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Film / North by Northwest

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

A classic 1959 thriller by Alfred Hitchcock, in which an innocent man is mistaken for a spy and pursued halfway across the USA by enemy spies searching for a MacGuffin. You may know it as "the one with the climax on Mount Rushmore." Or, better still, as "the one where Cary Grant gets chased by a crop duster," a scene which has often been homaged.

Shortly after the film begins, Manhattan advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Grant) finds himself abducted by enemy agents working for the master foreign spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), who's currently masquerading as the UN diplomat Lester Townsend. Through a case of Mistaken Identity, Vandamm believes Roger to be George Kaplan, an American spy who's been tailing him. When Roger insists he isn't the spy, Vandamm orders him killed. His henchmen, led by the sinister Leonard (Martin Landau), decide to stage a fatal accident by forcing Roger to consume a full bottle of bourbon and then placing him at the wheel of a stolen car and sending him down a trecherously winding cliffside road.

One car chase later, Roger escapes but is arrested for drunk driving. The following day, 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, who's another Vandamm associate, claiming that 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 discover it wasn't actually Townsend who abducted him, is even more surprised when Townsend's corpse falls into his arms, after one of Vandamm's mooks knifes the uncomprehending diplomat in the back. Roger's photo is taken on the spot, and now not only fearing for his life but finding himself Wrongly Accused of murder, he decides to flee New York.

After a train journey to Chicago—during which Roger meets Femme Fatale Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint)—and another attempt on his life in the famous crop-duster attack, Roger eventually follows Eve to an art auction, where Vandamm is bidding on a statue. To escape the spy and his mooks, 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 also a major stylistic influence on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. (For one thing, that series had Leo G. Carroll playing a very similar character type in Alexander Waverly, and drew most of its "innocents getting caught up in international intrigue" schtick from this film.) And it has been seen by many as providing part of the template for the James Bond films.

At two hours and 16 minutes, it's Hitchcock's longest film (other than the special extended DVD cut of Topaz).

In 2015, it was adapted into a stage play in Australia; it played twice in Melbourne (2015–16), had a 2017 season in the UK (Bath) that traveled to Toronto later that year, and played once more in Australia (Adelaide) in 2018–19.

This film contains examples of:

  • Action Survivor: Roger. One poorly-timed summon at a restaurant and he's thrust into a life-threatening conspiracy involving Cold War espionage.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: During the auction scene, Thornhill bids $13 when the auctioneer had just set the bid at $1300. The other auction attendees, who were initially flustered at his previous oddball statements, actually laugh at this one.
  • Affably Evil: Vandamm. May be some traces of Faux Affably Evil in there, too.
  • The Alcoholic: Thornhill himself is hinted to be one. Though he insists (when on the phone with his mother following the drunken chase in Glen Cove) that he wasn't trying to get drunk this time, the latter's verbal scoffing indicates she's not convinced; she already has a habit of sniffing his breath "like a bloodhound," and at the Oak Bar, his colleagues joke that he "may be slow in starting, but there's nobody faster coming down the home stretch." He later tells the Professor that he has "several bartenders that depend upon me."
  • All There in the Manual: The names of the Vandamm henchmen who first abduct Roger (Valerian and Licht) are never stated on-screen but are given in the script, as is Roger's mother's first name (Clara).
  • Ambiguously Bi: Vandamm. "... I think you're jealous. No, I mean it. I'm very touched, very."
  • Ambiguously Gay: Leonard. "Call it my woman's intuition."
  • Arch-Enemy: Phillip Vandamm to Roger O Thornhill.
  • Aren't You Going to Ravish Me?: The woman, whose hospital room Thornhill intrudes through, certainly seems to have this attitude.
  • 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 License – Geography:
    • Roger is seen driving on a treacherous, winding coastal road along cliffs several hundred feet high... in Long Island, New York! While there are some small cliffs in parts of Long Island, there is no scenery or road there anywhere approaching the type of landscape he was driving in, which was clearly modeled after the California coast.
