Film / North by Northwest

"The Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures."
Ernest Lehman, screenwriter

A classic 1959 thriller by Alfred Hitchcock, in which an innocent man mistaken for a spy is chased halfway across the USA by enemy spies searching for a MacGuffin. Probably best known as being that movie that had a climax on Mount Rushmore or more likely as "the movie where a character is chased by a crop duster," a scene which has often been homaged.

The film begins with New York advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) being abducted by enemy agents working for the master foreign spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), who is currently masquerading as the diplomat Lester Townsend. Vandamm believes Roger to be an American spy, George Kaplan, who has been tailing Vandamm. When Roger insists he is not the spy, Vandamm orders him killed. His henchmen, led by the sinister Leonard (Martin Landau), decide to stage a fatal accident by pouring a bottle of bourbon down Roger's throat and then placing him at the wheel of a stolen car on a cliffside road.

One car chase later, Roger escapes but is arrested for drunk driving. He takes the skeptical police and his equally skeptical mother (Jessie Royce Landis) to the Townsend mansion where he was abducted, only to find Vandamm gone and the housekeeper, another Vandamm associate, claiming Roger stole the car after getting drunk at a party there.

To clear his name, Roger attempts to find George Kaplan. Accompanied by his mother, he searches Kaplan's vacant room at the Plaza Hotel, where he discovers little other than that Kaplan is a shorter man than he and that seemingly none of the hotel staff have ever met the elusive spy in person. After narrowly escaping another encounter with Vandamm's henchmen, Roger goes to the United Nations, where the real Townsend is giving a speech. Roger, surprised to find that it wasn't Townsend who abducted him, is even more surprised when Townsend's corpse lands in his arms. Now Wrongly Accused of murder, Roger flees New York.

After a train journey to Chicago, where Roger meets Femme Fatale Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), and the famous cropduster incident, Roger eventually follows Eve to an auction where Vandamm is bidding on a statue. To escape the spy, Roger disrupts the auction, deliberately getting himself arrested by the police.

The police are ordered to take Roger to the Professor (Leo G. Carroll), an American spymaster, who explains the plot. George Kaplan never existed; he was only a red herring, meant to divert the enemy from the real agent. While Roger's actions initially provided a useful inadvertent distraction, he has ended up raising Vandamm's suspicions towards the real spy, so the Professor proposes a complex charade to resolve the situation.

When this goes wrong, Roger and Eve end up being chased across Mount Rushmore by Leonard and Vandamm's other henchmen.

One of Hitchcock's most popular films, North by Northwest was a major stylistic influence on The Man From Uncle: in fact, Leo G. Carroll, who played Alexander Waverly in that series, plays a very similar character (sobriquetted "The Professor") in the film, and the TV show drew its "innocent gets caught up in international intrigue" shtick from the film. It has also sometimes been called the first James Bond film.

This film contains examples of:

