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The Expedient Exaggerations of “North by Northwest”

“North by Northwest” (1959) ticks off a lot of Hitchcock’s favorite boxes.

  • a Sexy Blonde
  • modes of transit (in spades)
  • elaborate chase scenes
  • espionage
  • a Wrong Man

And yet, it seems always to have lingered in the shadow of “Vertigo” (1958). “Vertigo” is amazing, of course, but deeply disturbing. (Bonus points for casting All-American Nice Guy Jimmy Stewart as Creepy Ex-Cop Stalker Guy.) By contrast, “North by Northwest” is fun, and perhaps taken less seriously as a result. For me, though, it is, if not the perfect Hitchcock film, then close to it.

martin landua in north x nwThere are way too many things one can talk about when one talks about “North by Northwest,” so here’s a spoiler alert list of things I’d like to tackle but haven’t here: the visual rhyming (across scenes and even films), questions of public and private spaces in the film, the presentation of women, the overhead shots, and Martin Landau, off the top of my head.

One way of thinking about “North by Northwest” is as a reversal of—or, as film theorist Raymond Bellour put it, “a lavish rejoinder to”—Hitch’s earlier “The 39 Steps” (1935), which begins as a spy thriller and ends as a romantic comedy (except for poor Memory, a martyr to his gift). “North by Northwest” begins as a comedy of mistaken identity and ends as a spy thriller.

Yet, rather than allowing protagonist Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) to assert his identity, as you might expect in the case of a mistaken identity, the film continually needles him with the empty space where his identity ought to be. Poor Roger isn’t even mistaken for a real person—he is mistaken for a figment of the CIA’s imagination. The CIA spy “George Kaplan” was invented to keep the villainous Phillip Vandamm (James Mason, delicious) from discovering that his mistress, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint, luminous), is the CIA’s mole.

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