    • Though in another scene, the movie got it right: when Roger and his secretary are riding in a taxi from his Madison Avenue office to the Plaza Hotel, the view through the taxi's back window is the actual route a vehicle would take between the two locations.
  • Artistic Title: The opening sequence, designed by Saul Bass, depicts the credits sliding up and down the glass facade 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.
  • Auction: In Chicago, Roger makes a public nuisance of himself at an art auction (claiming that the paintings are fake, bidding $12 when the highest preceding bid was $1000, etc.) so that the police will arrest him, thus keeping Vandamm from getting his hands on him. It is subsequently revealed that Vandamm used the auction house as a cover to smuggle microfilm out of the country.
  • Author Avatar: You can make a case that The Professor is the closest Hitchcock came to having one of these in a film, since he's a droll, wily Englishman with a dry sense of humor who excels in challenging situations, and, in his role as Mr. Exposition, knows how to tell a story and properly convey a scenario.
  • Badass on Paper: Thornhill is just an ordinary Madison Avenue executive, yet over the course of the film, he manages to survive three attempts made on his life, causes the death of one of the perpetrators and manages to save Eve from certain death.
  • Better Manhandle the Murder Weapon: Conveniently, a newspaper photographer is present to take an incriminating photo at the exact moment the real Townsend falls on Thornhill. Not getting what's happening, Thornhill pulls the knife out of the Townsend's back, right when the photographer takes the picture. The look on Roger's face doesn't help, either. Then his guilty-looking mug is plastered on the front page of every newspaper in the country.
  • Big Applesauce: The story opens in New York City and most of the first section takes place there, specifically the Plaza Hotel, the United Nations, and Grand Central Terminal (most of which were replicated on Hollywood soundstages, with only few exteriors).
  • Big Bad: Phillip Vandamm.
  • Big Damn Kiss: Quite a few between Thornhill and Eve on the train.
    • Thornhill and Eve again in the woods in South Dakota after the diner scene.
    • Thornhill and Eve again in the final scene.
  • Big Fancy House: Townsend's Long Island estate. Vandamm's Frank Lloyd Wright-esque house on Mount Rushmore counts, too.
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: After Thornhill's secretary scolds him for lying to get a cab (see Failing a Taxi, below) he informs her that "in the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie; there's only the expedient exaggeration."
  • 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."
    • this was restored for the stage production.
  • Butt-Monkey: Thornhill is very much this, thanks to Vandamm (who wants him dead) and the police (who want him arrested).
  • 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.
  • Call-Back: Thornhill asks the Professor for some bourbon after he is given new clothes in the hospital. Bourbon was the same drink forced on him earlier at Townsend's Long Island estate.
  • Cassandra Truth: But of course. Vandamm refuses to believe Thornhill is anyone other than George Kaplan. Towards the end, Thornhill even has to willingly pretend to be George Kaplan for Eve's sake.
  • Casual Danger Dialogue: At the climax, Roger and Eve engage in witty banter while dangling by their fingertips from Mt. Rushmore.
  • 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 matchbook. 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 mentions "their own agent" who later turns out to be Eve. Literally, considering the diner scene.
  • Clear My Name: Roger sets out to do this when he's accused of murder. This is a Hitchcock film, after all.
  • Climbing Climax: The final fight on Mount Rushmore.
  • Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are: Eve says this to Roger after the porter leaves to let him know he can come out from hiding in the bathroom.
  • Conspicuously Light Patch: The climax takes place on the front of Mt. Rushmore. If you look very carefully in the moments in which you can see the full monument, you can see the blue-tinted line.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Several, beginning with Roger Thornhill 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 on Mount Rushmore.
  • Cool Train: The 20th Century Limited.
  • The Corpse Stops Here: The style in which Lester Townsend is killed, turning Thornhill into a fugitive.
  • Crash-Into Hello: Roger and Eve meet this way on the train. Turns out this was all part of the plan.
  • 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.
    • Contrary to rumor, he didn't make a second cameo Disguised in Drag on the train. That was veteran character actress Jesslyn Fax (who does look a lot like a female Hitchcock).