  • Action Survivor: Roger.
  • Affably Evil: Vandamm. May be some traces of Faux Affably Evil in there, too.
  • The Alcoholic: Thornhill himself.
  • All There in the Manual: Valerian and Licht's names are never stated on-screen but are given in the script.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Leonard. "Call it my woman's intuition."
  • Artifact Title: Early drafts of the script called for the final showdown to take place in Alaska, but no one could come up with a better replacement title after the climactic scene was changed to Mount Rushmore.
    • Actually, "North by Northwest" doesn't even exist on the compass. The only valid directions similar are North by West, Northwest by North, and North-Northwest.
    • Although, at one point, Roger does get on a Northwest Airlines plane, and apparently goes north.
  • Artistic Title: The opening sequence, designed by Saul Bass, depicts the credits sliding up and down the side of a Manhattan office building.
  • As You Know: The truth about Kaplan is explained incredibly awkwardly by the Professor to the only other people in the world who already know about it.
  • Better Manhandle the Murder Weapon: Conveniently, a photographer is present to take an incriminating photo at the exact moment the victim falls on Cary Grant; not getting what's happening, he pulls the knife out of the victim's back. The look on Grant's face doesn't help, either. Then his guilty-looking mug is plastered on the front page of every newspaper in the USA!
  • Big Applesauce: The story begins in NYC.
  • Big Bad: Vandamm.
  • Big Fancy House: Townsend's Long Island estate. Vandamm's Frank Lloyd Wright-esque house on Mount Rushmore counts, too.
  • Blatant Lies: Thornhill's explanation to Eve for why the cops are combing the 20th Century Limited for him? Seven unpaid parking tickets.
  • Bowdlerise: Eve's initial conversation with Roger on the train originally included the line, "I never make love on an empty stomach." This was a bit too risqué for the Moral Guardians of the era, who insisted on having it re-dubbed as "I never discuss love on an empty stomach."
  • Butt Monkey: Thornhill is very much this, thanks to Vandamm (who wants him dead) and the police (who want him arrested).
  • California Doubling: The entire crop duster scene was supposedly set in Indiana southeast of Chicago, but actually filmed near Bakersfield, California because it's cheaper to film in California than take all the crew and equipment to Indiana.
    • The California coastline stands in for that of Glen Cove, New York, where Thornhill was originally to meet his fate. The north shore of Long Island is rocky, but not THAT rocky.
    • Vandamm's house behind Mount Rushmore. Anyone who's been to Mount Rushmore knows there aren't any houses within several miles. Not to mention the topography is all wrong. It does make for a good climax, however.
  • The Calls Are Coming from Inside the Hotel: Thornhill gets a call from the bad guys while casing Kaplan's room at the Plaza. He then finds out from the hotel's switchboard operator that the call came from the lobby.
  • The Chase: The film turns into this when Thornhill starts running for his life.
  • Chekhov's Gun: A literal one. The gun Eve uses on Thornhill in the diner scene is first revealed as loaded with blanks after Thornhill is revealed to still be alive. It's later revealed by Leonard to Vandamm to be loaded with blanks. Later on the housemaid uses it on Thornhill, and the blasts from inside the house give Eve the chance to grab the MacGuffin statue and escape with Thornhill. Could also count as a Chekhov's Boomerang.
    • Also, the ROT matchbox. Thornhill shows it to Eve first of all on the train to Chicago, then he later uses it near the end of the film to scribble a message inside to warn Eve of the attempt about to be made on her life.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: In the scene in the CIA after the scene in the United Nations where Thornhill is framed as the murderer of the real Lester Townsend, the Professor mention "their own agent" who later turns out to be Eve. Literally, considering the diner scene.
  • Chicago: We do go through Chicago on the way west.
  • Climbing Climax: The final fight on Mount Rushmore.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Several, beginning with Roger summoning a hotel bellboy at the very moment said bellboy is paging "George Kaplan".
  • Cool Car: That Mercedes convertible they try to kill Thornhill in.
  • Cool House: Vandamm's Frank Lloyd Wright-style abode in South Dakota.
  • Cool Train: The 20th Century Limited.
  • The Corpse Stops Here: The style in which Lester Townsend is killed, turning Thornhill into a fugitive.
  • Creator Cameo: Alfred Hitchcock is seen getting a bus door slammed in his face, right after his name appears on the screen in the opening credits.
  • Daylight Horror: The crop-duster attack.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Roger Thornhill.
    "Not that I mind a slight case of abduction now and then, but I have tickets for the theater this evening, to a show I was looking forward to and I get, well, kind of unreasonable about things like that."

