North by Northwest's most celebrated—and sneakiest—symbol appears at the very end of the film, when the train becomes an enormous phallic symbol, as Hitch himself declared (source). The train entering the tunnel is meant to remind viewers of sex: specifically, a you-know-what entering a you-know-what.
In case we don't get it, the scene is superimposed on the words "The End."
But there's a less obvious—and much less larger-than-life—phallic symbol in the film as well: the small razor that Thornhill uses to shave after he finds it in Eve's bag. For the critic Raymond Bellour, this mini-razor's a phallic symbol that hints at Thornhill's emasculation: early in the film, when he's still under his mother's influence, Thornhill's not fully a man (source).
You may roll your eyes at this Freudian interpretation, but it's worth thinking about. It was a way for Hitch to stick it to the production code guys, since they'd insisted on some dialogue and plot changes to satisfy the strict Hays Code.
Come on—no one tells Alfred Hitchcock what to do and gets away with it.
At the auction in Chicago, Vandamm and his men bid on and buy a small Pre-Columbian statue, called a "Tarascan warrior" in the screenplay. Later we learn that the harmless-looking little guy's filled with microfilm, which is what the bad guys are using to smuggle government secrets out of the U.S.
Hitch enthusiasts often talk about a "MacGuffin", which was the director's name for an object or other plot component that holds out a promise of significance that it doesn't ultimately fulfill. It seems important to the characters, but holds little importance for the plot. What's on the microfilm? Nuclear secrets? An assassination plot? Proof of alien life-forms? For all its relevance to the plot, it could have been filled with emeralds or Skittles.
We never find out what's on the microfilm—and it doesn't really matter.
Hmmm…where have we heard that name before? Oh yeah, she had this friend Adam way back in the beginning…
Does Eve Kendall have any resemblance to the original gal? Well, she's Thornhill's helper; there's a little conflict in the relationship; they seem to complement each other; ultimately, she keeps Thornhill from having to face life alone. But there's an interesting image that seems to be a quick nod to another part of the Adam/Eve story. After Thornhill gets KO'd by one of the Professor's enforcers, we see him in the hospital with a sizable bruise under his ribs. One way or another, events surrounding Eve are responsible for this bruise, and we all know how Eve is created (in one version of the story) in Genesis—from Adam's rib.
While running all over the country trying to save his own life, Thornhill finds himself in some very high-profile places:
Hitchcock loved imbuing familiar places like these with suspense and danger. Examples: he staged the climax of Saboteur at the Statue of Liberty, and he had his hero in peril at the Jefferson Memorial in Strangers on a Train.
Why the fascination with monuments? In interviews, Hitchcock said that he saw monuments as symbols of order, and he loved introducing elements of suspense and fear to allow disorder to erupt in these formidable places (source).
Oh, and that's exactly the reason that The Department of the Interior didn't want him anywhere near Mount Rushmore. They didn't want citizens thinking about mayhem when gazing on the massive stone faces of their great Presidents. Worse, they didn't want people trying to climb on the faces in imitation of the movie's action.
So how did he get past all the bureaucracy? Uh…he didn't. Check out our "Production Design" section for more on how Hitch was able to get all those shots.
When Eve sees Roger Thornhill's initials—ROT—on his matchbook (who puts his initials on a matchbook?), she asks him what the "O" stands for. "Nothing," he answers.
Cinema lore explains this as a poke at producer David O. Selznick, who also said the O in his name stood for nothing. (He added it to distinguish himself from an uncle of the same name.)
But once we see what happens to our Mad Man, it's easy to see that the "Nothing" can refer to Thornhill himself, who spends most of the film being whoever other people want him to be. His identity's up for grabs for much of the movie. Is he an ordinary business man? An infantilized son? A drunk? A playboy? A spy? A hero? He even gets fake-killed at one point so that Vandamm et al. consider him a corpse. (Source)
It's through all the dangerous adventures that Thornhill comes into his own. Maybe after he settles down with Eve he'll figure out who he really is.
What's a more primal human fear than falling? It keeps us from doing stupid stuff. Heck, even babies know better than to crawl off a cliff.