    • This is even included in the stage production: on his way to the fateful dinner meeting, Roger and his secretary steal a cab, claiming the woman is ill, from an ensemble member dressed and made up to imitate Hitchcock. (see Failing a Taxi)
  • Creepy Blue Eyes: Leonard.
  • Curves in All the Right Places:
    Eve: I'm a big girl.
    Roger: Yeah, and in all the right places, too.
  • 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). Also, when Leonard tells Vandamm that Eve is revealed to be a mole, Vandamm tells him they will kill her by pushing her out of the plane when it's flying over water. Thankfully, Eve never makes it to the plane.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: After Roger rescues Eve and they marry, he helps her into the sleeping compartment of another train. We then see the train entering a tunnel. Why? No reason.
  • Double-Meaning Title: As well as the Hamlet reference, it's also about how the protagonist has to go north on Northwest Airlines.
  • 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.
  • The Dragon: Leonard.
  • Dramatically Missing the Point: Also used as a darkly comical element as well, but Vandamm, who tries to come off as clever and shrewd, doesn't get that the person he assumes is deceiving him (Roger) is on the level, while the person closest to him (Eve) is the deceptive one.
  • Dramatic Irony: As the second act begins, the Professor explains to his subordinates (and the audience) that Kaplan doesn't actually exist, and is a carefully-maintained fiction that serves as the cover for their real spy. Later, the audience sees Eve tip off Thornhill's enemies, revealing that she is part of Vandamm's spy ring. The two coincide in the crop duster attack, where Thornhill cluelessly goes to a rendezvous Eve claims to have set up after calling Kaplan, meaning we know he's walking into a trap but not the form.
  • Driving a Desk: Used seamlessly in the crop-duster scene.
  • Drunk Driver: The bad guys force-feed Roger a quart of whiskey and put him behind the wheel of a car, sending him on his way. He somehow manages to avoid killing himself or anyone else, but gets thrown in jail. His mother and lawyer bail him out, taking these events to be his usual carousing hijinks over his frustrated explanation.
  • Elevator Escape: Roger needs to flee a hotel before the villain's goons come for him, and he reaches the elevator going down - just as they get out of the next elevator, and promptly follow him in. Roger has his mother in tow, who refuses to believe he's in any danger.
  • Embarrassing Middle Name: Roger Thornhill's middle initial is O, making his initials R.O.T. Doesn't stop him from having his matchbooks monogrammed, though. This is actually a subversion, as Roger explains that the O doesn't stand for anything, he just added it so it looked like he had a middle name.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Vandamm really was genuinely fond of Eve. He does not take her betrayal well. Not at all. Towards the end, we find out he has a sister, too, who played the role of the fake Mrs. Townsend earlier in the film.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Professor.
    Thornhill: I don't believe I caught your name.
    Professor: I don't believe I pitched it.
  • Evil Brit: Vandamm, as played by James Mason at his most coldly malicious.
  • Evil Minions: Valerian, Licht, "Mrs. Townsend," etc.
  • 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.
  • Failing a Taxi: In the opening scene — a man hails a cab, and Thornhill cuts in with his secretary and takes it, claiming she's "a very sick woman." After she chides him, he assures her his lie let the guy think he was doing them a favor.
  • Femme Fatale Spy: Eve Kendall. Doubly so once it's revealed she's the mole working for the United States government.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing: Courtesy of the man waiting for the bus, just before he leaves Thornhill to face a certain iconic danger...
    Man: That's funny.
    Thornhill: What?
    Man: That plane's dustin' crops where there ain't no crops.
  • Foreshadowing: A few times.
    • When Thornhill and his mother go to the Plaza to investigate Kaplan's hotel room, it's said that the bed has not been slept in, and Thornhill says it's like no one seems to have seen Kaplan. That's because they haven't. Kaplan doesn't exist.