    "Now you listen to me, I'm an advertising man, not a red herring. I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself 'slightly' killed."
    • And the Affably Evil Vandamm more than keeps up with him, leading to some fabulous one-liners and plenty of Snark-to-Snark Combat.
      Vandamm: Has anyone ever told you that you overplay your various roles rather severely, Mr. Kaplan? First, you're the outraged Madison Avenue man who claims he's been mistaken for someone else. Then you play the fugitive from justice, supposedly trying to clear his name of a crime he knows he didn't commit. And now, you play the peevish lover, stung by jealousy and betrayal. It seems to me you fellows could stand a little less training from the FBI and a little more from the Actors Studio.
      Roger: Apparently, the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.
      Vandamm: Your very next role. You'll be quite convincing, I assure you.
    • Roger's mother is one, too.
      Roger: I'm beginning to think that no one in the hotel has actually seen Kaplan.
      Mrs. Thornhill: Maybe he has his suits mended by invisible weavers.
  • Depraved Homosexual: Leonard is implied to be one.
  • Disney Villain Death: Valerian and Leonard (although Leonard was already dead from the bullet).
  • The Dragon: Leonard.
  • Double Reverse Quadruple Agent: Eve. When Roger first meets her, she seems to be merely a smart and coy civilian woman who is not involved in Roger's whole mess and simply helps him out because she's attracted to him. Then we find out that she's actually working for Vandamm and is even his mistress. And then we find out that she's really working for the government and is actually The Mole in Vandamm's entourage.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Vandamm really was genuinely fond of Eve. He does not take her betrayal well. Not at all.
  • Evil Brit: Vandamm.
  • Evil Minions: Valerian, Licht, "Mrs. Townshend", etc.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Professor.
    Thornhill: I don't believe I caught your name.
    Professor: I don't believe I pitched it.
  • Exposition Cut: When Roger is brought up to speed, the exposition is drowned out by the noise of the plane engines, since we already know this stuff.
  • Femme Fatale: Eve Kendall.
  • Five-Bad Band:
  • Foreshadowing: A few times.
    • The Professor, when we first see him, mentions their own agent who turns out to be Eve, and how said agent will be endangered if word that Kaplan doesn't exist reaches Vandamm, their life will be compromised. This does indeed go on to happen later, and in order to protect Eve, Thornhill has to pretend to be Kaplan.
    • Thornhill on the phone to his mother in Grand Central Station foreshadows the crop-dusting sequence once he arrives in Chicago as well as his first meeting with Eve: "The train, it's safer... Well, because there's no place to hide on a plane if anyone should recognize me... Oh, you want me to jump off a moving plane?"
    • At the art auction Thornhill and Vandamm's dialogue foreshadows the events of the diner scene:
      Roger: Apparently, the only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.
      Vandamm: Your very next role. You'll be quite convincing, I assure you.
  • Funny Background Event: During the scene where Eve pretends to shoot Thornhill, you can clearly see a kid in the background plug his ears in anticipation. Eva Marie Saint notes in the making of special that there were other good takes, and she has no idea why that one was used.
  • Gambit Pileup: Vandamm, the Professor, Thornhill and Eve have their own elaborate plans, which clash constantly.
  • Giving Them the Strip: Eve discards her scarf, jacket, and shoes in succession during the Mount Rushmore chase.
  • Going by the Matchbook: Roger writes a warning to Eve on his personal matchbook with his initials (R.O.T.) on them and secretly throws it next to her at Vandamm's house. When they first met on the train earlier Eve noticed his matchbook and asked what the "O" stood for. Roger's reply: "Nothing". This was a sly dig at producer David O. Selznick, with whom Hitchcock had regular battles for creative control; his middle initial also didn't stand for anything.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: Vandamm and Leonard are up to no good but the US government is indifferent to the plight of Thornhill, even though his life gets screwed over because of their misinformation campaign. Later, the government even tells Eve Kendall to sacrifice Thornhill for the greater good, leading Eve to send Roger out to get killed in the cornfield. The government finally decides to step in and save Thornhill but tell him that Eve will be married to Vandamm and serve as The Mole which makes Roger angry telling the government (as an Audience Surrogate) that if that was their way of fighting the Cold War, maybe they should lose it.
  • Hammer and Sickle Removed for Your Protection: The movie never mentions exactly who Vandamm and his associates are passing government secrets on to, although it's vaguely implied to be some foreign country. The line "War is hell, Mr. Thornhill. Even when it's a cold one." is as close as the movie comes to spelling it out.
