As Bernard Herrmann’s suspenseful score plays, we see a busy New York street scene, with people filing past one another and entering and exiting a large office building. We see various urban scenes: cars rushing past, people bustling past each other on the crosswalk, two women frantically hailing a cab. Alfred Hitchcock, the director, makes a cameo (as he usually did in his films), as a man just missing a bus, its doors closing in his face. The scene shifts back to the first office building shown, and then to its interior, a throng of people emerging from an opening elevator door. Mr. Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive, emerges, rapidly dictating a letter to his secretary when a doorman interrupts him to say hello. Thornhill continues giving dictation, wrapping up the letter and telling the secretary that she should walk with him to The Plaza Hotel. When she protests that she doesn’t have a coat, he tells her to “use your blood sugar,” and they quickly exit the building, and continue going through the list of people that Thornhill has to write, next of which is a girl named Gretchen Sabinson, to whom Thornhill instructs his secretary to send a box of chocolates, making it clear that Gretchen Sabinson is a woman Thornhill is seeing. As he dictates to write on the card that he is sending the chocolates “for your sweet tooth and all your other sweet parts,” the secretary, whose name is Maggie, looks at him with skepticism, before suggesting they take a cab. When he doesn’t want to take a cab, she tells him, “you’re late and I’m tired” and he tells her that she doesn’t eat properly, before they hop in a cab.
Thornhill playfully pretends that Maggie is ill, so that they can take the cab from a man who tries to take it before them. In the cab, Maggie is disapproving of Thornhill’s lie, and tells him that the man they took the cab from knew he was lying, to which Thornhill responds, “In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only the expedient exaggeration.” When Thornhill then complains that he feels like he looks “heavyish” he dictates a note to Maggie to leave a note on his desk: “Think thin.” He then tells Maggie to call his mother when they get back to the office, because they have theater tickets for that evening, and dinner before at seven. He then dictates that by the time he gets to dinner he’ll have had two martinis, “so she needn’t bother to sniff my breath.” Maggie insists that his mother isn’t as vigilant as he thinks she is, before telling him his schedule the following day: a meeting at 10:30 and a rehearsal at noon, then a lunch date. As they arrive, Thornhill gives the driver money to take Maggie back to the office, and he gets out to go to the hotel and reminds Maggie to call his mother. As he gets out, Thornhill remembers that his mother is unreachable and tries to yell to Maggie, but the cab has already driven away. He goes into the Plaza Hotel.
A violin and piano play a waltz as Thornhill enters the Plaza, and walks down a series of halls. When he enters the dining room, he tells the maitre d' that he is looking for Mr. Weltner and two other men. He meets the three men at the table, and although he is late, Mr. Weltner assures the men that “there’s nobody faster coming down the home stretch.” When Thornhill appears visibly fidgety and anxious, Weltner inquires why, and Thornhill tells him that he made the mistake of telling his secretary to call his mother at home even though he knows she is playing bridge at a friend's house. Anxiously, he tells the men he is going to send his mother a telegram and calls to a boy nearby. The boy is asking after a man named “George Kaplan,” as Thornhill calls him over to the table. The camera quickly pans to two thugs who watch this interaction, and mistake Thornhill for “George Kaplan.” Thornhill dictates the letter to the boy, and then gets up to cross the room, but he is stopped by the two thugs who tell him that there is a car waiting outside and he must walk between them silently. Thornhill is confused as the men grab him, and tell him they are each carrying concealed weapons, one of which is pointed at Thornhill’s heart. As the thugs threaten him, he accuses them of playing a joke on him, and they tell him “we will laugh in the car” as they escort him out forcibly, holding a gun to his side. There is mention of a man named “Townsend.”