    • That same scene also has people mistaking Thornhill for Kaplan, since he is entering Kaplan's room, and then inside it, and Thornhill simply goes with it. Thornhill even tries on Kaplan's suit jacket and checks the trousers. In South Dakota, Thornhill willingly pretends to be Kaplan in order to protect Eve.
    • 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?" The mention of the plane also foreshadows how Vandamm plans to get rid of Eve once he learns of her duplicity.
    • Upon first arriving in Chicago, Thornhill asks Eve for the time (9.10) and remarks Kaplan may have already checked out of the Ambassador East. Thornhill later finds out this was indeed the case, as Kaplan allegedly left at 7.10. It may also be Thornhill's first clue that Eve isn't exactly who he thinks she is.
    • 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.
  • For Want Of A Nail: If Roger had remembered to tell his secretary that his mother was playing bridge that night, he would not have had to send a telegram and thus would not have been mistaken for George Kaplan.
  • Funny Background Event: During the scene where Eve pretends to shoot Thornhill, you can clearly see a kid in the background (he's wearing a blue shirt) 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. Given Hitchcock's subversive sense of humor and love of Easter Eggs, he may well have chosen to use that take because of the boy.
  • Gambit Pileup: Vandamm, the Professor, Thornhill and Eve have their own elaborate plans, which clash constantly.
  • Gambit Roulette: Roger is abducted and nearly killed by someone pretending to be Townsend, whom Roger later learns is a UN diplomat. After narrowly surviving the attempt on his life, Roger visits the UN General Assembly building to confront Townsend. Townsend turns out to be someone he has never seen before, and shortly after Roger arrives, is killed by one of the men who tried to kill Roger. Roger was manipulated into meeting Townsend so that Townsend's enemies could kill him in a way that would look like Roger was responsible. But how did they know Roger would seek Townsend out? And if they needed Roger as a patsy, why try to kill him? And how did they know the attempt to kill Roger would fail?
    • However, it could be something else going on here. They were clearly following Thornhill, because He Knows Too Much and they'd already failed to kill him, so were waiting for another opportunity. Thornhill confronts the real Townsend and might have told him that somebody was impersonating him and occupying his house. Killing Thornhill at this point would just make Townsend even more suspicious. Thornhill already knows he's being chased, so the best solution at that moment is to get rid of Townsend.
  • Gayngster: Leonard, though this being the 1950s, it's only implied.
  • Giving Them the Strip: Eve discards her scarf, jacket, and shoes in succession during the Mount Rushmore chase.
  • Go Seduce My Archnemesis: Eve was supposed to seduce Thornhill for the explicit purpose of leading him to his death in a cornfield. It doesn't work.
  • 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.
  • Hand Stomp / Hanging by the Fingers: The climax sees Roger holding onto the edge of a cliff while attempting to help up Eve. Then Leonard appears. When Roger asks him for help, Leonard decides to step on his fingers and get them to fall. Although he is later shot by a sniper in the distance.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: During the scene where Vandamm meets with Thornhill at the Mount Rushmore cafeteria:
    Vandamm: And now, what little drama are we here for today? I really don't for a moment believe that you've invited me to these gay surroundings to come to a business arrangement.
  • 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. Of course, once Thornhill has become too involved, it hardly matters anyway.
  • Heroes Gone Fishing: Before being kidnapped by Valerian and Licht at the Plaza, Thornhill had plans to attend a performance at the Winter Garden Theatre. He is a little annoyed he doesn't make it there.
  • Hero Stole My Bike: After the crop-duster crashes, Thornhill steals the truck of a passer-by to get back to Chicago.
  • High-Heel–Face Turn: Eve, although it turns out that she was a mole all along.
  • I Have Many Names: Invoked by Vandamm after Roger's confused response to being called "Kaplan" for the first time.
    I know you're a man of many names, but I'm perfectly willing to accept your current choice.
  • 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.
    • When Valerian kills Townsend with the knife, Thornhill grabs it, making it appear as if he is the murderer. Now he has the police to worry about.
    • Also defied, as when he calls his mother after that, he says taking the train is safer than taking a plane as if someone was looking for him, it would be easier to hide on a train.
