Study Guide

North by Northwest Themes

  • Appearances

    All the world's a stage.

    When Thornhill's abducted, he's about to send a telegram to his mother to remind her about their plans to go to the theater. This detail seems insignificant but turns out to provide an unexpected clue to the meaning of North by Northwest. How so? Well, even though Thornhill doesn't attend the performance he planned to attend, he does give a series of performances, each with higher stakes than the last. Sometimes he doesn't mean to be performing, but at other times (like when he lies to Eve Kendall about his identity when they first meet), he knows he's acting. The turning point in his journey comes when he knowingly agrees to act a part, accepting the Professor's request that he play the non-existent spy, George Kaplan.

    Thornhill's no stranger to constructed reality—he's an ad man, after all.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. What's the significance of Thornhill's plan to go to the theater with his mother?
    2. Why does Vandamm keep praising Thornhill for his "play-acting"?
    3. Who else plays parts in North by Northwest, besides Thornhill?
    4. Does the film suggest that performing is good, bad, or neither?

    Chew on This

    By emphasizing the role of "play-acting" in espionage, North by Northwest blurs the boundaries between art and life, film and politics.

    North by Northwest suggests that appearances are deceiving, but also that there may be no reality apart from appearances. In other words, Hitchcock suggests that everything is appearance.

  • Love

    As a love story, North by Northwest is full of surprises.

    In a movie where everything, including dialogue, is so thoroughly amped-up, why should love be any exception? The love story heats up pretty quickly and manages to overcome some serious obstacles like mistaken identities and betrayal. Just when we think all is lost, Hitch's plot twists make a happy ending possible, and our lovers become Mr. and Mrs. That amazing last edit from Roger pulling Eve up off the cliff to pulling her into the bed on the train—well, we're just a puddle of Jell-O here.

    Hitchcock wanted to make some steamy romantic scenes but had to deal with the Hays production code that set lots of limits on what could be shown onscreen. There's a lot of kissing and sighing and extremely suggestive talk, but until Roger and Eve are married, no shots of them in bed. Hitch got the last laugh though, in the famous scene loaded with Freudian overtones, of the train entering the tunnel just as Roger pulls Eve into bed.

    Questions About Love

    1. What's the significance of the "proposition" in North by Northwest?
    2. What do you make of the fact that Thornhill has been married twice before when the film begins, but Eve is "twenty-six and unmarried"?
    3. Explain how the "phallic symbol" in the film's final shot works. Did you get it the first time you watched it?

    Chew on This

    Love in North by Northwest is compatible with adventure. True love, Hitchcock suggests, isn't about settling down; it's a high-speed, risky venture.

    North by Northwest's relatively frank depiction of sex masks more old-fashioned attitudes about gender, made clear in the film's characterization of Eve, who ultimately has to be married off.

  • Visions of the United States

    For a film about international espionage that's credited for giving rise to the James Bond film franchise, North by Northwest is totally domestic. We mean that its settings are all within the continental U.S.; there's not a single scene set abroad. Hitchcock shows surprisingly little interest in the nature of the intrigue Vandamm and his men are involved with. We never find out what country they're working for or where they plan to head on that plane that they almost board with Eve.

    What we do know, though, is that the film's very much about the nation whose cities, fruited plains, and purple mountain majesty Hitchcock showcases in scene after scene. In the trailer, Hitchcock promotes the film as if he's a travel agent helping people plan a cross-country vacation, but with "a tasteful little murder" thrown in for free. The film's settings are the backdrop for its Cold War plot, which is about the struggle of the U.S. and its allies against unnamed global threats.

    Questions About Visions of the United States

    1. Why doesn't North by Northwest include any scenes set in other countries?
    2. What's the effect of the national grand tour that North by Northwest leads viewers on?
    3. How would you characterize Hitchcock's politics, taking North by Northwest as your case?

    Chew on This

    By showcasing cities and national landmarks, North by Northwest glorifies the United States.

    North by Northwest offers a thoroughly one-sided take on the Cold War conflict between capitalist countries and their communist foes.

  • Family

    It may seem strange to associate North by Northwest with the theme of family, since the film spends so little time showing families of any kind. But one family relationship is key to understanding Thornhill's development as a character, his transformation from self-absorbed, hunky ad man to devoted husband and national hero. We mean, of course, his relation to his mother, which the first few scenes in Hitch's film go way out of their way to emphasize. If you re-watch these scenes with the theme of motherhood (and son-hood) in mind, you may even come to think that the film beats viewers over the head with the very mid-century idea that much of what's wrong with Thornhill is his overbearing, unsupportive mother's fault.

    Questions About Family

    1. We've called Mrs. Thornhill "overbearing." What other adjectives can you think of to characterize her as she's portrayed in North by Northwest's early scenes?
    2. Why do you think Mrs. Thornhill disappears from the film, never to be seen again, when her son leaves New York?
    3. Does Hitchcock's handling of the mother-son relationship seem dated to you? Do you think representations of mother-son bonds have evolved since 1959? If so, how?

    Chew on This

    North by Northwest offers a classically Oedipal take on the mother-son relationship, suggesting that Thornhill has to outgrow his attachment to his mother before he can achieve full adulthood.

    Like Hitchcock's later film Psycho, North by Northwest pathologizes a mother figure, blaming her for problems that are really her son's.