North by Northwest

North by Northwest Summary and Analysis of Part 2: Thornhill Investigates


Thornhill and his mother arrive at the Plaza in a taxi. His mother insists that she doesn’t know why she is being brought along, but Roger insists, half-sardonically, that she adds an air of respectability. Standing at a counter, Roger calls the main desk and asks if “George Kaplan” is staying at the hotel, as his mother sighs in annoyance. The front desk transfers his call to George Kaplan’s room, room 796, but he is out. As his mother rolls his eyes and says she hopes that he clears up this business, Roger inquires about when Kaplan will be back, but the desk operator tells him that Kaplan hasn’t answered his phone in two days. Thornhill then asks his mother to go to the front desk and request a key to room 796, but she refuses, saying, “Don’t be ridiculous. I wouldn’t do such a thing.” When Roger offers her money—first $10 then $50—she grabs the $50 bill and does as he says.

Walking down the hall, Roger’s mother complains about his various acts of delinquency—drunk driving, lying to a judge, and now house-breaking—and as they attempt to get into room 796, a maid stops them and asks if she wants him to change the bedding, mistaking him for Kaplan. She only asks, she says, because the bed does not look like it has been slept in recently. When they enter the hotel room, Roger wonders if he looks like Kaplan, as even the maid misidentified him. Examining the room, Roger finds a picture on the desk in which Mr. Townsend is shown with a group of men. The sight of the photograph makes Roger’s mother uneasy, and she insists that she wants to go, because she’ll be late for bridge. Thornhill rings for the maid and examines the room. When the maid arrives, he invites her into the room, and asks her who she thinks he is. She tells him that she thinks he is George Kaplan, and that they met for the first time in the hall just a few moments ago, and that he is never around. When Kaplan asks how she knows he is Mr. Kaplan, she insists that he is the man in room 796, and as such, must be Kaplan. The door buzzes again, and this time it is the valet, who also mistakes Roger for Mr. Kaplan, and hangs a suit in the closet at Roger’s request. Trying to piece together more about George Kaplan, Roger asks the valet when he gave him the suit he is carrying, and the valet tells him that it was the previous evening around six. When Roger asks if he gave the valet the suit personally, the valet insists that he called down, described the suit, and ordered him to put it in his closet, “as usual.”

Confused, Thornhill goes to the closet and tries on the suit jacket that was just delivered, noticing that it is fitted for a shorter man. The phone in the room rings, and Roger picks it up. On the phone, a man speaks to Thornhill as though he is Kaplan, and when Thornhill asks to whom he is speaking, the man says, “We met only last night, and still you do not recognize my voice. I should feel offended.” Thornhill recognizes the voice as belonging to one of the men who tried to kill him the previous night, and insists that he is not Mr. Kaplan, but the man on the phone does not believe him. Given that he is answering Mr. Kaplan’s hotel room telephone, the misidentification is understandable. The man hangs up and Thornhill calls the front desk to investigate where the incoming call had just come from. The front desk manager informs him that the call came from the lobby. This startles Roger, and he slams down the phone and urges his mother to come with him, as they are likely on their way up to the room currently. Still not believing him, his mother sarcastically tells him she’d “like to meet these killers,” as Roger pockets the group photo with Townsend in it and they walk down the hall.

As Thornhill and his mother get into an elevator going down, the two thugs emerge from a separate elevator and follow them. Thornhill gestures to his mother to look at the two men, but she remains skeptical, before asking the men directly if they are indeed trying to kill her son. Looking at each other, the two men begin laughing, which causes the strangers around them to start laughing as well. Seeing that everyone else is laughing, Thornhill’s mother joins in, Thornhill remaining stone-faced, as the elevator arrives in the lobby. When the two thugs attempt to get out of the elevator, he pushes them back, insisting that they let the ladies out first, and scurrying away, as his mother calls after him, asking if he will still be coming home for dinner that evening. He dives into a cab, stealing it from a couple, and directs the driver to just drive, with no particular destination in mind. The two thugs run out and get in the taxi directly behind him, stealing it from the same frustrated couple from whom Thornhill stole his cab. In the backseat of the car, Thornhill pulls out the photo with Townsend in it and tells his driver to bring him to the United Nations, the General Assembly Building. Thornhill then informs the driver that he is being followed and asks if he can do anything about it, and driver agrees to try to evade the tail.