  • If We Survive This: Roger promises Eve that if they survive the final confrontation on Mount Rushmore, they'd go back to New York on the train.
  • 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."
  • Impairment Shot: Roger is force-fed a bottle of whiskey and put behind the wheel of a car – as he makes a getaway we see the road from his seeing-double perspective, curving and going straight at the same time.
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: The crop duster plane is evidently equipped with guns that its occupants fire at Roger to try and kill Roger, but barely miss him.
  • Implied Death Threat: This exchange:
    Vandamm: 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.
  • I Need to Go Iron My Dog: When Thornhill warns Eve that Vandamm and Leonard know of her duplicity, she tells them she left her earrings in her room and goes up there, where Thornhill tells her the statue Vandamm bought at the art auction has microfilm inside it, something she didn't previously know.
  • 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.
  • Insult Backfire: During the auction scene, Thornhill loudly asserts that one painting up for bidding "looks like a fake." An annoyed woman sitting near him says, "You're no fake. You're a genuine idiot." To which Thornhill simply says, "Thank you."
  • 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.
  • Intoxication Ensues: The first plan to kill Thornhill involves pouring a whole bottle of bourbon down his throat and trying to make it look like he killed himself drink-driving. Thornhill manages to escape, but, being extremely drunk, he almost collides with several motorists, then he overtakes a police car and gets arrested for drunk driving.
  • Invented Individual: George Kaplan is a phony agent who attracts attention away from real operatives.
  • Invulnerable Knuckles: When Vandamm wallops Leonard, he has to reset his knuckles before continuing.
  • 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.
  • It Works Better with Bullets: Happens; Vandamm's housekeeper holds Roger at bay with a gun she's picked up. Unfortunately for her, it's the same gun Eve used to fake shooting him earlier; it's only loaded with blanks, and he knows it.
  • Karmic Death: Leonard gets shot by a sniper and falls over the edge of Mount Rushmore when he tries to cause Thornhill and Eve to fall off by stepping on Thornhill's fingers.
  • Lady in Red: Eve wears a backless red dress when Thornhill confronts her after the crop-duster sequence, and during the auction scene.
  • Landmarking the Hidden Base: The villains have a house on Mount Rushmore's peak.
  • Literary Allusion Title: From Hamlet:
    I am but mad north-northwest; when the wind is southerly,
    I know a hawk from a handsaw.
  • Losing a Shoe in the Struggle: Eve ditches her shoes in the Mount Rushmore chase and goes barefoot, in order to scale the chiselled rock better.
  • Lost in a Crowd: As his train arrives in Chicago, Roger evades detection by the waiting police by dressing as a redcap (railroad baggage handler) — by the time the police find the real redcap onboard without his uniform (which Roger paid him for), Roger has disappeared into a sea of redcaps.
  • Lost in the Maize: The crop-duster attack takes place in and around an Indiana cornfield.
  • Luxurious Liquor: Various upper-class characters are shown with different "libations" frequently, it becomes a plot point when Leonard forces a bottle of bourbon down Thornhill's throat.
  • 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, when they force him to drink a whole bottle of bourbon, stick him in a car, and drive it toward a cliff so it will appear he killed himself drunk-driving.
    • A stray comment by Leonard at their first meeting with Roger suggests they disposed of a previous government agent this way.
      Leonard: We also know your contact in Pittsburgh since Jason (slight pause) committed suicide.
  • 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: The whole plot is kicked off because of one that's very easy to miss unless you're looking for it. Listen very closely to the background noise 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, because from their vantage point it looks like he's answering the page. This is made much clearer in the stage production.
  • 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.
  • Missed Him by That Much: On the train, Eve warns Thornhill that the train is making an unscheduled stop and two police officers (looking for him) are making their way onboard. They both leave the dining car just as said officers enter the car from the other end.
  • Missed the Bus: In his cameo, Hitchcock narrowly misses his bus.