Hitchcock knew that fear and used it in a number of his films. (Source)
In NXNW, the falling motif is everywhere:
For that last one, we see her face in closer and closer shots as we're sure she's about to fall, and oh no no no—
Suddenly, she's pulled up to safety—but she's now not on the cliff at all. The film sneakily cuts to Thornhill pulling her up into the berth in their train compartment for a little matrimonial activity. It's an abrupt and genius move to give the audience a 180-degree emotional turnaround.
Hitchcock wouldn't have let her fall anyway. In an interview with the AFI, he said that you can't put the audience through horrible suspense without giving them some relief. They'll get angry with you, or else give themselves some relief by starting to laugh; either way, the scene's a failure. (Source)
Hitchcock started his movie career in silent films, where pictures had to tell the story. He thought that something was lost in cinematic technique when sound arrived to films, and he said he used dialogue only as a last resort when pictures couldn't do the job. "[W]e don't have pages to fill, or pages from a typewriter to fill, we have a rectangular screen in a movie house," he told an interviewer (source).
And boy could he fill it.
When you think of his films, you think of all those memorable visuals—the shower scene in Psycho, the man falling off the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur. No words necessary.
NXNW has two of Hitch's most impressive examples of this kind of visual storytelling. It includes probably the most copied and parodied scene in film history: the uber-famous crop duster sequence where Thornhill is dumped in the middle of nowhere in broad daylight in his beautiful tailored suit and he has no idea what's going on. All we see for six minutes or so is nothingness—the wide open prairie, no music, no dialogue. Then the plane starts to buzz around but he still has no clue about what's about to happen. Finally, it attacks, and the actor manages to convey all the panic and terror without single word of dialogue.
The other sequence is the chase across Mount Rushmore, with the characters scrambling around this unlikely setting and nearly falling to their deaths. This is pure visual storytelling, using long shots to establish the scene and close-ups to convey emotion.
Here's an exercise—watch the film with the sound off and see how much of the action you understand.
We bet you'd be surprised.
Hitchcock loved this trope.
Take a guy who we all kind of like and set him up for a crime he seriously wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. Then set everyone—and we do mean everyone—against him, and let him spend the rest of the movie trying desperately to find the real killer before the cops swoop in and throw him in the slammer.
He used the idea in a number of his films, but in North by Northwest he absolutely outdid himself. He gave us a guy wrongfully accused of not just any old crime, but the murder of a UN official.
And the newspapers have a picture of him actually pulling the knife out of the guy's back.
It was the culmination of Hitchcock's Innocent Man Wronged notion…and in this case, it also worked to put some boogie in Roger Thornhill's step. He's a bit of an apathetic character, which Cary Grant was very good at playing. You get the sense that this guy never rushes with anything. It's just the way he rolls.
But put him on the front of every paper in the U.S. with "MURDERER" above his picture? Yeah, he's going to get to the bottom of the mystery awfully quick.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
The ordinary world in North by Northwest is just that: ordinary, and emphatically so. Except that "ordinary" for Roger Thornhill is pretty fabulous by the standards of everyday people. That's because he's a high-powered Madison Avenue type.
Still, when the film opens, we see him immersed in his day-to-day routine, which involves lots of cocktails, dinner engagements with "Mother," and deluxe business meetings.
At one such meeting, Thornhill's rudely interrupted by some toughs, and that's when everything changes for him: when, at the Oak Bar in the Plaza Hotel in New York, he's mistaken for George Kaplan.
The transformation that the hero undergoes is gradual in North by Northwest, not just because Thornhill keeps insisting—rightly—that he's not George Kaplan. His first refusal of the call comes when he's taken to the Townsend mansion in Long Island and told threateningly to spill the beans, to say what he knows about Vandamm and Co. and how he knows it.
He knows nothing, so he really has no choice but to refusal the call to adventure, which requires him to be someone he's not.
It's not until Thornhill meets the Professor—very late in the film—that he'll understand this. His pretending to be George Kaplan really does become a matter of national security, because only this pretense can save Eve from detection by Vandamm. Before Thornhill realizes this, though—that is, before the Professor can explain it to him—several thresholds have to be crossed.
