North by Northwest’s style is so impeccable, its tone so effervescent, that many viewers fail to grasp the film’s seriousness. Ernest Lehman, the screenwriter, did not help when he described the film as an insubstantial caper in the vein of James Bond, “something that has wit, sophistication, glamour, action and lots of changes of locale.” One critic called the film an example of Alfred Hitchcock’s “contentless virtuousity”—the work of a man who has nothing to say but says it very well. But North by Northwest would not be so appealing if it did not have serious things to say. On his wild ride by plane, train, and automobile from the curb of Madison Avenue to the peak of Mt. Rushmore, the film’s hero travels as much distance morally as he does physically.
North by Northwest’s gloriously convoluted plot arose from the need to connect two geographically disparate scenarios that Hitchcock wanted to film: a chase across the faces on Mt. Rushmore, and a murder at the United Nations. In each of these set pieces, Hitchcock shows the desecration of a quasi-sacred civic site and skewers the nameless, faceless functionaries who at mid-century were coming to dominate postwar life.
The United Nations buildings were constructed in the hope that violence would one day be vanquished—not by the second coming of Christ, but by human cooperation. “These are the most important buildings in the world, for they are the center of man’s hope for peace and a better life,” said President Truman while laying the cornerstone. “There are no international problems which men of good will cannot solve or adjust.” He described the erection of the buildings as an “act of faith.”
When Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) goes to the U.N., he indeed finds people of all nationalities and creeds, chatting over cocktails in a sleek, modern lounge, in a vision of international cooperation. All is as Truman imagined—until a dagger plunges into a man’s back. Peace and understanding give way to violence and blame. Naturally, Hitchcock was not permitted by the U.N. to film this sacrilege on location. (He stole a single shot of Grant in the U.N. plaza by hiding a VistaVision camera in a carpet-cleaning van.)
The film’s celebrated climax atop Mt. Rushmore was even more scandalous. It was still common at the time of the film’s release to refer to the monument as “the Shrine of Democracy.” It stood, in Franklin Roosevelt’s words, as “an inspiration for the continuance of the democratic-republican form of government, not only in our own beloved country, but, we hope, throughout the world.”
Given the monument’s significance, MGM assured park officials that no violence would take place on the faces of the presidents. Hitchcock had his own plans. When the Department of the Interior realized that he planned to film a chase across the monument, they revoked his permit. (He had to shoot his Mt. Rushmore footage with a studio mock-up.) Letters from concerned citizens to the National Park Service expressed outraged piety. “It would indeed be a sacrilege to have Cary Grant running up and down Lincoln’s face.” “Rushmore is a shrine to the American people and they don’t want it defaced or debased by Alfred Hitchcock.” “This is only one more step in our national disintegration, a loss of respect for things sacred to our history.” Upon the film’s release, Conrad Wirth, director of the Park Service, condemned it as “an act of deliberate desecration.”
But Hitchcock was not so much evincing his own “loss of respect for things sacred to our history” as depicting the decline of that respect among America’s elite. The film juxtaposes monuments to our dead patriots with elites of questionable ethics and loyalty. Atop Hitchcock’s Mt. Rushmore is a modernist house, the lair of the urbane traitor Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), whose business is stealing state secrets—a concrete expression of the idea that the people at the top of our society cannot be trusted.
The point is driven home throughout the film. When we first see Grant in the role of advertising executive Thornhill, he is striding down Madison Avenue, giving commands to his secretary, dictating insincere love notes, telling a lie to steal a cab. He defends his lies as “expedient exaggeration”—stock in trade for an ad man. His tan bespeaks leisure, his immaculate gray suit taste. Attractive as he is, he worries that he may be gaining weight. His monogram is ROT, and when Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) later asks him what the “O” stands for—in a sense, what he stands for—he answers, “Nothing.”
What is true of the man seems true of his country. America as Hitchcock shows it is glittering, prosperous, of uncertain morality. When Vandamm’s criminal ring mistakes Thornhill for a government agent and tries to kill him, Thornhill receives no help from the authorities. The malevolence of the would-be assassins is less chilling than the indifference of the intelligence officials. “C’est la guerre,” says one. “It’s so horribly sad,” says another. “How is it I feel like laughing?”