  • Mistaken for Badass / Mistaken for Murderer: Valerian tries to kill Thornhill with a knife in the United Nations, but it hits the real Townsend and Thornhill makes the mistake of picking up the knife in front of the crowd, making it appear he is the perpetrator.
  • Mistaken for Spies: The entire basis of the film.
  • The Mole: Eve is made out to be Vandamm's mistress, but she's working for the government. She was originally a Socialite bogged with Rich Boredom and she genuinely did like Vandamm and admitted to falling for him, but then the US Government told her about Vandamm's shadiness and asked her to work as a mole.
  • Momma's Boy: Thornhill, at least to the extent that it's his mother who he calls to bail him out of jail and assist him in casing "Kaplan"'s room at the Plaza. To some extent, the plot is also kicked off due to him calling for a bellboy to have a telegram safely delivered to her.
  • Monumental Battle: The end of the film takes place on Mount Rushmore.
  • The Mountains of Illinois: The film features a treacherous drunken car chase along the Cliffs of Glen Cove, played in this picture by the cliffs of the California coastline. The north shore of Long Island is rocky, but not THAT rocky. Also, the crop-duster scene was filmed near Bakersfield, California, not in the middle of an Indiana cornfield, although the appropriate highway signs were transplanted. Indiana doesn't look as dry as it does in the movie, even during droughts. Hitchcock had someone scout locations in Indiana and Iowa, but it was decided that Reality Is Unrealistic and the California setting was closer to what Hitchcock wanted.
  • Mr. Exposition: The Professor has an important role in the story, but his main function is to explain to other characters (and the audience) what exactly the deal is with George Kaplan and Vandamm.
  • 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).
  • Mum Looks Like a Sister: Cary Grant was 55 years old at the time. Jessie Royce Landis, who played his mother, was 63 years-old, meaning she would have to have given birth when she was 8 years old.
  • Mysterious Middle Initial: Roger O. Thornhill. Turns out the O doesn't stand for anything.
  • Mythology Gag: Intentionally or otherwise, James Mason playing the villain here recalls him being described in the earlier Hitchcock film Rope as an actor who could be "attractively sinister."
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Thornhill didn't mean to do it, but his getting involved with Eve while Vandamm thinks Thornhill is after him aroused Vandamm's suspicion of her and put her life at risk. Thornhill has an Oh, Crap! when the Professor tells him so. To save her, Thornhill has to pretend to actually be Kaplan.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Thornhill does this during the auction scene to make himself look like an idiot, causing the police to be called and escort him past Vandamm's goons covering the exits.
  • 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 on the train when Eve warns him that the train is making an unscheduled stop and two police officers are boarding it. They both promptly leave the dining car.
    • 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.
    • Thornhill, accompanied by a slow zoom into his face and him saying "Oh, no" when the Professor tells him that his getting close to Eve has put her life at risk because Vandamm is now suspicious of her and could find out she's working against him.
    • Towards the end, Eve has one when she sees and recognises Thornhill's matchbook he had thrown down to her, and again when she reads the message inside it. Then a third time when Thornhill tells her that Vandamm and Leonard know of her duplicity and plan to kill her.
    • In the climax, Eve again when she sees Valerian about to attack Thornhill on Mount Rushmore.
  • Only One Name: Thornhill's secretary Maggie, Leonard, Valerian and Licht. Subverted with Vandamm, his first name is revealed to be Phillip.
  • Orbital Kiss: Played with. The train car in which Roger and Eve perform their first kiss proved too small to allow a cameraman to rotate around them, so the actors turned around while kissing.
  • 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 guesses who he is and quickly calls security, but Thornhill manages to escape.
  • 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.
  • Police Are Useless: Unusually for a Hitchcock film, this is averted. The police save Roger's life twice by arresting him, for drunk driving on Long Island and for disrupting the auction in Chicago. A third time, a man in uniform (not clear if he's a Park Ranger, Sheriff, or State Trooper) shoots Leonard as he's about to make Roger fall from Mount Rushmore.
