The Expedient Exaggerations of “North by Northwest”

“North by Northwest” (1959) ticks off a lot of Hitchcock’s favorite boxes.

  • a Sexy Blonde
  • modes of transit (in spades)
  • elaborate chase scenes
  • espionage
  • a Wrong Man

And yet, it seems always to have lingered in the shadow of “Vertigo” (1958). “Vertigo” is amazing, of course, but deeply disturbing. (Bonus points for casting All-American Nice Guy Jimmy Stewart as Creepy Ex-Cop Stalker Guy.) By contrast, “North by Northwest” is fun, and perhaps taken less seriously as a result. For me, though, it is, if not the perfect Hitchcock film, then close to it.

There are way too many things one can talk about when one talks about “North by Northwest,” so here’s a spoiler alert list of things I’d like to tackle but haven’t here: the visual rhyming (across scenes and even films), questions of public and private spaces in the film, the presentation of women, the overhead shots, and Martin Landau, off the top of my head.

One way of thinking about “North by Northwest” is as a reversal of—or, as film theorist Raymond Bellour put it, “a lavish rejoinder to”—Hitch’s earlier “The 39 Steps” (1935), which begins as a spy thriller and ends as a romantic comedy (except for poor Memory, a martyr to his gift). “North by Northwest” begins as a comedy of mistaken identity and ends as a spy thriller.

Yet, rather than allowing protagonist Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) to assert his identity, as you might expect in the case of a mistaken identity, the film continually needles him with the empty space where his identity ought to be. Poor Roger isn’t even mistaken for a real person—he is mistaken for a figment of the CIA’s imagination. The CIA spy “George Kaplan” was invented to keep the villainous Phillip Vandamm (James Mason, delicious) from discovering that his mistress, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint, luminous), is the CIA’s mole.

The Expedient Exaggeration

The film opens as Roger Thornhill is heading out of the office to meet colleagues for drinks. Dragging his secretary, Maggie (Doreen Lang) along on the trip to the Oak Room to give her last minute instructions, he makes clear that the priority is making sure she reminds his mother about their theater date for that evening. He pretends his secretary is ill to steal a taxi. That man knew you were lying, she tells her boss.

“There are no lies in advertising,” he reminds her, “only the expedient exaggeration.” Maggie rolls her eyes, or she should. Thornhill, however, is about to be on the receiving end of a more dangerous expedient exaggeration, the government’s made-up spy, Kaplan.

En route to the Oak Room, we discover that Roger’s only meaningful relationship is with his mother. He sleeps around, but Maggie points out that he can’t remember which “expedient exaggeration” he’s told which woman.

Having sent his secretary back to the office, and settled among his colleagues in the bar, Roger is unable to focus. Zut! He realizes he hasn’t given his secretary the right contact information for his mother. Apparently desperate to remind his mother about their date, he gets the attention of a lobby boy in order to send a message. Unfortunately his raised hand coincides exactly with another fellow calling out for George Kaplan, who has a phone call.

Vandamm’s men, who have engineered this phony call, identify a nonexistent man with a nonexistent phone call. They see what they’re looking for, the result of any effective expedient exaggeration: in this case, they see the spy George Kaplan, whom their phantom phone call has conjured into existence, and not some Madison Avenue ad man named Roger Thornhill.

George Kaplan the expedient exaggerationRoger is obviously successful and charming, but there isn’t much to him beyond that. His most notable characteristic is an unusually close relationship with his mother…with whom he lives. There’s no reason for Vandamm’s men not to mistake him for Kaplan. They don’t know much about Kaplan, but, then, there isn’t much to know about Thornhill.

Play-acting

Thanks to Vandamm’s men, Roger misses his date with Mom, but he does end up at another theater of sorts. Packed into a second taxi, Roger is escorted to the estate of Mr. Townsend, where Vandamm, himself masquerading as Townsend, confronts him, insisting that “Roger Thornhill” is a role the real George Kaplan is playing. (This sounds rather complicated, and, in fact, Cary Grant couldn’t make heads or tails of the plot during the filming. It’s all perfectly clear in the telling, thanks to Hitchcock’s meticulousness. Or maybe Alma Reville’s meticulousness.)

The motif of acting surfaces every time Thornhill and Vandamm meet (and elsewhere in the film). During the masterful auction house sequence, Vandamm accuses Thornhill of “overplaying your role rather badly.” To avoid being murdered by Vandamm’s men, Thornhill pretends to be crazy in order to be hauled off by the police, to safety, a performance Vandamm sadly misses. It’s the kind of effortless-looking screwball comedy at which Grant excels.