The men bring him into the car and seat him in the middle, as he tells them he is being rude in leaving the two men back at the Oak Bar, and sarcastically asking to be dropped off at a drugstore so he can call them and tell them he is being kidnapped. He tries to break out of the car, but finds that it is locked, chuckling to himself, but visibly disheartened. When he asks the two thugs who Townsend is, they remain silent and stone-faced, staring straight ahead, as the car winds up a long road towards a palatial mansion. The car pulls up in front of the mansion and they all get out and walk up the steps into the mansion. A dour woman opens the door for them, and as one of the thugs and Thornhill enter the house, the second thug walks along the outside of the house. Inside the thug tells the housekeeper to “tell him I’m here,” to which she replies that “the dinner guests are expected.” He insists that she tell Townsend that “Kaplan” is here. Thornhill continues to make small sarcastic jokes, as the thug leads him to the library.
Left alone in the library—in fact, locked in the library, as he soon discovers—Thornhill snoops on a nearby desk and finds a mailing tube addressed to “Lester Townsend.” Looking out the window, he sees one of the thugs approaching a man with a croquet mallet and bringing him into the house. Thornhill turns around to see that the door to the library is being unlocked, and a man in a black suit, Lester Townsend, enters and greets him. The two men circle each other, Thornhill with a suspicious expression; Townsend closes the curtains in the library. Townsend turns on a lamp and tells Thornhill that he is not what he expected, “a little more polished than the others.” As Thornhill begins to protest and ask why he was brought here, Townsend appears impatient, uttering exhaustedly, “Games? Must we?” Thornhill suggests that he has to get back to the city to honor his theater engagement. Townsend dismisses Thornhill’s search for answers, by suggesting that he himself is a good actor for pretending to have other engagements. Another man, Leonard, enters, and Townsend introduces the two men, Leonard admiring how well-dressed Thornhill is. We learn that Leonard is Townsend’s secretary, and Townsend refers to Thornhill as “Kaplan” for the first time. When Thornhill begins to protest, Townsend tells him that he knows that he has many names, but that he is willing to accept “Kaplan” for the time being.
Becoming more and more flustered, Thornhill insists that he is not Kaplan, and that the two thugs made a mistake, but Townsend still doesn’t believe him. The housekeeper interrupts them to announce that guests have arrived and Townsend says he will be there in a few minutes. Townsend then begins to grill Thornhill, asking him how he came to hear about them, insisting that while he knows Thornhill likely will not say right now, he wants to give him “the opportunity of surviving the evening,” a death threat which startles Thornhill. As Townsend and Leonard offer Thornhill a chance to explain himself, Thornhill insists that he has to go because he has tickets to the theater. When Thornhill opens the door, however, he runs into one of the thugs waiting for him on the other side. Turning around, and now upset, Thornhill insists that he is not Kaplan. Leonard cryptically tells him that they know his “contact in Pittsburgh since Jason committed suicide.” After Thornhill insists that he has never been to Pittsburgh, Townsend tells him that George Kaplan, of Berkeley, California, checked into a hotel in Pittsburgh in June, and then a slew of other hotels in other cities, including Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, and currently the Plaza Hotel. After Townsend tells him that in two days he is due in Chicago and then South Dakota, Thornhill once again insists that they have the wrong man. When he offers to show them his driver’s license and other identification, Leonard says, “They provide you with such good ones,” suggesting they would not believe his identification were they to see it. Thornhill wears a grave expression now as Townsend says he has party guests and asks Thornhill once again if he would like to cooperate. When Thornhill tries for the last time to tell Townsend that he does not understand what is going on, Townsend leaves the room, telling Leonard to fix Thornhill a drink and enigmatically wishing him “a pleasant journey.” The two thugs come into the library as Leonard offers Thornhill a drink, but Thornhill resists, saying he just wants a ride back into the city. Leonard tells him that that has been arranged, and once again offers him a drink, but when Thornhill says he doesn’t want it, Leonard calmly threatens that if he doesn’t accept the drink, they will have to “insist.” Thornhill makes a run for the door, but the two men grab him, and as he struggles, they seat him on a couch and pour him a tall drink in front of his face.
