thornhill’s attempt to free Eve from Vandamm is almost thwarted by forces bigger than the pair’s desire. However, Thornhill’s own will triumphs (not without some daring on Kendall’s part) and they manage to evade Vandamm’s men after a scrabble across the faces of the four presidents.

Thornhill and Kendall hold on as they slip and slide down the rock of Mount Rushmore
At one point Thornhill and Kendall literally slide down the rockface of one of the presidents

 

This scene is so kooky and far-fetched that it’s lots of fun to watch, in spite of the danger the hero and heroine are in. The mammoth profile of each carved face become useful shields for Thornhill and Kendall, who are luckily obscured at one point by Washington and Jefferson’s noses. The presidents’ facial features also provide useful hand holds when Kendall eventually slips. But it’s a shot fired by park rangers that kills chief cronie Leonard and saves the pair’s lives.

This final act undercuts any sense of Thornhill fulfilling the great American myth of self-made luck. But, Hitchcock was a Brit after all, and perhaps he felt the need to balance out his visual ode to the land of the free. Either way, the film’s sappy ending (Thornhill and Eve reunited on a train) pales next to the joyous experience of watching everything leading up to it.

All images by Emma Breheny

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