Though not quite a play within a play, Thornhill’s auction-house act resonates as the opposite of Hamlet’s. Despite being persistently confused with another man and nearly killed on several occasions, forced into situations and behaviors that seem completely foreign to him, Thornhill never once questions his own sanity.

During his charade as a bothersome lunatic, Thornhill interrupts the auction of a particular item to ask, “How do we know it’s not a fake?”

An understandably irate woman sitting in front of him turns around and, with typical Hitchcockian irony, snaps, “We know you’re not a fake. You’re a genuine idiot!”

R O T at the Center

Roger meets the actual spy Eve Kendall supposedly but-of-course not-at-all by chance on the Twentieth Century train from NYC to Chicago. Cleverly disguised in a pair of cary grant as george kaplansunglasses in order to elude his pursuers – now both Vandamm’s men and the police – he plops down at Eve’s table in the dining car. After a flirtatious main course in which the prospect of casual sex is discussed more or less openly—the original line “I never make love on an empty stomach” has been dubbed over—Roger takes out a monogrammed book of matches to light Eve’s cigarette. (It’s required to light cigarettes when discussing sex in films until sometime in the 80s.)

“That’s my trademark, ROT.”

“Roger O. Thornhill. What does the “O” stand for?”

“Nothing.”

Roger’s admission that there is nothing at his center prompts a downright lascivious look from Eve. (Which never fails to strike me as peculiar.) The scene ends with Roger retreating to the large drawing room Eve has all to herself. The fact that local cops have boarded the train is perhaps not the only reason for this disappearing act.

thornhill's matchbookRoger’s trademark nothing not only tells us about Thornhill but also functions as a sly symbol of Hitchcock’s own famous MacGuffin—the pretext that allows the plot to proceed but which actually doesn’t matter a bit. For example, in “The Lady Vanishes” (1938), the MacGuffin is the tune that the delightful Miss Froy (Dame Mae Whitty) must bring back to the British government. The audience hears the tune a few times but never, not even at the end, learns what it means. Theoretically, if there’s no tune, there’s no government secret (or whatever), no reason for anybody to be bothering about Miss Froy, and thus no story.

In “North by Northwest,” the MacGuffin turns out to be some microfilm that Vandamm is smuggling out of the country. There’s a good argument to be made, however, that the real MacGuffin, if you can talk about a real fake thing, and Hitchcock has made a whole movie about one, so I say we can—that the real MacGuffin in “North by Northwest” is the nonexistent Mr. Kaplan, a phantom spy invented for an invisible (Cold) war. We don’t even learn about the microfilm until halfway through the movie. What everyone is actually chasing in the movie, of course, is the “nothing,” George Kaplan.

As a real spy, Miss Kendall has her own identity issues, of course. She began her relationship with Vandamm as “herself,” but, on discovering his true character, was then coaxed by the CIA into the expedient exaggeration of remaining his mistress in order to spy on him. The middle stretch of the film is occupied with the question of whether Miss Kendall is on Thornhill’s side or Vandamm’s.

At the beginning of the auction house scene, Roger has just realized Eve’s connection to Vandamm, but without understanding its implications. Betrayed, he refers to her as a piece of sculpture who “has no feelings to hurt.” Roger is suggesting that she, too, has “nothing” at her center. Because this is Hitchcock, there is an actual statue in this scene, the one Vandamm is at the auction to acquire. That statue would be an empty figurine, but, like Eve and Roger, it too has been pressed into service, carrying the mysterious-yet-meaningless microfilm.

The auction house sequence is a turning point for Thornhill’s character. Thus far he’s been buffeted about, from New York to Chicago (where he’s almost buffeted right out of existence by a crop duster) and back to New York, bundled into taxis, trains, and buses as he is pursued by Vandamm and the police. Thornhill takes control of the narrative in this scene, by creating an expedient exaggeration of his own, acting like crazy person. His impending arrest forces the CIA’s hand, and Roger is finally let in on the secret of Eve’s identity.

The “Little Drama”

Ostensibly, all this play-acting is what helps Roger evolve from a man obsessed with his mother into the new, doting husband of Eve, a grown-up relationship. So, of course, Roger’s trademark makes a second appearance to seal the deal. Near the end of the film, north by northwest macguffinRoger breaks into Vandamm’s house atop Mount Rushmore to save Eve. To alert her to Vandamm’s plan to bump her off—out of the plane she’s about to get on—he uses the matchbook to write her a note: “They’re onto you—I’m in your room.” Roger’s filling in the matchbook to demonstrate his presence not only saves Eve (after some dilly-dallying on the faces of Mt. Rushmore), it also signals he’s overcome his bachelorhood.

Only through becoming George Kaplan, the spy Eve needs, is Roger able to create the happy ending we’re expecting.

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