The scene shifts to show two cars parked on the side of a one lane road that runs along a cliff at night. As dramatic and ominous music plays, we see figures emerging from the rear car. They are the two thugs, dragging Thornhill to the car in front, a convertible. As they put him in the driver’s seat of the car, Thornhill speaks indistinctly, slurring and clearly drunk from the entire bottle of bourbon they forced on him. One of the thugs gets in the passenger side and turns the key in the ignition, as a half-conscious Thornhill assures them that he will “take the bus.” The thug begins to drive the car towards the edge of the cliff with Thornhill in the driver’s seat, as Thornhill comes back into consciousness. Pushing the thug out of the passenger door, Thornhill gains control of the car, even though he is still visibly intoxicated, nodding his head hazily. The two thugs are now in the rear car, and watch him begin to accidentally drive over the side of the road towards the cliff. Thornhill’s head falls to the side as he looks down at the driver’s side car wheel spinning over the cliff edge, and he once again regains consciously and drives away, bleary but determined. Concerned, the thugs pursue him in a car chase.
Thornhill drives chaotically along the road, swerving all over the place, almost hitting other cars, trees, and other obstructions. The thugs follow him in disbelief, as we see Thornhill squint and sway as he struggles to maintain control of the car. When the camera shows the road from his perspective, the viewer sees the world doubly exposed, with road dividing lines going in all directions. Thornhill’s eyes droop and his head nods as he drives the car dangerously close to one driving in front of him, swerving around it into the path of a car traveling in the other direction. He continues to struggle to maintain control of the car, passing a cop, who follows him after seeing his erratic driving. Struggling to maintain consciousness, Thornhill ignores the sirens of the cop that pursues him, before nearly hitting a man on a bicycle and stopping abruptly, causing a three car pile-up. The thugs, who have been pursuing him the whole time, watch from afar as the cop gets out of his car to speak to Thornhill. Deterred by the presence of the police, the thugs drive away.
The scene shifts to Thornhill being brought into the police station, woozily thanking them for the ride, as one of the policeman says that he needs to be examined for driving under the influence. Slurring his speech, Thornhill tells the men his story, but can only manage to tell them that he was almost killed by men in a “big house.” Mistaking him for a standard drunk driver, they drag him off. In a small courtroom, Thornhill continues to ramble to one of the cops, who tells him that they have a cell ready for him and that he will feel better in the morning. As Thornhill protests, another officer enters and announces that the car was stolen from someone named “Mrs. Babson.” Thornhill asks to use the phone and the officers allow him to make his one call, telling him that he ought to make it his lawyer, as Thornhill stumbles over to the phone booth. Thornhill tells the officer the number and name he wishes to call: “Butterfield 8-1 0-9-8.” Still comically slurring his words, Thornhill speaks to his mother on the phone, and tells her that he is at the Glen Cove Police Station, and that he has not been drinking of his own volition, but was forced to drink a bottle of bourbon. The policeman tells him to get off the phone, and Thornhill tells his mother to contact his lawyer and come to bail him out. The policeman tells him it will have to be the following morning, and Thornhill says goodbye to his mother and hangs up. Blearily telling the officer, “that was mother,” Thornhill stumbles over to a table in the court room where a doctor is waiting to speak with him. Thornhill opens his mouth and says “ah.” When the doctor asks him if he is drinking, he drunkenly tells him, “I’m gassed!” He tries to tell the doctor about the thugs who made him drink, but the doctor is only concerned with the fact that he drank too much, that he is “definitely intoxicated.” Having made his diagnosis, the doctor tells him that he plans to draw blood, which Thornhill dismisses as disgusting, climbing up onto the table drunkenly, as the doctor tells Thornhill the consequences for refusing to get blood drawn.