An exterior shot of the General Assembly Building at the United Nations, where Thornhill gets out of his cab and goes inside. We see the grand and imposing lobby of the United Nations. At the front desk, an accommodating young woman helps Thornhill find Mr. Townsend, who we learn is part of the United Nations International Peace Organization—or UNIPO. Thornhill lies and tells the girl that Mr. Townsend is expecting him, and she asks for his name. Hesitating momentarily, he finally gives the name “George Kaplan,” and she calls up to announce his arrival. The scene shifts to outside the U.N. where Valerian and Licht are arriving in their taxi. Valerian gets out and closes the door behind him, telling Licht to wait for him at the corner of 47th street. Meanwhile the girl at the desk hands Thornhill a paper to give one of the secretaries in the public lounge, who will page Townsend for him. The shot shifts to a broader view of the lobby and we see Valerian walking quickly into the U.N.

In the public lounge, Thornhill gives his slip of paper to the secretary, who pages Townsend, as the camera pans to show Valerian in the doorway of the public lounge, as he puts on black leather gloves. A stranger approaches the desk, and the secretary introduces Thornhill as George Kaplan to Mr. Townsend. Confused by the arrival of a complete stranger, and not the man whom he met the previous evening, Thornhill interrogates the real Mr. Townsend, as Valerian slips away unnoticed. When Roger asks Mr. Townsend if he lives in the mansion in Glen Cove, Mr. Townsend says that he does, but that he has been staying in an apartment for the last month while his organization is in session. When Thornhill asks after Mrs. Townsend, Mr. Townsend informs him that his wife has been dead for many years, and grows more impatient to know Thornhill’s intentions. Mr. Thornhill asks Mr. Townsend who is living in his house, and Townsend curiously informs him that it is completely closed up, and that the only people living there are a gardener and his wife.

As the situation grows more and more confusing, Thornhill pulls out the photograph to show Townsend. Upon looking at the photograph, Townsend appears to gasp in shock, but as he slumps forward we see that he has gasped because Valerian has thrown a knife into his back and quickly run away. Holding the slumped-over and now dead Mr. Townsend, Thornhill pulls the knife out of his back in disbelief, just as those around him begin to register what is going on. A man with a camera takes a photo of Thornhill and a woman worriedly yells, “He has a knife! Look out!” Valerian has managed to make it look as though Thornhill killed Mr. Townsend. Rather unconvincingly, Thornhill insists that he had nothing to do with the murder, as a woman urges someone to call the police. Warding people off, Thornhill makes a run for it yet again, pushing past a confused group of women.

The camera looks down on the exterior of the U.N. from high above, and from a distance the viewer can see the figure of Thornhill running down the front walkway and get in a cab, as a flurry of dramatic music plays. The scene shifts to an intelligence agency in Washington D.C., where a group of detectives look at the photo of Thornhill on the front of a newspaper, holding a knife and looking confused. The news story explains that Thornhill, an advertising executive, was posing as “George Kaplan” when he appeared to have killed Townsend. As the camera zooms out, we see a group of planners discussing the case, as one of them reads the story aloud. The story details that a possible motive for Thornhill was his arrest for drunk driving in Glen Cove, and his assertion that Townsend had tried to kill him the night before. Putting down the paper, the group assembled discuss the complicated and unusual case.

A woman at the table asks if anyone knows anything about Thornhill, but no one does. One man at the table takes pity on Thornhill, believing him to have been mistaken for George Kaplan, but one of his colleagues thinks it is unlikely, given that “George Kaplan doesn’t exist.” The viewer learns that these intelligence officers had concocted a fictional agent named George Kaplan to act as a decoy for an actual agent currently infiltrating an enemy group. The intelligence officer reveals that the enemy group is led by someone named Vandamm, and that Vandamm has likely mistaken Thornhill for the infiltrating agent. When the female intelligence officer asks what they should do about the situation, the head of the group, known as “The Professor,” suggests that they do nothing, and instead celebrate the fact that their decoy has successfully created a diversion for Vandamm. Thornhill being mistaken for the non-existent Kaplan is helpful to their cause, and as such, the Professor recommends that they do nothing in the meantime. When the other agents ask how long he thinks Thornhill will survive, the Professor insists that that is not their problem, and that to save Thornhill would in turn endanger their own agent, the one who is actually infiltrating. When the other officers question the Professor’s plan, he insists that the case is too important for them to save Thornhill and risk the life of their actual agent, who will immediately face assassination should they reveal that Kaplan is a non-existent decoy. Ominously, the woman at the table says, “Goodbye Mr. Thornhill, wherever you are,” as the scene shifts.