  • 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.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The Professor is a calm, fatherly man. At first he seems a bit cruel in forcing Roger to fend for himself against Vandamm, until you learn that Eve is his deep cover Mole in Vandamm's cell but he eventually figures out ways to protect Roger in a potentially deadly predicament, gets Roger to cooperate through intelligent persuasion, and even manages to crack a couple of jokes to calm down an understandably-tense Roger.
  • 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.
  • Revealing Hug: Roger is on the lam, meets Eve on a train, they get on very well... as he holds her we see her cool, calculating face, having slipped a note to his pursuers in the next compartment. This moment provides the trope image.
  • 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.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here:
    • Subverted twice when Thornhill makes an unsuccessful escape attempt. The first time, after Valerian and Licht escort him to the car, he goes for the door, only to find it locked. He tries again at Townsend's estate, only to find Valerian blocking the doorway.
    • Double-subverted in the auction scene, where he tries to leave and finds the exits covered, so he makes an idiot of himself to get the police called and escort him out.
    • Eve at the end does this when the gunshot rings out and she uses the distraction to snatch the statue from Vandamm and run.
  • Serial Spouse: Thornhill mentions having two ex-wives a few times. At the end, Eve is his third.
  • Sex–Face Turn: Eve, although technically since she was a mole all along she never really loved her crime boss partner in the first place.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: The film ends with a shot of a train entering a tunnel as Roger and Eve are about to make love. Knowing Hitchcock's sense of humour, this was deliberate.
  • 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. Vandamm, Leonard, Valerian and Licht also all dress 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.
  • Silence Is Golden: Except for some small talk between Thornhill and the guy waiting for the bus, the crop duster scene doesn't have dialogue or background music up until the plane crashes into the truck.
  • Single Malt Vision: Played disconcertingly straight - after Roger is force-fed a quart of whiskey and put behind the wheel of a car, he's trying to escape his pursuers, and seeing the road before him go two different directions.
  • 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.
  • Soft-Spoken Sadist: Vandamm and Leonard are calm and methodical, relying on menace and intimidation to achieve their goals.
  • 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.
  • Staged Shooting: Eve shoots Roger in the Mt. Rushmore restaurant with blank cartridges.
  • Standard Hollywood Strafing Procedure: The crop duster attacking Thornhill, though in this case, it's not an attack plane but a regular plane with a passenger wielding a gun
  • The Stool Pigeon: Leonard reveals to Vandamm that the gun Eve shot Thornhill with was loaded with blanks, meaning Thornhill is not dead and Eve is a double agent. Vandamm is angry enough by this news to punch Leonard in the face.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Eve Kendall is the true spy hero of the film. It was on her behalf and for her sake, that the US Government Agency manufactured the George Kaplan identity which got Roger Thornhill involved in her case. She's the one who commits to her mission and decides to steal the microfilm from the bad guys at the end, and the entire plot is mostly driven by her actions.
  • Symbolic Glass House: Roger climbs up a big house with vast windows which is an archetype of modernist architecture and is the hiding place for spies in search of Eve, who is working with the villains, and he manages to save her from there after he finds out that they're planning to have her killed.
  • Take My Hand!: The end of the film where Thornhill and Eve are hanging off of Mount Rushmore.
  • Theme Music Power-Up: Inverted. Both times the soundtrack cuts loose with the main theme are the times Roger is exceptionally screwed — drunk out of his mind careening out of control in a stolen car, and being chased by gunmen across Mount Rushmore.
  • There Is Only One Bed: Roger hides out in Eve's room on a train ride to Chicago. As they make out passionately he observes there's only one bed, asking if she knows what that means. She knows - he's sleeping on the floor.
  • Traitor Shot: The film contains one of the more complicated uses of this trope. It's true that Eve is working for the villain, but she turns out to be a double agent who is actually working for the US government, and she tries to balance betraying Roger with keeping him safe.
