By William Shelton
North by Northwest is a 1959 crime thriller by Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense himself. Cary Grant stars as Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising executive who is caught and mistaken to be an FBI agent named George Kaplan by an unknown criminal origination. After managing to get away Thornhill starts looking for answers as to who is his captures were and who exactly they thought be was. As he starts looking into the matter one of his captures manages to frame Thornhill for murder. Now Thornhill has to deal with the cops and his unknown assailants as he clears his name and learns why he was targeted in the first place.
Thornhill’s change throughout the film in interesting in how radical yet nearly unnoticeable it is. As the film starts Thornhill is just the wrong man in the wrong place, but as the film comes to a close he is more a kin to James Bond, ending a Cold War conspiracy at the villains secret hideout and getting the girl. However, it’s only in hindsight that the audience sees how much Thornhill has changed, as at no point in the film does he fill like a different character. In each scenario Thornhill finds himself in he responds and acts exactly as the view would think the character should. The man who told his own kidnappers he wouldn’t cooperate very much feels like the character that would sneak into that same kidnappers hideout. Unlike many other films the viewer don’t watch as Thornhill gains the courage to do these crazy and extraordinary things, and yet the viewer never questions Thornhills motivation or ability.
This may be due to how Hitchcock structured the film. Long stretches of the film are dedicated to setting up an interesting plot of the film only to have the movie go in another direction all together. This mistaken identity running from the cops, and the ending spy thriller could have all made their own movies, and each of them would have been pretty great, but instead the viewer stays with each scenario just long enough to feel like they know where the film is going only for that filling to be subverted. Unfortunately, this approach did leave the ending feeling rushed. While the last scene is a beautiful bit of censorship subversion, the ending just feels like the film makers were running out of time and had to wrap up as quick as possible.
While it’s hard to say what the films point is, there was one line in the film that may be the thesis statement. After learning that his new love was really an FBI agent and that she would soon leaving with the films main villian, Thornhill says to her handler “ If you fellows can’t lick the VanDamm’s 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”. When the viewer is showed the FBI it’s made very clear that they are not really “good” guys. Their reaction to Thornhill being confused for their agent was basically “well, at lest our person is safe. Hopefully this guy will be killed and our guy wont have any more heat on them”. While the film doesn’t focus much on it, it would be easy to say the the films main theme is about how terrible people can be when trying to win a war, even the quote-unquote “heros”.
With all of it’s flaws, North by Northwest is still a damn entertaining film. In the hands of a lesser film maker this could have been a disaster, but Hitchcock did really fantastic work here. While the spy genre has moved on since 1959, the strength of the film making here still makes this a great film to watch.
My Grade: 19/20