Thornhill passes the point of no return after the real Lester Townsend's killed at the United Nations, stabbed in the back by a knife thrown by one of Vandamm's underlings.
Go figure: Thornhill happens to be talking to Townsend when he dies, and makes the mistake of pulling the knife from his back just after the murder takes place, making everyone around convinced that he's the culprit.
And so Thornhill runs for cover, straight to the Train Station, but by now there's no more going back to his old life. Since Roger Thornhill's wanted for Lester Townsend's murder, he has no choice but to become someone else. And this brings him that much closer to acknowledging the need to fully assume George Kaplan's identity.
Still, as far as Thornhill's concerned, there's another George Kaplan, and it's this guy that Thornhill pursues until he realizes, as the Professor says, "there is no such person."
In his quest for Kaplan, Thornhill meets Eve, a key ally and eventual spouse who will also spend time looking like an enemy to preserve her cover.
Thornhill's arrival in Chicago marks his approach to "the inmost cave" that is Vandamm's house near Mount Rushmore. But already at the auction house, he's getting closer; after all, it's here he first sees the object that holds the government secrets that Vandamm smuggles: the pre-Columbian statuette. Thornhill keeps up the approach the farther west he goes.
Don't get us wrong: there are lots of ordeals in North by Northwest, beginning with Thornhill's forced drunk driving. But of all the ordeals that the film recounts, one stands out. You guessed it: the crop-dusting sequence. Hitch called it "a nightmare" for good reason: it features near-death experience after near-death experience in just a few minutes' worth of storytelling and film-viewing. Running, then diving, for his life, Thornhill very narrowly escapes the plane on the prairie.
And as if all that weren't enough, he has to steal a car and speed off when the scene ends as well.
In North by Northwest, the sword's a gun, and Thornhill seizes it when he finally figures out—better late than never—that the housekeeper is holding him up with a gun that shoots blanks, not real bullets. This frees him up to run to Eve's rescue just when she's about to board the plane from which Vandamm plans to throw her to her doom.
In the sped-up denouement, the road to resurrection's a pretty short one, screen-time-wise. After he gets away from the housekeeper (see Seizing The Sword), Thornhill rushes to Eve's rescue, only to find that the gate's locked.
This second-to-last obstacle then sends him to the very last one in the film, but, this being Hitch, the hero's last challenge is nothing to sneeze at: he has to climb down Mount Rushmore!
But the national monument ends up being the place of Thornhill's resurrection, since it's here that he's able to put an end to Vandamm's secret-smuggling plans and lift Eve to safety, having promised to return with her to New York.
We know that this return will really be a resurrection, though, since Thornhill's a changed man: having been Kaplan for a time, he's no longer under his mother's protection. He's outgrown all such shenanigans and matured, and Hitch sets us up to expect that he'll be a great husband for the rest of his days with Eve.
We don't see Thornhill's return to New York with Eve, but we know when the film- journey ends that they're en route together, on an express train headed straight for marital bliss.
And don't forget sexual healing.
We know: it's a bit of a cliché to say that a movie's setting is a character in its own right. But that cliché never rang truer than in the case of North by Northwest.
The film's trailer makes it clear: in it, Hitch is a tour guide promoting cross-country vacations, and he lists the great sites spectators will get to visit all for the price of a single movie ticket.
North by Northwest's settings deliver a sweeping sense of the American way of life, perceived to be under threat during the Cold War era when the film's set. (See our "Themes" section for more on that.) We visit a couple of the country's great cities—New York and Chicago—as well as two familiar landmarks: the United Nations and Mount Rushmore. And, of course, there's the extended sequence in the middle of Nowhere, Indiana (actually shot in California), where nowhere stretches to the horizon as Thornhill waits and waits for the man who never comes.
As we discuss in our "Symbols" section, Hitchcock enjoyed using familiar or famous places in his films, because he could upend the viewers' expectations by imbuing them with elements of suspense and danger, taking a benign setting and making it the scene of a murder or kidnapping. In fact, in the original trailer, Hitchcock himself appeared as a travel agent promoting a guided vacation tour of the U.S. starting in New York and ending with the "serene nobility of Mount Rushmore."