  • He Knows Too Much: Vandamm believes Thornhill is guilty of this trope, believing him to be George Kaplan, despite Thornhill's arguments to the contrary.
  • Idiot Ball: Not once, but twice the villains choose an overly elaborate method to try and kill Thornhill, from which he is easily able to escape: first by getting him drunk and putting him behind the wheel of a car so that he'll drive into the ocean and it'll look like an accident, and the second being the entire scene with the crop duster. Hitchcock did acknowledge that the crop-duster scene is needlessly complex, but pointed out that no one thinks that while they're actually in the cinema.
  • If You're So Evil, Eat This Kitten: Eve Kendall, the spy, proves her loyalty to Vandamm by shooting Roger Thornhill, or so it seems until Leonard figures out the truth. This is averted earlier, where Eve earlier did betray Thornhill to Vandamm after meeting him on the train and the US government were indifferent to Thornhill getting killed. Eve, still under her cover as spy, hugs Thornhill upon finding out that he was alive.
  • I'm a Doctor, Not a Placeholder: "I'm an advertising man, not a red herring."
  • Indy Ploy: Thornhill quickly becomes adept at making escape plans on the fly.
  • Info Dump: The government agency takes a few minutes to explain what we already know.
  • Internal Reveal: The audience learns the truth about Kaplan at the end of the first act. See Plot-Based Voice Cancellation for when Thornhill finds out.
  • Invented Individual: George Kaplan.
  • It Was Here, I Swear!: When Thornhill takes the county detectives back to the house where Vandamm and his two goons had detained him. For instance, there are a lot of books where he remembered the henchmen getting a bottle of bourbon.
  • Knife Nut: Valerian.
  • Lady in Red: Eve wears a red dress in the climax of the movie, and when Thornhill confronts her after the crop-duster sequence.
  • Literary Allusion Title: From Hamlet:
    I am but mad north-northwest; when the wind is southerly,
    I know a hawk from a handsaw.
  • MacGuffin: Both the microfilm and George Kaplan, since the first two acts of the movie are about Thornhill and Vandamm both looking for the nonexistent spy.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: The enemy spies' first attempt to kill Thornhill plays this straight, where they force him to drink a whole bottle of bourbon, stick him in a car and drive it into the ocean so it appears he killed himself drink-driving.
  • Match Cut: One comes at the very end, as Roger goes from offering his hand to Eve on the cliff to pulling her onto the overhead bunk in a train cabin.
  • Meaningful Background Event: If you listen very closely to the background in the opening scene where Thornhill is sitting in the hotel bar with his associates, you can hear a bellboy announcing there's a page for "George Kaplan." Thornhill puts his hand up for an unrelated reason (he wants to send a telegram), and the spies assume he's Kaplan, answering the page. It's very easy to miss unless you're looking for it.
  • Meaningful Name: Two.
    • Emile Klinger, the officer who arrests Thornhill for drink-driving after the first attempt on his life. The man's surname refers to Thornhill's attempts to cling to reality as at first he doesn't know what is going on. Also doubles as Foreshadowing to the Mount Rushmore scenes at the end of the film.
    • Townsend. The murder of the real Lester Townsend (Town-Send) sends Thornhill from New York to Chicago to South Dakota.
  • Mischief for Punishment: Thornhill intentionally gets himself arrested for disorderly conduct to escape the men at the auction who want to kill him.
  • Mistaken for Spies: The entire basis of the film.
  • Momma's Boy: Thornhill, at least to the extent that it's Mother who he calls to bail him out of jail and assist him in casing "Kaplan"'s room at the Plaza.
  • Monumental Battle: The end of the film takes place on Mount Rushmore.
  • Mr. Exposition: The Professor.
  • Mugged for Disguise: Thornhill is able to slip out of the train station in Chicago, despite being the object of a huge manhunt, by dressing in a Red Cap’s uniform. Later, the REAL Red Cap is seen in his longjohns, being questioned by the police about the man who stole his uniform. (But then it turns out that he wasn’t really “Mugged For Disguise” so much as “Bribed For Disguise,” because we see him counting a wad of cash, presumably paid to him by Thornhill.)
  • Oh Crap!:
    • Thornhill after the murder of Lester Townsend and realizing everyone thinks he's done it because he has the murder weapon in his hand.
    • Thornhill when he sees the crop-dusting plane bearing down on him. And then again when it looks like the truck he is flagging down is about to run him down.
  • Overly Narrow Superlative: "You're the smartest woman I've ever spent the night with on a train."
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: To try and hide his identity in Grand Central Terminal, Thornhill dons a pair of sunglasses. The man at the counter is Genre Savvy enough to guess who he is, but Thornhill manages to escape.