In a bustling Grand Central, policemen interrogate passerby, as we hear an announcement about a train to Chicago that evening. The camera pans to reveal Thornhill in a nearby phone booth, talking to his mother. He tells her that he is going to Chicago to find Kaplan, whom he has been told checked out of the Plaza and traveled there. He insists to his mother that there is too much evidence against him for him to go to the police, and reiterates that he needs to find George Kaplan to put the various pieces of the puzzle together. When she asks why he doesn’t take a plane, he tells her that there are no places to hide on a plane if anyone should recognize him, and that the train is safer. Hanging up, Thornhill runs into a man, who looks at him for a moment, and Thornhill worries that he is being recognized. He then passes a man reading a newspaper with the story of his alleged murder on the front page. Fearing exposure, Thornhill puts on sunglasses, as the camera shows two cops surveying the lobby next to the information booth. Thornhill rushes away to the ticket booth and purchases a bedroom car on the train, but the ticket agent tells him it’s all sold out unless he wants to ride coach. Insisting he cannot and he’s in a hurry, Thornhill asks the ticket agent to call up and see if there are any bedroom cars available, trying to deflect the ticket agent from asking suspiciously about his sunglasses.

The viewer sees the ticket agent look down at a photo of Thornhill holding the knife at the United Nations from the paper. Recognizing him, the ticket agent tells Thornhill to stay put and walks away to use the phone. He calls a number and announces that he has found Thornhill, and tells the police to hurry. As the ticket agent comes back to the window, he sees that Thornhill is nowhere to be found, having fled after realizing he had been recognized. At the train platform, Thornhill lies that he is there to see a friend but not actually riding the train. When the ticket taker tells him he needs a name before he can let Thornhill through, Thornhill rushes past, with the cops in hot pursuit. The ticket taker yells after him, as Thornhill makes his way to the train and sneaks on. He runs down the narrow hall of the train and peeks through a window, seeing a policeman outside, which causes him anxiously to run back down the hall. At the end of the hall he runs into a woman, and they awkwardly try to get past one another. As policeman board the train car on the other side, Thornhill ducks into a compartment, and the woman lies to the police and sends them into the next car down. Emerging from the compartment, Thornhill thanks the woman, and explains that he’s being pursued for having seven parking tickets. She wanders away, and Thornhill peeks onto the platform to see that the cops have gotten off the train and given up their search.

The train makes its way to Chicago, and we see conductors speaking to a woman in a train car and taking notes. As the conductors pass a restroom, Thornhill emerges, still wearing his sunglasses, and unable to trust anyone. He closes the restroom door behind him and makes his way into the car, covering a newspaper with his picture on the front page as he goes. In the dining car, Thornhill is seated at a table with the woman who helped him get away. He orders a Gibson martini from the waiter, and looks at the menu, as the woman looks at him knowingly. They begin a conversation, in which the woman recommends the “brook trout” on the menu, and Thornhill takes her advice. After a silence, Thornhill suggests that he must look vaguely familiar, and the woman agrees. He insists that there’s something about his face that makes that so, and she tells him “it’s a nice face.” When he tells her she is honest, she denies it, which pleases him, saying, “Honest women frighten me…Somehow they seem to put me at a disadvantage.” The woman tells him that it must be because he himself is dishonest, citing his lie about the seven parking tickets.

In a smooth display of straightforward seduction, Thornhill tells the woman that as soon as he meets a woman, he has to “start pretending [he has] no desire to make love to her.” The couple speak in the abstract about his approach to seduction, even though it is quite clear that they are talking about their own dynamic. When Thornhill suggests that he is lucky to have been seated with her, the woman confesses that she tipped the steward to seat Thornhill at her table. He asks if she is propositioning him, to which she responds, “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.” The battle of wits is nearly relentless, as Thornhill responds, “you’ve already eaten,” and she responds, “But you haven’t,” just as his brook trout arrives. The woman introduces herself as “Eve Kendall, 26, and unmarried,” and tells him that she is an industrial designer, looking down at her tea. When Thornhill tries to introduce himself under an alias, she calls his bluff, knowing exactly who he is, and that he is wanted for murder, before assuring him that she will not turn him in because of his “nice face,” and because “it’s going to be a long night, and I don’t particularly like the book I’ve started.”

Thornhill lights Eve’s cigarette with a match from a matchbook that has his initials monogrammed on it: R.O.T. After he lights it, Eve guides his hand that is holding the match towards her lips and she blows it out. Roger confides in Eve that he would invite her to his bedroom if he had one, but that he does not even have a ticket and has been “playing hide-and-seek with the conductor ever since the train left New York.” In response, Eve tells him that she has a room all to herself, and gives him the number—3901—inviting him to stay with her. She then warns him that the train has made an unscheduled stop and that she sees two policeman boarding the train as they speak. Thornhill throws the money for his food on the table and rushes off behind Eve as the policeman enter the dining car.

