North by Northwest Themes

North by Northwest Themes

mistaken identity

The main theme of North by Northwest is identity, or more specifically in this case, mistaken identity. The various struggles Roger Thornhilll faces to clear his name and discover the truth makes the viewer consider what identity is.

At the beginning of the film, Roger is misidentified as Kaplan simply because he mistakenly responds to Kaplan’s name. All of his efforts to deny this simply reaffirm to the villains, especially Vandamm, that he is Kaplan. Vandamm likewise is able to assume the identity of Townsend simply by occupying his house. When the police return the next day to question “Townsend”, they find he is not at home, but the statement by his “wife” that he is addressing the general assembly of the United Nations convinces them that Roger is lying. Apparent prestige has established for Vandamm an invulnerable, albeit false, identity.

Later in the film, Roger is framed for murder because he was seen talking to the real Townsend when he was stabbed in the back. A photograph with Roger holding the knife is all that is needed to cement his identity as a dangerous assassin in the eyes of the public. In every case, misleading and often erroneous facts establish a misleading identity for various characters.


Isolation is another prevalent theme in North by Northwest with Roger being the subject of the isolation. Roger’s solitary struggle is heightened by several factors, including his lack of wife and children, the fact that no one believes him, and the ever-present threat of a murderous gang. When he is mistaken as an assassin, the danger intensifies as he continually runs the risk of being identified. As the jeopardy increases, so does his solitude.

This “one man against the world” theme is ever-present, as those who might be of help to Roger either can’t or refuse to. His mother doesn’t believe him, the Professor and the board members refuse to interfere, and Eve is in league with Vandamm.

Hitchcock makes use of certain camera angles to go along with this theme, including a shot taken from far above the United Nations, depicting Roger running alone from the building. There is a similar shot when Roger is waiting for Kaplan on a deserted road. The crop-duster scene also ties in to Roger’s seclusion, as he repeatedly tries and fails to wave for help to passing motorists.

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