The conference room in which the officials meet is decorated with Old Glory, a framed Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address, and a portrait of the Washington family. Out the window one sees the Capitol dome. But the ideals evoked by these symbols have no bearing on the officials’ calculations. Men who profess to believe that all men are created by God, endowed with certain unalienable rights, set aside those principles for the sake of expedience. Their leader, known as “the Professor” (Leo G. Carroll), congratulates the others on a “marvelous stroke of good fortune.” Thornhill has diverted attention from their real agent, who is undercover inside the criminals’ ring.
When North by Northwest debuted in 1959, the United States was in the midst of a postwar boom, the so-called “golden age of capitalism.” Widespread prosperity funded gleaming skyscrapers and well-kept National Parks. The GI Bill had created an educated class that staffed growing public and private bureaucracies. The members of this “new class” were technocratic in outlook, cosmopolitan in taste, and increasingly powerful.
Anxieties about the growing power of this class were expressed and inflamed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. His movement sought to combat certain American elites as much as it did any foreign threat. As Michael Rogin, a political scientist at Berkeley, put it: “To [the McCarthyites] communism was not the whole story; their enemies were also the symbols of welfare capitalism and cosmopolitanism.” Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, claimed that “the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal” that intends to “betray the country’s sovereignty to the United Nations.”
Hitchcock’s film toys with these anxieties. All three of the male leads are played by British actors: Grant, Mason, and Carroll. Their distinct speech marks them as upper-class, cosmopolitan, of suspect loyalty. Carroll’s Professor is a creature of the academic-military-industrial complex, at home in an impenetrable bureaucracy. (“FBI, CIA, ONI,” he says, “we’re all in the same alphabet soup.”)
Vandamm and the Professor have a pawn in common: Eve Kendall, a beautiful woman with whom Thornhill falls in love, and who happens to be the undercover agent in Vandamm’s ring. The Professor prostitutes Eve to Vandamm, who schedules her execution once her cover is blown.
When Thornhill first meets Eve, he treats her as he would any other woman, enjoying what he thinks is a one-night fling. By the film's end, he objects to the way the government has deceived him, used her womanhood, and endangered her life. A louche dandy who trifles with girls has become a man ready to lay down his life for the woman he loves. He stands for right against those who stand—as he once did—for nothing. “War is hell,” a government official replies. “Even when it’s a cold one.”
Moved by his love for a woman, inspired by her own brave example, Thornhill objects. “If you can’t lick the Vandamms of this world without asking girls to bed down and fly away with them and probably never come back,” he tells the Professor, “perhaps you should learn how to lose a few cold wars.”
It is the most radical line in the film, an absolute rejection of the idea that the ends might justify the means. We believe it because Hitchcock has shown how Thornhill has been shaken out of his complacency. His gray suit, so pristine at first, has been wrinkled, caked with dust, and at last taken away. Near the film’s turning point, we see the well-tailored Thornhill stripped of all finery save a medal and cross on a gold chain. Intentional or not, the symbol is fitting. The cross has always symbolized the cause of the weak against worldly powers.
In extracting Eve from the clutches of agents federal as well as foreign, Thornhill defies the nameless bureaucrats who purport to know best, the agents of what some now call the “deep state.” As far as he can see, “our” elites are scarcely preferable to “theirs,” no more chivalrous or moral, no more concerned with the fate of the common man. More important, he rejects the ethics of expedience. If winning a war requires disgracing one woman, or killing a single innocent, he would rather lose it.
It is hard to imagine a more countercultural stance. The America Hitchcock depicts had secured peace and prosperity by waging total war and demanding unconditional surrender. When we dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, we showed ourselves willing to do anything expedient for victory. By effacing the distinction between civilian and combatant, warfare and massacre, we cut ourselves off from our highest ideals and committed a desecration far greater than filming a chase across Mt. Rushmore. Any film that points this out deserves to be taken seriously.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things.