In Eve’s room, she lies on a couch reading a book, while Roger hides in the closed bed compartment, starved for air. The policemen burst into her room to find Eve reading, and ask her about the man with whom she was eating in the dining car. Eve tells them she had never seen him before eating with him, and when they show her his picture, she pretends to vaguely recognize the face. Feigning ignorance, Eve asks the policeman what they want, and they tell her that Roger is wanted for murder, and she sits up pretending to be startled. When the policemen continue to press her, saying that the steward told them that she left the dining car with Mr. Thornhill, she lies and says they may have left at the same time, but not together. The policeman asks what they talked about, she lies that she did not even learn his name and that they only chatted about different kinds of food and engaged in shallow small talk during their meal. When the policeman asks where he was going, Eve plants the idea that perhaps he got off when they got on. They ask her to tell them if she runs into Thornhill again, and when she tells them she intends to lock her door and stay in for the night, the policeman tells her that she’ll be able to find them in the observation car. When the policemen leave, Eve opens the bed compartment to release Roger, and Roger finds that his sunglasses have broken in half. Roger asks Eve why she is so good to him, and she offers to climb up into bed with him and tell him why.


In this part of the movie we see Roger Thornhill transformed from a confused victim into a curious detective, searching for answers surrounding his abduction and the mysterious identity of “George Kaplan,” and then again transformed into a man framed for murder on the run from the police. Determined to understand more about what happened to him, Roger will not leave the mysterious incident alone, and instead seeks to go outside the law to prove his innocence for a relatively minor incident—drunk driving. Thornhill is less motivated by a desire to see justice served than he is by a persistent curiosity, a disbelief and confusion arising from the uncanniness of his strange misfortune from a few nights ago. Maintaining his characteristic wit and good humor, he takes matters into his own hands, traveling to the Plaza Hotel and managing to make his way into George Kaplan’s room, a mysteriously underused and empty site.

Adding to the uncanniness of the situation is the fact that most people he encounters mistake him for George Kaplan, and his desire to procure answers only gets him up more deeply entrenched in his mistaken role. It is Thornhill’s snooping that gets him continually mis-recognized as George Kaplan, and perhaps had he not returned to the Plaza to investigate, he would have been able to go on with his life as usual. When he arrives at the United Nations, he again labels himself as George Kaplan, essentially creating for himself the identity of the man he was mistaken for in the first place. Following the same confusing breadcrumb trail that mistook him for Kaplan in the first place only makes matters worse for Thornhill. Through his dogged pursuit of the truth, Thornhill reveals himself as a man who is determined, curious, and willing to take a risk. The only problem is that the risks he take put his life in greater and greater danger.

Hitchcock was, as is widely recognized, the master of horror, and while this film is not a typically terrifying film—as perhaps his films The Birds and Psycho are—it certainly spooks, and slowly creeps up on the viewer. One of the creepier moments in the film takes place when Roger and his mother board the elevator at the Plaza, followed by the thugs, Valerian and Licht. When his mother bluntly ask the thugs if they are trying to kill her son, the two men erupt in laughter, causing the whole elevator to burst out in gleeful laughter. This moment represents the degree to which other people do not believe his story. As even his own mother joins in on the laughter, Roger Thornhill maintains a straight-faced seriousness, as he realizes that he is going to have to continue on alone, and that he had better make a run for it soon. The horror of this film is not psychotic or supernatural, but is rather the subtle alienation of a man who cannot convince anyone of the danger he is in. Hitchcock masterfully depicts a world in which even the ticket agent at Grand Central Terminal is suspicious of Thornhill, and threatens to ruin his escape. The horror of North by Northwest is the horror of an unfriendly and disbelieving world, one in which no one is trustworthy.

Another horrific moment occurs when Roger attempts to make sense of the situation speaking to the real Mr. Townsend at the United Nations. Just as the viewer seems to think that Thornhill could make some headway in solving the mystery of his abduction, Townsend is stabbed in the back. Not only that, but as Thornhill realizes what happened and pulls the knife out of Townsend’s back, he makes it look as though he committed the murder himself. In seeking the answers to the unsolved riddle of his situation, Thornhill only situates himself more deeply in the complications of a mistaken identity. In trying to discover the true George Kaplan, he essentially becomes George Kaplan.

The shocking reveal that helps piece together the confusing elements of the plot occurs in this section of the film, when the viewer is introduced to the intelligence agency in D.C. From them we learn that Thornhill’s case is nearly hopeless, and that he is a victim of circumstances beyond anyone’s control. Kaplan was just a decoy, and never existed, and if they expose that fact, then they will undoubtedly endanger the life of their own agent, the man whom the decoy was meant to divert Vandamm’s attention from. A dramatic irony has already come into play in the structure of the plot: while the audience knows that Thornhill is telling the truth and was indeed wrongfully abducted, no one else seems to believe him. In the moment that the intelligence agency is introduced, yet another layer of dramatic irony emerges, as the audience knows that George Kaplan does not exist, while Roger Thornhill—not knowing this—remains determined to find George Kaplan in order to figure out the mystery. A large portion of the mystery is revealed to the audience before anyone else is privy to the missing information, which adds another dimension to the film’s suspense.