North by Northwest showcases Cary Grant’s final performance in Hitchcock’s cinematic repertoire. Coming after To Catch a Thief, Notorious and Suspicion, Grant gives perhaps his best performance in this spy thriller.
In a case of mistaken identity, Manhattan Ad-man Roger Thornville is kidnapped at a bar and taken to a large, unknown house. It becomes immediately apparent to both Thornhill and the audience, that the group of men believe him to be George Caplan, a government agent. After escaping foreign spy Phillip Vandamm and his right-hand Leonard, Thornhill follows Caplan’s trial to understand what he has been thrust into. This trail leads him to being accused of murder, sending Thornhill on a cross-country run from the police. On the 20th Century Limited train to Chicago, espionage meets romance in his tryst with Eve Kendall. Eve, played by Eva Marie Sant, initially seems an innocent bystander and helps Roger evade trouble. Her reveal to be an agent of Vandamm is one of the first major twists of the film.
The suspense carried by Grant’s portrayal of the unshakeable businessman follows car and train pursuits, double-dealing spies, and the famous seductive ‘Hitchcock blonde.’ The pace does not let up once, culminating in the iconic crop-duster murder scene and an escape across Mount Rushmore – but what can it tell us about its original 1959 American audience?
The archetypal American man, Grant as Thornville represents the Mad Men-esque figure we have come to expect of this era. An unflappable, constantly cool customer, who is suave in a suit in the face of danger, faces off and wins against foreign spies. This is reminiscent of Cold War America – mistrustful of foreign agents and domestic authorities – seemingly comforted by the type of man Thornhill represents. As the plot and danger draws Thornhill to the United Nations General Assembly, senior government officials and their motives are questioned, as they are aware of Thornhill’s situation but reluctant to pull him out lest it blows their operation. Whilst George Caplan, has never existed beyond acting as a fake decoy, Thornville assumes his patterns and behaviours in the attempt to bring down foreign enemies, placing the onus and power into the hands of the everyman.
The film is a two-hour showcase of Grant’s acting prowess, as it moves from spy drama, thriller and seductive romance throughout. Whilst Eva Marie Sant may initially seem the typical Hitchcock Blonde archetype, Eve Kendall breaks away from the foreign ties that bound her and joins Thornhill in these pursuits and fights – clearly nobody’s plaything. North by Northwest has not received the same level of Freudian analysis of Hitchcock’s other films, as Vertigo and Psycho have, but its capturing of its contemporary climate has cemented it in cinematic legacy. The graphic title sequence of the film by Saul Bass, features criss-crossing lines that depict the overlapping nature of the film’s plot.
From the start, North by Northwest is a film that plays with the ideas of identity and twists, to create suspense and drama that is upheld throughout, representing an America caught in a fraught political climate.