You know what he wanted to do with all that serene nobility: get rid of both the serenity and the nobility.
But how on earth did he manage to get permission to film those scenes at the U.N. and Mount Rushmore?
Simple answer: he didn't.
Head over to our "Production Design" section to see what happened.
North by Northwest tells a great story in a traditional chronological narrative. No time travel, no flashbacks or flash-forwards—just one action-packed scene after another unfolding in the proper order.
But…how come in some scenes—like in Grand Central Station, in New York—Thornhill is supposed to be identifiable to everyone and has to wear a disguise, while in others—say, in the auction house in Chicago—he doesn't worry about disguises? Also, why would the agency rely on a fake decoy?
Hitch and his team didn't spend too much time worried about details like these. Nor did they bother to tie up every loose end. That's because Hitchcock, the master of the suspenseful plot, wasn't all that interested in plot. He was more interested in how he told the story than in the story itself. He was a visual artist who didn't rely on dialogue or exposition. As one blogger put it, "Nothing is ever mentioned about why Richard Thornhill has to make a cross-country run for his life—and honestly, who cares why. The fun is in watching Cary Grant getting in and out of one dangerous situation after another" (source).
Some viewers have complained about the way that the film favors action over exposition, excitement over narrative coherence. (Push too hard on any of the plot's details, and the whole thing will come tumbling down like Leonard from Mount Rushmore.) For others, though, the Hitchcockian principle of maximizing action and making the most of spectacle is exactly what makes North by Northwest a masterpiece.
Hitch's film draws from several genres, combining straight-up action-film awesomeness with elements of the intrigue-filled and suspenseful psychological thriller.
But, as we emphasize in our "Narrative Technique" section, action trumps just about everything else in North by Northwest, where Hitch's main goal is to chase Thornhill all over the map in a series of fast-paced action episodes. But the constant suspense and tension park this film squarely in the Thriller genre as well.
It's definitely not a typical rom-com—the romance is more of a cat-and-mouse variety—but Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint definitely have comic gifts and send those sparks flying to cap off the most unlikely of romances with a happily married ending.
Most obviously, the title North by Northwest names the general direction Thornhill and the other characters are heading: from New York to Chicago by train, then to the Dakotas by plane.
But at another level, the title provides a clue to the role that place and, even more importantly, movement play in the film. Notice that the title doesn't refer to a single place or single, precise set of coordinates on a map: it's not "New York City" or "Mount Rushmore." Instead the film's named for a relationship between multiple places, points A B, C, New York, Chicago, South Dakota, etc. It's as if everything about Hitch's film—even its title—were on the move.
Fun Fact: Some people think that the title is a nod to Hamlet, when Hamlet says about his state of mind: "I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw." Hamlet seems to be saying that he's not what he seems to be, confused sometimes but not others, and that sure applies to to Roger Thornhill.
Famously, NXNW ends with a scene of married (thanks to the Hays Code) bliss and also an embarrassingly obvious phallic symbol (thanks to Hitchcock).
On the one hand, this is a sweet moment, since it shows the fulfillment of Thornhill's promise, what Eve calls his "proposition": "If we ever get out of this alive, let's go back to New York on the train together, alright?" But even though Hitch agreed to adding the "Mrs. Thornhill" line to the dialogue, he added a naughty twist.
We're surprised that this one got past the censors.
All the "mature themes" stuff in the film comes from its sexual innuendo. North by Northwest features some pretty seriously steamy scenes for a film made in 1959. (Then again, this was also the year of the deeply weird sexual psychodrama Suddenly, Last Summer.) We thought of giving it an "R" but remembered that the Twilight saga, with its vampire-on-human action, was a PG-13. In NXNW, everyone's human, and they all keep their clothes on. Anyway, there's some serious making out just after Thornhill and Eve make one another's acquaintance. Other scenes stop at innuendo—hinting, for instance, at Leonard's sexual orientation.
For a spy thriller, there's only a drop of blood—and it's fake. A knife in the back, a fall off a cliff—no gore, no extended fighting. People died pretty bloodlessly in films back in the 1950s.