The scene shifts to the following morning in the courtroom, where Thornhill is being tried. Thornhill’s lawyer is explaining Thornhill’s abduction to the judge, to which the judge asks, “How long have you known your client?” Thornhill’s lawyer responds that he has known him for seven years and that he has known him to be a reasonable man. The lawyer’s statement that Thornhill is a “reasonable man” causes Thornhill’s mother to utter a sardonic laugh from her seat, and Thornhill looks back at her scoldingly. The lawyer insists that he believes Thornhill, and the judge calls for county detectives to be called in to investigate. The judge announces that he will have a final disposition the following evening, at which Thornhill and his lawyer will need to be present. In the meantime, the judge announces, the county detectives will determine if Thornhill’s claims have “any basis in fact.” Thornhill protests that he is telling the truth, and the judge tells him that they will try and discover if he is telling the truth as the scene shifts.
A car with county detectives, as well as Thornhill, his mother, and his lawyer, arrive at Townsend’s mansion. The same woman answers the door, and when Thornhill asks if she remembers him, she says she does. The detectives ask after Mr. Townsend, who she tells them is out for the day. When they ask after Mrs. Townsend, she invites them all inside. The housekeeper leads them to the library where Townsend kept Thornhill, and as he tells them that this is the room where he was kept, the housekeeper goes to fetch Mrs. Townsend. Thornhill attempts to prove the validity of his story, by showing them the sofa where they spilled bourbon, and the cabinet where they keep liquor, but when he does, the sofa is unstained, and the cabinet is filled with books not liquor. Roger’s mother, the detectives, and his lawyer all look skeptical, when Mrs. Townsend enters, greeting Roger by name and asking him if he got home all right. Roger becomes upset, insisting that he never met Mrs. Townsend before last night, and the county detectives introduce themselves, telling her that Roger was found driving a stolen car while under the influence the previous night. Affecting disappointment, Mrs. Townsend asks if Roger borrowed “Laura’s Mercedes,” which makes Roger more upset.
As the detectives tell Mrs. Townsend what Mr. Thornhill told them, she spins her own story about Roger’s evening, attesting that he was tipsy upon arriving to the party, and that he only got more and more intoxicated as the evening wore on. Agitated by her blatant lies, Roger can barely believe his ears, as Mrs. Townsend feigns not to recognize the name “George Kaplan.” Thornhill then insists that they talk to Mr. Townsend, but when they ask where he is, Mrs. Townsend informs them that he is at the United Nations, addressing the General Assembly. Mr. Townsend’s high professional position does little to give credibility to Thornhill’s claims against him. As Thornhill continues to protest, Mrs. Townsend leaves, the detectives apologize for bothering her in the first place, and Roger’s mother looks at him disapprovingly and takes his arm. Saying goodbye to Mrs. Townsend, the detectives tell her they have no need to talk to her husband, suggesting that they will not pursue the case any further. Roger is frustrated, but his mother insists that he “pay the two dollars,” and they all get in the car thinking Roger was indeed drunk-driving, and has spun an elaborate lie to get out of the charges. As they leave, Mrs. Townsend smiles warmly from the doorway and says her goodbye. The car drives away and the camera pans over to the backside of a gardener trimming a hedge alongside the outside of the house. As he looks up, we see that he is in fact one of the thugs, Valerian, in a gardener’s costume.
The start of the film introduces us to Roger Thornhill, in all of his smooth-talking self-assurance. Thornhill is the quintessential advertising executive, aptly encapsulated by his conviction that, “In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only the expedient exaggeration.” He dictates his notes to his frantic secretary Maggie while also charming her and making her feel let in on his complex private social world. His correspondence with a lover is a matter of sending chocolates, and he has a date to the theater with his mother that night, a date he will attend after having had two martinis at a business meeting. In the brief early expositional moments of the film, Thornhill is portrayed as the quintessential ad man, a silver tongued New York professional who can wiggle his way into or out of anything and still make it to the theater on time.
