North by Northwest Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

North by Northwest Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Face Motif

Playing into the identity theme is a strong face motif in this film. This represents the somewhat shallow but nonetheless prevalent tendency society expresses in judging by face value. The face motif is probably most prevalent in the manhunt for Roger. After he is photographed holding the knife that killed Townsend, his own face becomes dangerous to him as newspapers circulate all over the country. Roger is forced to conceal his face in various ways, including wearing sunglasses and covering his face with shaving cream.

When Roger meets Eve, he claims he has the sort of face that make people think they have seen him before. Eve responds, “It’s a nice face.” This statement has a double meaning. The surface intention of course is that she is attracted to him. The underlying meaning however is that she doesn’t think he looks like a killer. This would play nicely into face motif on its own (she is making a judgment solely based on his appearance) but it becomes even more poignant when seen through the reality of Eve’s total knowledge of Roger’s innocence.

Another fitting scene in the face motif is when the detectives are searching the red caps at the train station. One by one, the police whip the red caps around as the camera captures each and every individual face.

Mount Rushmore

When seen in the light of the prevalent face motif, Mount Rushmore becomes deeply symbolic. The presidents engraved on Mount Rushmore are almost certainly the largest faces in the United States of America, and possibly the world. They are literally hewn into the mountain itself. There could be no more fitting representation of society’s tendency to judge at “face value.”

Adam and Eve Allegory

Going hand in hand with the isolation theme is a subtle allegory of the Biblical account of Adam and Eve, this of course being underscored by the name of Eva Marie Saint’s character. In the first chapters of Genesis, it is written that “it is not good for the man to be alone.” Afterwards, God creates Eve using one of Adam’s ribs. Likewise, in North by Northwest, the audience feels the tension of Roger struggling alone, and sees Eve as a sound ally. When Roger meets Eve in her hotel room, he calls her “his helper.” An interesting detail that goes along with this subtle allegory can be found in conversation between Roger and the Professor. Roger lifts his shirt revealing a bruise indirectly caused by Eve. It is just below his ribs.

The Statue and Vandamm

The Asian statuette which Vandamm purchases at the auction can be seen as a symbol of Vandamm himself. Outwardly, the antique appears to be a classic piece of art, however the audience later learns that it contains stolen microfilm. Likewise, Vandamm is a seemingly suave and sophisticated gentleman, but in reality he is a ruthless villain, willing to shed blood if necessary to get what he wants.


Tying in beautifully with both the theme of identity and the face motif is the concept of facelessness. Even as Roger finds himself beleaguered with a number of false identities, including assassin, government agent, and drunken liar, he struggles against faceless entities with either no or cloudy identities.

Within the first few minutes of the film he is kidnapped by two men whom he does not know, questioned by a man who is impersonating someone else, and is accused of being a man he has never heard of. The facelessness of Kaplan continues throughout the movie, for the sole reason that Kaplan does not exist. The symbolic facelessness finds dominance in the personage of the crop duster pilot, who is never seen at any point.

Another somewhat faceless individual is the Professor, a mysterious individual whom we never fully know, underscored by the fact that we never learn his name. This point is emphasized when Roger comments, “I don’t believe I caught your name,” to which the Professor replies, “I don’t believe I pitched it.”

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