north by northwest

And You Call Yourself a Film Buff?! – North By Northwest

Written by Alex Gibson on . Posted in Blogs

By Gary Kafer

It’s often said that you know a Hitchcock film when you see it: the platinum blonde seductress, the motif of mistaken identity, the deployment of famous landmarks, and, of course, the oh-so-oedipal mother/son relationships. Cued in a majority of his movies, these integral elements not only produce groundbreaking moments of suspense, but also signal an auteur at work. It perhaps seems somewhat suspicious, or shall I even say sacrilegious, to consider myself a “film buff” without seeing his 1959 masterpiece North By Northwest, which screenwriter Ernest Lehman reportedly deemed: “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.”

Coming off the tail of Vertigo, which topped Citizen Kane as Sight & Sound’s “Greatest Film of All Time” two years ago, Hitchcock delivered an unprecedented slate of classics: North By Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds. It was in this period that North earned much of its contemporary notoriety as the textbook Hitchcockian archetype that it is, no doubt in thanks to Lehman’s deliciously thrilling screenplay rife with crime-ridden plot twists and troubled romance. Starring a debonair Cary Grant as the quick-witted, fast-talking playboy and advertising executive Roger Thornhill, Hitchcock’s spy thriller throws our innocent protagonist into the labyrinthine hollows of an unjust narrative, having been mistaken for a certain George Kaplan and kidnapped by the cronies of the corrupt spy Phillip Vandamm (portrayed by devilishly likeable James Mason). After being framed for a murder at the United Nations, Thornhill races through the American landscape, from Grand Central Station to Mount Rushmore, all while having just enough time to plunge into a steamy not-so-accidental affair with a cool Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall, a golden-haired femme fatale with a secret agenda of her own. Assuming Kaplan’s identity, Thornhill sets his sight on uncovering the true motives of his romantic pursuer.

The catch? Well, the ‘truth’ is as elusive as Thornhill and Kendall’s courting banter is evasive (“It’s going to be a long night. And I don’t particularly like the book I’ve started.”). Using the microfilm containing “government secrets” as a trademark mcguffin, Thornhill’s journey in espionage begins to unravel. Instead, Hitchcock appears far more interested in a psychoanalytic reading of the characters’ sexualities and a polemical critique of America’s political crisis in the late-1950s, which comes to the fore when The Professor (a rattled Leo Carroll) admits to the hapless sacrifice of innocents for the chance of emerging the victor: “War is hell, Mr. Thornhill. Even when it’s a cold one.”

While the immediacy of this film’s symbolism may seem lost in today’s political and social environ, the hackneyed quips and saucy euphemisms remain relevant if only for their entertaining self-reflexivity. But, whether or not the polished repartee of an era long gone suits contemporary audiences, the influence of the film is near impossible to deny: from the numerous references throughout the James Bond franchise to George Castanza’s phony career as an “importer-exporter” in Seinfeld. It is here that Hitchcock’s signature in North By Northwest triumphs as the unparalleled exemplar of Hollywood production that it is. It may be dated, but it’s still as suspenseful as hell.


Gary Kafer, originally from southern Virginia, is a senior in Cinema Studies and Visual Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

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