  • Playing Gertrude: Jessie Royce Landis, who plays Thornhill's mother, was only seven years older than Cary Grant in real life.
  • Plot-Based Voice Cancellation: The Professor explains the whole "George Kaplan" scenario to Thornhill at the airport, and his voice is drowned out by the roar of plane engines. This is actually a rather clever inversion of the trope, in that we the viewers already know about the stuff he's talking about, so making the conversation inaudible is sparing us from the redundancy.
  • P.O.V. Cam: When a park ranger slugs Thornhill in the face on the Professor's orders, to prevent his detaining Eve.
  • The Precarious Ledge: Thornhill escapes the Professor's custody in the Rapid City hospital by navigating one of these. Then later, he and Eve are forced into scaling the top of Mount Rushmore to escape Vandamm and co.
  • Product Placement: Northwest Airlines has a sign at Midway Airport.
    • Which makes for a very subtle, nonverbal Title Drop: Thornhill and the Professor fly north by Northwest from Chicago to Rapid City.
    • Also a quick but clear shot of a Bergdorf Goodman label inside Eve Kendall's purse.
  • Red Herring: Thornhill becomes one in the film against his will and uses the phrase to the Professor: "I'm an advertising man, not a red herring!"
  • Red Shirt: The real Lester Townsend, who only serves to show that the man Thornhill thought was Townsend is not who he thought he was, and to be killed so that Thornhill now has to clear his name of a crime he didn't commit.
  • Remonstrating With a Knife: Lester Townsend is surreptitiously stabbed in the back by Valerian as he talks with Thornhill at the UN. As he falls forward, Thornhill catches him, and seeing the knife pulls it out of Townsend's back. Only then does the large crowd around them notice what's happened, and the trope is duly invoked.
  • Rule of Three: Happens a few times.
    • First, three attempts are made by the enemy spies on Thornhill's life: getting him drunk by forcing a whole bottle of bourbon down his throat, putting him behind the wheel of a car so that he'll drive into the ocean and it'll look like an accident, a knife is thrown at him but it misses and kills the real Lester Townsend instead, and finally the crop-duster sequence.
    • The film takes place in three main locations: New York, Chicago and South Dakota.
    • Roger uses a bathroom as a hiding place three times, two of them during the train sequence.
    • At the end of the film, Eve has become Thornhill's third wife.
  • Safety in Muggles: Thornhill in Grand Central Terminal after being wrongly suspected of the murder of the real Lester Townsend, and again during the auction scene.
  • Serial Spouse: Thornhill mentions having two ex-wives a few times. At the end, Eve is his third.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Thornhill dresses in the same grey suit for much of the film, only changing his attire near the end after being provided with fresh clothes.
    • Likewise, Vandamm, Valerian, Licht and Leonard are always dressed in suits.
  • Shirtless Scene: At one point we see Roger in a hospital room wearing only a white towel.
  • Shout-Out: Seeing Vandamm and Leonard together with Eve at the Chicago art auction leads Thornhill to comment, "The three of you together. Now that's a picture only Charles Addams could draw."
    • In the same scene Vandamm tells Roger that with all the roles he's been playing, he could use "a little less training from the FBI and a little more from the Actors Studio." Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau both studied there.
    • Shout Out: To Shakespeare: Some theorize that the title refers to Hamlet's line that he's only pretending to be insane: "I am but mad north-northwest."
    • When Roger is pretending to shower in the Chicago hotel room, he starts whistling "Singin' in the Rain".
  • Shown Their Work: When Thornhill and his secretary ride in a taxi from his Madison Avenue workplace to the Plaza Hotel, the rear-projected view shown through the back window is of the actual route between the two locations.
    • Every location is north by northwest. For example, said Manhattan taxi ride, New York to Chicago, and so on.
  • Sissy Villain: Leonard refers to his suspicion of who the double-agent is as his "woman's intuition" and Vandamm comments that he thinks Leonard is jealous of his relationship with Eve.
  • Sorry Ociffer: Thornhill is force-fed a quart of bourbon and put behind the wheel of a car on a cliffside road to kill himself. He manages to escape his foes, but gets caught by the police. At the station he absolutely admits that he's drunk, but can't get them to believe the circumstances.
  • Spanner in the Works: Thornhill screws up both plans (see below) before being incorporated into them.
  • Spiritual Successor: To previous Hitchcock films The 39 Steps and Saboteur.
  • Staged Shooting: Eve shoots Roger in the Mt. Rushmore restaurant with blank cartridges.
  • Standard Hollywood Strafing Procedure: The crop duster attacking Thornhill.
  • Take My Hand: The end of the film where Thornhill and Eve are hanging off of Mount Rushmore.
  • They Do: Roger and Eve are husband and wife in the final scene.

Alternative Title(s): North By Northwest