Thornhill’s professionalism and competence are contrasted by the confused chaos that befalls him. Even though Thornhill has all the answers, can talk his way out of anything, and spends his mornings dictating correspondences to a doting secretary, once he is mistaken for Kaplan, he has no power, and the skills that benefit him in the professional world have no credibility or value. Thus, there arises a contrast between his sarcastic wisecracks and smooth demeanor on the one hand, and the unexpectedly brusque manner in which he is treated when his identity is misidentified on the other. Thornhill is the smoothest of captives initially, only panicking once, as he tries to open the door of the car to find it locked. He takes everything in stride, even as he is being roughly handled by two thugs. His concern upon arriving at Townsend’s mansion is less about the manner in which he is being treated and more about the fact that he is going to miss his trip to the theater. Thornhill assures Townsend that he “gets unreasonable about things like” missing an engagement; an ironic disconnect exists between how unreasonable he should find his kidnapping and the fact that the aspect he finds feels most unreasonable is how it cuts into his plans. While Thornhill is a man who doesn’t let anything throw him off course, and takes unexpected conflicts in stride, his business acumen and self-assurance is slowly undone as he treated more and more unjustly.
The villains of the film bear a creepily calm comportment, and coerce without having to raise their voices or behave violently. All of the violent acts that they commit against Thornhill—not allowing him to leave, drugging him—are presented as having alternative options before being revealed as threats. Townsend is civil and straightforward in his treatment of Thornhill, as though he is a guest in his house, before suggesting that Thornhill is going to be killed that evening. Leonard offers him a drink, but when Thornhill refrains, suggests that it will be easier if they do not have to insist. When Thornhill makes a run for it, the thugs step in and hold him down for the drugged drink. Leonard remains eerily calm, uttering a gentle “cheers” as he pours the drugged drink into a tall glass. In this way, the villains of North by Northwest are all the more villainous because they disavow their own violence; they only wield a violent hand after Thornhill has refused to choose the violent option for himself. With no other options, Thornhill must choose the option that will hurt him, a deadly fate.
Indeed, this structure of violence is all the more ironic because Thornhill works in advertising. Advertising is a way of encouraging consumers to think their consumption habits are their own idea, through persuasive and insinuative techniques, but the ultimate aim is not a coercive or a violent one. Thornhill’s abductors coerce by trying to pass off their own violent coercions as Thornhill’s idea, his acceptance of his fate in their hands. Townsend and Leonard’s tactics are almost parodies of the insinuative power of advertising, with the added threat of violence should he refuse. Thus, a parallel is created between the kind of work that Thornhill does and the means by which he is abused by his capturers. Thornhill is presented in the beginning as a convincing businessman who can sell anything to anyone, and so when he is treated poorly and a drink is forced down his throat—his rhetorical powers rendered meaningless in this setting—we see just how far from home he really is.
The viewer is aligned with Thornhill more and more as we see him mistakenly identified as Kaplan, mistaken for a drunk driver, and then accused of lying by county detectives who believe the word of the lying Mrs. Townsend over his. Because the viewer knows him to be an innocent New Yorker who is utterly in control of his life, the difficulties he faces when he is misidentified create a sense of suspense as well as some strikingly comic moments. Thornhill is an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, a charming businessman foisted into a world of crime. Indeed, his charm is a central part of his personality, and Cary Grant’s performance gives his adventure an unexpected comic dimension. When he is taken in for questioning at the police station, he is outrageously drunk, and yet he is able to continue to crack one-liners as he speaks to the police officers and the doctor who examines him. He is glib and quick, laughing at the policeman’s name—“Emile”—, warning the doctor to sit back when he says “ah” as part of his medical examination, and climbing onto the table when the doctor tells him they are going to draw blood. A markedly difficult night is not enough to unravel his silver tongue and endearing sense of timing.
The film spins its story in a notably Hitchcockian way, as the normalcy of the everyday is slowly revealed to be twisted and creepy. The villains of North by Northwest are chillingly calm, visibly normal people who are startling good at lying and deceiving. Rather than grotesque and evil, they are wealthy and measured, delivering terrifying news through a smile, with an air of detachment. Suspenseful music underscores the more dramatic parts of the film, and as we see Thornhill drive away with the detectives from the Townsend mansion, having been deceived by "Mrs. Townsend," the camera eerily pans over to one of the thugs in disguise as a gardener, revealing that the performance of normalcy taking place at the mansion is a complete ruse.