If you know Don Draper, you know Roger Thornhill: the impeccably dressed, witty, charming Mad Man with two ex-wives and a hypnotic effect on the ladies. He's got secretaries trailing him around and is in nonstop motion at his job in a busy ad agency. Within minutes of meeting him we know two things about him: he's comfortable with lying, and he's a bit of a lush. These two facts explain a lot of what's to come later in the movie.
Lying in advertising? How could you even think of such a thing?
Actually, back in Thornhill's day, it was a lot easier to get away with misrepresentation in advertising. Remember "healthful" cigarettes? Roger's in the business of selling lies…er, exaggerations. In the first bit of dialogue, Thornhill's in a hurry and has just snatched a cab by telling the intended rider that his secretary is a sick woman and he needs the cab for an emergency.
MAGGIE: Poor man.
THORNHILL: Poor man nothing. I made him a good Samaritan.
MAGGIE: He knew you were lying.
THORNHILL: In the world of advertising there is no such thing as a lie, Maggie. There's only the Expedient Exaggeration.
Because most people know Thornhill's penchant for bending the truth, everyone has trouble believing his fantastical stories about kidnapping and mistaken identity—even his attorney and his mother. He's constantly having to protest his innocence but having no takers.
Thornhill's also something of a boozer: fun-loving, but not all that responsible. Just after meeting the ad man for the first time, we hear him announce that he'll soon have two cocktails. No one believes Thornhill when he insists, after his first ordeal at the Townsend estate, that he was kidnapped and forced to drink and drive against his will. This suggests that people know that Roger has a history of wild partying, even if he hasn't spent other nights in the drunk tank.
Translation: No one's ever had to force this guy to drink.
Lushness aside, Thornhill's got a special woman in his life. A "man of forty and ill-grown adolescent" in Raymond Bellour's description, Roger starts off as a man-child. He's way too close to his mother and can't seem to keep a marriage together, having been divorced twice already when North by Northwest begins. In the '50s, being divorced twice was like having multiple leaked sex tapes…or something like that. Thornhill's relationship with his critical, overbearing, infantilizing mother is played for laughs, but it hints that he's not quite ready for grownup women.
Take this bit of dialogue:
THORNHILL: (to his secretary) Soon as you get back to the office, call my mother. Tell her about the theater tickets for tonight. Dinner at Twenty-One, seven o'clock. I'll have had two martinis at the Oak Bar, so she needn't bother to sniff me.
Minutes later, Roger starts the plot rolling by trying to send Mummy a telegram because he realizes his secretary won't be able to reach her—she's playing bridge at a friend's new apartment, and there's no phone installed yet. (Landlines, remember?) Obviously, Thornhill knows a lot of details about how his Mum spends her day.
Now, maybe Roger is the best son ever—dinner and the theater with Mom—but the "sniff me" part is a little creepy. A little too close. After he's arrested for drunk driving, he makes his one permitted call to his mother. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but you'd think a forty-ish ad exec might have a few other people he could call. He brings her along on his visit to the Townsend estate to prove his innocence to her, and she goes with him to the hotel in search of the elusive George Kaplan. She is totally not buying his story.
MRS. THORNHILL: Roger, just pay the two dollars!
Some of the things Roger says implies that he's even financially supporting her.
MRS. THORNHILL: Sometimes I wonder why I stand for your impertinences.
THORNHILL: You wouldn't have to if you could learn to cheat at bridge.
And after he runs into his would-be killers in the elevator and dashes out to the street, she calls after him:
MRS. THORNHILL: Roger—will you be home for dinner?
Seems like Mummy lives with her boy.
Sorry, we couldn't resist.
Cary Grant was known as a great comic actor as well as a dramatic one, and he infuses Thornhill's character with a dry sense of humor; a lot funnier than say, Don Draper, in our opinion. He's always got the witty retort or funny romantic line. And considering his life's in peril for most of the film, that's quite an accomplishment. His humor probably saves his life when he makes a crazy scene at the auction so that he'll get arrested. He even jokes with Eve while they're clambering around on Mount Rushmore with killers on their tail.