  • Unbuilt Trope: This film was a huge inspiration on many spy films and series, such as James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and yet seeing North by Northwest reveals a lot more original touches:
    • Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill is The Everyman and not a super-spy. Likewise, espionage is generally treated realistically. Eve Kendall points out that she was a wealthy socialite who knew Vandamm in social occassions and the US Government turned her as a spy for them by largely continuing as his girlfriend and remaining close to him. Most espionage usually happens in social conditions and spies largely pose as civilians. It is the elaborate and baroque plot that really forces characters into action sequences.
    • The film make it clear that a government spy agency, even the "good" guys, really do value the mission and intelligence gathering and they will be willing to let innocent people die rather than compromise the cover of their mission. Both the US government and Eve Kendall herself were willing to leave Roger to die by Van Damm's forces to better preserve Eve's cover. The only reason they resort to help Roger at the end, is because he's attracted too much heat and attention, and is phenomenally lucky as an Action Survivor.
    • More importantly, Hitchcock and Lehman, denounce the entire profession of espionage and the Cold War. Roger Thornhill's main motivation in the final scene isn't stopping the Big Bad, it's rescuing Eve Kendall. Eve is the one who cares about the mission. The Big Bad gets captured, The Dragon gets killed by a random sergeant:
      Roger Thornhill: If you fellows can't lick the Vandamms of this world without asking girls like her to bed down with them and fly away with them and probably never come back, perhaps you ought to start learning how to lose a few cold wars.
  • Uncomfortable Elevator Moment: Played for black comedy, as Vandamm's henchmen follow Roger and his mother into a crowded elevator at the Plaza Hotel.
    Mrs. Thornhill: You gentlemen aren't really trying to kill my son, are you?
  • Undying Loyalty: Eve Kendall has this for the US Government. She notes that she was a bored rich Socialite who was charmed by Vandamm until the Government told her about his shady past and recruited her. She tells Roger in their conversation outside Mount Rushmore, that she saw it as the first time she was doing something worthwhile. She is fully committed to her mission for the greater good and even after her cover is blown on learning the "Pumpkin" has the microfilm, she insists on recovering it first, at the cost of her life if need-be.
  • Unishment: Roger causes an uproar in the midst of an auction by placing outlandish bids and getting confrontational with anyone who outbids him. Eventually, security is called to escort him out of the building — which is exactly what he wanted, since there were two men in the room who were planning to kill him.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Thornhill, up to a certain moment, is this to both the Professor's and Vandamm's plans.
  • Vehicular Assault: Roger gets strafed by a crop-duster. The attack ends when Thornhill gets the plane to crash into a gasoline tanker.
  • Viewers Are Morons: The entire scene in which government officials explain in an extreme As You Know mode to tell the audience what those officials already knew, including the fact Kaplan doesn't exist.
  • Villainous Crush: Leonard apparently for Vandamm.
  • Villains Out Shopping: When we first see Leonard at Townsend's estate, he's playing a game of croquet before Licht interrupts him.
    • Subverted. Vandamm and his men (plus Eve) attend the art auction in Chicago, but only so they can get hold of the statue they intend to hide microfilm in.
  • Visual Innuendo: This film concludes with the "train going into a tunnel" version. Here!
  • War Is Hell: The Professor references this in a line to Thornhill towards the end: "War is hell, Mr. Thornhill, even when it's a cold one."
  • Wham Line: "How could he get mistaken for George Kaplan when George Kaplan doesn't even exist?"
  • Whammy Bid: Thornhill places comically-low bids at the auction and gets confrontational about it, in order to get himself arrested and thus get a police escort away from his enemies.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Licht, Vandamm's henchman wearing a hat, disappears without explanation midway through the film. In the script, he was one of the two men in the cropduster but there's nothing in the film to suggest this.
    • We never see Thornhill's mother again after he flees from the hotel.
    • We do not see what happens to Vandamm's housekeeper but we can assume Roger overpowered her when he realized the gun was the one Eve had used on him.
  • Writing Indentation Clue: Thornhill is able to figure out where Eve is going by finding the impression of an address she wrote.
  • Wrongly Accused: Thornhill, like many of Hitchcock's protagonists, although he is probably the most famous example.