North by Northwest

North by Northwest Study Guide

When Alfred Hitchcock released Vertigo in 1958, it was met with ambivalence and near rejection by critics and audiences. Vertigo defied easy categorization and explored themes related to sexual perversity, erotic obsession and a shifting definition of masculinity, while still in accordance with the moralistically prohibitive Hays Code of the 1950s. The psychological darkness and narrative non-conformity of Vertigo made it unpalatable to audiences at the time, which encouraged Hitchcock to deliver all of his standard conventions in his next film, North by Northwest. Not only does North by Northwest fulfill every expectation of a Hitchcock film, it became an instant classic and proved cinematically satisfying in a way not seen since Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train eight years earlier.

The film includes all of the elements of a typical Hitchcock psychological thriller. The screenplay by Ernest Lehman is an original story rather than an adaptation, and Lehman was quoted as saying he wanted the film to be "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures." Roger Thornhill is the smooth-talking and suave protagonist, who finds himself in a situation that is outside his control. The circumstances in which he finds himself are not only connected to a world of petty crime, but more broadly linked to the broader socio-political events of the Cold War that were so central to the 1950s. Additionally, Hitchcock includes a beautiful, misguided and witty love interest for Thornhill, Eve Kendall, and the film finds its romantic center. Plot twists and reveals abound, as well as an eery tremor of uncanniness, a suspense bordering on the horrific. All these ingredients add up to the quintessential Hitchock film.

So much of the success of North by Northwest can be attributed to the casting of Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill. In this performance, Cary Grant gives full rein to his considerable comic talents, and his quirky detachment from the events going on around him throughout the film lend it a unique comic glimmer, and strike a dynamic contrast with the more suspenseful aspects of the plot. Grant skillfully vacillates between ironic comedic antics and a more typically Hitchcockian wrong-guy-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time dramatic gravity, which gives the film an unexpectedly complex and pleasurable tone.

North by Northwest is a return to form for Hitchcock, and won him great acclaim. In 1995, the film was chosen for preservation by the National Film Registry, and it is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1960.