Hitchcock enjoyed injecting humor into suspense and danger, and he knew that Cary Grant could pull it off. Thornhill's humor gives us some comic relief when the suspense just gets to be a bit much.
Over the course of the film, Thornhill grows up. He realizes he's getting no help from anyone in figuring out this George Kaplan thing, so he's forced to find out the truth for himself. In the process, he becomes brave and resourceful, putting his life on the line for the woman he's falling in love with. He outgrows his frat boy lifestyle as well as his mommy issues and his womanizing ways. When he agrees to the Professor's request to help Eve by playing Kaplan, Thornhill finally looks out for something else beside himself.
It takes him a while to get there, though. His relationship with Eve starts as more of the same, all flirting and pretense. He's ready to jump her five minutes after meeting her.
EVE: I'm a big girl.
THORNHILL: Yeah, in all the right places, too.
THORNHILL: I'd invite you to my bedroom if I had a bedroom…
But there's something about Eve's honesty and directness that intrigues him. Even after he thinks she's betrayed him to Vandamm, he's still interested, and by the end of the film he's standing up to the Professor on her behalf:
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.
Eve is Thornhill's love interest, but also his partner in adventure, not just along for the ride. The double agent (Eve) and sometime spy (Thornhill) are compatible not just because they're both total babes, but also because they're able to keep up with one another.
They're also connected by curiosity, and if there's one thing that makes us admire Thornhill from the first, even when he's immature, it's this very quality. We sense his determination to find things out, to get answers about his situation. Sure, he's already on the run, a fugitive from justice, and so it's not like he has a whole lot of other options. He can't just remain in New York and keep his job or move to California for a change of scene.
Thornhill has to figure out who's after him and why, then. But a lesser protagonist might not be so willing to change, to assume new roles and real responsibilities, all while keeping his signature grey suit impeccable and his razor-sharp wit intact.
Oh, and did we mention he's a hottie?
"Eve Kendall, 26 and unmarried": that's how our silver screen homegirl introduces herself. And right away the "unmarried" clues us in, letting us know that although Eve isn't single, she's still eligible when she meets Roger on the 20th-century Limited. For a twenty-six year-old, she's pretty sophisticated, and she matches Thornhill bon mot for bon mot—and then some. She knows what she wants and she ain't afraid to go after it. She's smart, seductive, and confident.
Until she's hanging off a cliff at Mount Rushmore, that is. But it's hard to be seductive when dangling from Thomas Jefferson's nose like a human loogie.
Like Roger, we're struck right away by how smart and forward this lady is. (Some of her lines had to be dubbed during post-production, because they couldn't get past the censors. How's that for bold?) Right away she propositions Roger, putting her desires right out there after he "accidentally" gets seated at her table in the club car.
EVE: I tipped the steward five dollars to seat you here if you should come in.
THORNHILL: Is that a proposition?
EVE: I never discuss love (she's actually saying "make love") on an empty stomach.
THORNHILL: You've already eaten.
EVE: But you haven't.
Thornhill doesn't know what hit him.
Eve and Roger are the proverbial strangers on a train, which in Hitchcockland means they have a date with destiny. And this date begins with some long, steamy (for the '50s) kisses after Eve agrees to help Roger out by hiding him in her compartment.
Why would she help out a guy wanted for murder? Well, there's much more than meets the eye with Eve. Already, we can sense that she has some serious tricks up her sleeve: a gun that shoots blanks, a small razor in her kit, and various other things that serve her well in her capacity as double agent. She relies on her smarts (and acting ability) to get her out of trouble when Vandamm gets suspicious.
One thing that doesn't serve her quite as well is her heart, which gets in her way and lands her in danger when she falls for Thornhill. But in the end it's Thornhill who comes to her rescue just in time, saving her from being dumped out of a plane a plane and pulling her up when she nearly tumbles to her death from high up on Mount Rushmore. He also saves her from being too unconventional a heroine. After all, she has to be the lady in distress and he has to be the guy who saves her.
