Roger O. Thornhill, the protagonist of this Hitchcock favorite, is played with style by Hollywood icon Cary Grant. Thornhill is a suave but average businessman who becomes swept up in a world of espionage and intrigue when he is mistaken for George Kaplan, a government agent. Thornhill is intelligent, cool-headed, witty and resourceful. He is also brave and loyal, often resisting the urge to flee dangerous situations. Finding himself in a truly bizarre situation, Thornhill must go on a long and difficult journey, evading criminals, the police, and a mysterious government organization. Throughout the film, his main desire is to clear up the mystery surrounding George Kaplan, and ultimately to return to everyday life. This desire is complicated, however, by his love for Eve Kendall, and towards the end of the film, when all of the loose ends are cleared up, Thornhill continues to endanger his life in order to save the woman he loves.
Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint, is a beautiful and mysterious woman who seems to emerge quite by accident in the middle of Thornhill’s frantic struggle for the truth. We soon learn that her presence is more than a coincidence, and for much of the movie her motives are unclear to the viewer. It is uncertain whether she genuinely cares for Thornhill, or if she is under the control of Vandamm, the villain of the movie. Eve is subtle, intelligent, and not easily moved to emotion, a credible actress who can adopt the necessary roles of her task as a double agent with skill. She is able to respond to sudden changes and dangers without letting go of her “poker face.” Additionally, we learn that she is a woman who has not been treated kindly by the world, and particularly by the world of men. She reveals to Thornhill that her entire involvement in Vandamm's organization was the result of her falling in love with him through manipulative seduction, and that much of her circumstance in life is the result having been taken advantage of. Ultimately, she proves to be loyal and sound in character, and her affection for Thornhill is genuine and profound.
Phillip Vandamm, the villain of this film, is a mysterious character until his true identity is revealed. Vandamm is subtle, soft-spoken and relatively even keeled. However, under this calm veneer, he is a ruthless man, willing to kill if necessary to get what he wants. Vandamm is intelligent and methodical, but easily duped by his enemies, maintaining his belief in the existence of George Kaplan. Although generally emotionless, Vandamm is capable of sudden fits of anger, striking his sidekick Leonard in the face when Leonard gives him inconvenient news about Eve's disloyalty. Although it appears that Vandamm cares for Eve, it is clear that his selfishness and his entrenchment in a world of crime overrides his affections; when he learns Eve is a government agent, he quickly plans to dispose of her.
The Professor is an unnamed individual who appears periodically throughout the film, often delivering clarifying plot information, and featuring more prominently in the second half. Early on, we learn he is the head of some sort of government organization, similar to the modern day CIA. The Professor appears to be of sound character, but is committed at all costs to the success of the mission and the capture of Vandamm, sharing with Vandamm a certain amount of ruthlessness. The qualities of his character can be summed up in his statement to Thornhill, when Thornhill protests the cavalier way in which the Professor risks Eve Kendall's life: "War is hell...even when it's a cold one." The Professor is committed to his professional mission. We learn early on that the Professor is in fact the creator of George Kaplan, an invented personage who does not really exist.
Clara Thornhill, Roger’s mother, is a typically Hitchcockian “comic relief” character. Featuring most prominently in the first half, Clara is rather superficial and not overly intelligent, seeming more like Roger’s disinterested associate than his mother. Ironically, Clara seems less willing to believe her own son’s story than almost anyone else in his life, heightening the tension that Roger feels as a man running for his life.
Vandamm's right hand man, Leonard is soft-spoken and ruthless, never raising his voice, but maintaining a chilling cruelty. It is implied that he is jealous of Vandamm's affection for Eve, which motivates him to reveal Eve's disloyalty by shooting the blank-filled gun directly at his boss.
One of Vandamm's henchmen, who kills the real Townsend.
Another of Vandamm's henchmen.
The authentic owner of the Townsend mansion, an innocent man who works at the United Nations, addressing the General Assembly. He is killed by Valerian.
Roger Thornhill's lawyer.
North by Northwest Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for North by Northwest is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.