As modern a film as this is, it's still 1959.
Vandamm almost out-suaves Thornhill.
Calm down. We said almost.
Still, he's a killer at heart who has no qualms about throwing his girlfriend out of a plane when he discovers she's working for the other side. We don't really get much insight into what makes Vandamm tick except that he's driven by his mission to wring important intelligence info out of George Kaplan. We don't even know what communist government Vandamm's working for. Instead, Hitch treats him as pretty much a textbook villain, one whose main goal is to make the hero's life a nightmare.
Sure enough, that's what Vandamm does from the time when we first meet him in the Townsend mansion until the very end of the film. He never believes that Thornhill's not George Kaplan and keeps devising creatively evil ways to get Kaplan killed: by a drunk driving "accident," by crop-duster, by falling from Mount Rushmore.
As much as he's smitten with Eve, he doesn't hesitate to take her out when the situation calls for it:
LEONARD: You're not taking her on that plane with you?
VANDAMM: Of course I am. Like our friends, I too believe in neatness, Leonard. This matter is best disposed of at a great height…over water.
After the narrow escape at Rushmore thanks to the state trooper shooting Leonard, Vandamm remarks:
VANDAMM: Rather unsporting, don't you think? Using real bullets…
Clearly, spying is somewhat of a game to him. A deadly game.
Hello, plot device.
Although he's given very little screen time, the Professor, who's a higher-up in a spy agency, plays a key role in North by Northwest because he gives both Thornhill and the audience key pieces of information. Without his info, Thornhill wouldn't know what the heck is going on. In fact, he doesn't until well into the film.
The Professor won't rescue Thornhill because of the risk to the larger mission. It's only when he realizes that Thornhill can be of help that he clues him in to what's happening. Even then, he only discloses what's absolutely necessary:
THORNHILL: I never caught your name.
PROFESSOR: I never pitched it.
The Professor puts Eve at great risk because she can provide important intelligence if she goes off to Europe with Vandamm. Thornhill reams him out for his cold-heartedness, but he says:
PROFESSOR: War is hell, Mr. Thornhill. Even when it's a cold one.
The Professor's the main mouthpiece for the film's Cold War message. Intrigued? See our "Themes" section for more deets.
Leonard is Vandamm's yes-man, but since he refers at one point to his "woman's intuition", maybe we should call him the chief villain's yes-woman…?
This guy walks around with the most villainous leer imaginable. He's always watching.
And yes, it's as creepy as you're imagining.
Leonard's coded as gay not only because of this joking claim to women's intuition and his mannerisms ("his attitudes," in the screenplay's blunt words, are "unmistakably effeminate"), but also because he's "tellingly fashion-conscious," as theorist Lee Edelman writes.
In other words, in an age before the invention of the Metrosexual, Leonard's impeccable style was a dead giveaway. Plus, the association of gayness with villainy wasn't uncommon at the time when NXNW was made. Queers are murderous—and murderers are queer—in several other classics by Hitch himself, films like Strangers on a Train and Rope.
Here's what Martin Landau himself had to say about it:
I chose to play Leonard as a gay character. It was quite a big risk in cinema at the time. My logic was simply that he wanted to get rid of Eva Marie Saint with such a vengeance, so it made sense for him to be in love with his boss, Vandamm, played by James Mason. Every one of my friends thought I was crazy, but Hitchcock liked it. A good director makes a playground and allows you to play. (Source)
You may be thinking: wait. Isn't the clean-shaven, grey-suit-sporting Thornhill himself kind of a metrosexual avant la lettre? We hear ya. And that's why we suspect that Leonard's a foil for the film's hero.
Leonard falls to his richly deserved doom after trying one last time to kill Thornhill and Eve. Sadly, that ending spelled happiness to the straight America of 1959. The threat posed by Leonard's sexuality is eliminated, and in that way Thornhill's straightness is shored up, protected from the doubts that that beautifully tailored grey suit might raise, without Leonard there to take the fall.